Challenge Yourself and Do Hard Things

I was sniffling over the camp stove, waiting for the water to boil. The kids were dragging the bags off of the bikes. Tony was setting up tents and trying to buoy my spirits. We’d raced the last fifteen miles down the Adriatic coast with a storm at our backs only to find that our campsite was at the top of the highest sea cliff on the Italian seaboard. It was a back breaking, demoralizing climb. I pushed my bike, which, fully loaded weighs more than I do, dragging a tired six year old alongside, trying to cheer him with songs and roadside distractions.

Ready to Do Something Hard?<br />
Travel the World!
Ready to Do Something Hard?
Travel the World!

The final blow was realizing that there was nothing at the top, except our campsite: the view over the sea was breathtaking. The view over the inland plain was spectacular. But we were hungry. The kids don’t like raw olives. And so, I cried, as I made our last packages of instant rice with a package of mushroom cream soup stirred in and called it “dinner.” Hannah scavenged a handful of figs.

Six months into our year of cycling, I had one of those internal moments of, “What are we doing here? Out on the raggedy edge with our four little kids, instead of in our snug, secure cottage in the USA?” Oh yes, we sold the cottage, downsized to tents, and flung ourselves into the adventure with abandon. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It was one of our hardest days, on the precipice of what was unquestionably our hardest year, and yet, we not only survived, it became the defining moment of our journey, in which we determined the course of our lives.

Little did we know, it would get much worse while we slept: it was the eve of the big stock market crash in October, 2008. The next morning we woke to find our entire savings gone. All of it. Turns out it really can be all uphill, even from the top of a sea cliff.

That was more than six years ago. What the kids remember from that night was Daddy’s explanation of how day time and night time work, with an orange and a flashlight and laying on their backs in a field picking out constellations. We’re back in the US at the moment, with big kids and backpacks. It was one of our hardest days, on the precipice of what was unquestionably our hardest year, and yet, we not only survived, it became the defining moment of our journey, in which we determined the course of our lives.

We are a culture of ease seekers

We have every labor saving device known to man, and we still complain about having to do laundry or wash dishes (in machines!) We don’t walk, we drive. We don’t play sports, we watch other people play them. We don’t climb mountains, we watch the Discovery Channel. We don’t do hard things.  Instead we like to sit back and critique other people who do hard things. The explosion of reality TV is evidence of this. You know what else we are as a result: fat, lazy, and mentally weak. There are individual exceptions, but they are exceptions.

We don’t do hard things.  Instead we like to sit back and critique other people who do hard things.

Not only do we not do hard things, we don’t require our kids to do hard things. We haven’t for several generations. The result: whiny, weak, simpering children who are afraid to get their designer shoes dirty or lose their cell signal. Offended yet? Good.

Here’s the thing. Where does greatness happen in any field, from science to journalism, education to technology? On the edge, by the people doing the “impossible” by the people labeled “crazy” by the establishment. True. These are the great people – the men and women who aren’t afraid of doing hard things, REALLY hard things, impossibly hard things.

We should not be ease seekers. We should be hill climbers. We should be the guy who looks out over our field and says, “I can conquer that!” We should then go and die trying, if necessary. Here’s what else: we should take our kids.

I have a secret for you

Kids (just like adults) like to do hard things, things that matter, things that will give them big ass bragging rights (like riding their bikes to Africa and back). Worried about self esteem? You won’t have to if they’ve conquered something that matters. Worrying about developing diligence, perseverance, and a “can do” attitude in your progeny? Doing really hard things together will teach those lessons for you. Heck, never mind what it will teach your kids, it will teach you!

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Need some inspiration?

Ride your bike

I’m partial to cyclists, having made a small ride. Our journey is a nano-potato compared to some. Have you met my friend Nancy of Family On Bikes? She and her husband and twin boys rode from Alaska to Argentina on a Guinness World Record breaking epic adventure that took them three years. If ten-year-old boys can do that, what’s your excuse? Think maybe you can ride your bike to work now? Or maybe you could aim a little higher and make a cross country ride? Why not?

Climb a mountain

It doesn’t even have to be a big one, nor does it have to be just one! My friend Tanya climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro this summer to celebrate her wedding anniversary and raise money for Zoe’s Trust, a charity in honor of her sister. She’s a middle aged mother of three, and she did it. Are there any hills within driving distance of your house? GO. Get your boots on and do it this weekend. Stop making excuses!

Sail away

The perfect adventure for those who want to carry their homes with them. Sailing pulls at my heart strings, and we’ll probably live on a boat at some point. My brother spent 5 years circumnavigating after he graduated university. We’ve always had boats in our family. I grew up reading Joshua Slocum and Thor Heyerdahl. On an island we lived on in Thailand a few years back, there were countless boats for sale. Why not go and buy one? Take the classes you need to learn the “hard things” and set sail. People like Toast Floats do it every day.

Walk & serve

When all else fails, take a walk; a really long one, if necessary. Walk the Appalachian Trail, hike the Continental Divide, walk across England on the footpaths. Or, you could do something really hard, like the Petrucco family, and walk across India for charity.

One of the things that happens when you slow down and walk is that you begin to see hard things all around you, things that you could help with if you were willing to do some hard things yourself.

One of the things that happens when you slow down and walk is that you begin to see hard things all around you, things that you could help with if you were willing to do some hard things yourself. Orphans you could feed and educate. Women who’d love a micro loan. Wells that need to be dug in villages you walk through with your full canteen of filtered clean water. You don’t even have to go that far. Spend one whole day walking in any direction you choose from your house. Start after breakfast, don’t come home until it’s dark. What hard things will you find to do along the way?

Save the environment

Not every adventure must involve travel. Sometimes the hardest things we do don’t take us any further than our own front doors. Remember my mini-rant against our ease seeking society? Guess what the byproduct is of our longing for ease: huge piles of trash, wasted resources, and a world in a spiral of decay that even the most optimistic are beginning to get a furrowed brow over. Are we even willing to do the hard things necessary in our own lives to turn that around? If we make doing hard things part of daily life in small ways, then the big things seem more surmountable. The folks at Tobacco Caye Marine Station are painstakingly mapping the reef, one square foot at a time, and tracking the effects of climate change in the process. That’s a hard thing, and it matters. You could go there to learn and help.

Go alone


You don’t have to have to have a family, or even a partner, to travel and do adventurous things. Sometimes the hardest things we do are the things we must do alone. It’s not always the external mountains, it’s the internal ones, the hidden ones, that are the really difficult peaks to scale. There is much to be said for finding oneself through solo adventures. Hard things will present themselves when there’s no one else to turn to as a safety net. They can be conquered. You have it within you. Just you, alone.

So what did we do when we woke up, homeless, penniless, and with six mouths to feed on top of the highest sea cliff on the Adriatic coast of Italy? The first in a long series of hard things: rode our bikes to Africa where we hunkered down, lived cheap, and recreated our careers to center around our new reality, which was that we really loved traveling with our kids and doing hard things as a family.

There are scary moments. There are tough moments. There are moments where we feel like we’re flying by the seat of our pants, where life is like the cliff hanger at the end of your favorite reality TV show. Only we aren’t tuning in next week, we’re waking up the next morning and diving in, hard. It’s worth it for the adventure, the strength of mind and body, and the emerging confidence in our kids in their ability to tackle anything they set their minds to, from geography to economics, and emerge victorious. The fabulous travel photos are just the icing on the cake.

Check out the following articles and resources for more travel inspiration:

Photo credits:  matt buchanan, timo_w2s, all others courtesy of Tony Miller and may not be used without permission.


Leave a Comment

  • Paula Pond said at 2014-01-27T17:29:26+0000: I will be 50 years old next month and I want to climb Kilimanjaro in November but I can't decide which climb tour to go with. Do you have any ideas?
  • Teh Sock Kuen said at 2014-01-28T07:15:01+0000: Add a comment...
  • Mari Sullivan Collet said at 2012-10-30T06:25:30+0000: Great article! Making kids do the hard things really rings a bell for me. Pushing them through their fears is the hardest, because we love them.. but it does them no favours to be allowed to not do the hard things in life.
  • Ted Edinger said at 2012-11-01T15:00:33+0000: Great article! Accomplishing hard things, whether on first, or second or third attempt, gives one the confidence to do more hard things which leads to adventures you'd never have even dreamed possible before. I speak from experience :-)! DREAM. EXPLORE. DISCOVER.
  • Chris King said at 2012-11-02T00:00:03+0000: "Offended yet? Good". I love it. Thanks for writing this.
  • Renee D'Antoni said at 2012-10-29T16:00:07+0000: Great read. Very inspirational! My husband and I have been wanting to take our daughter on a difficult physical adventure for a few years now, but apparently we need to stop dreaming and start planning.
  • Jorge von Kostrisch said at 2012-10-29T15:44:35+0000: Bravo!
  • said at 2012-11-01T14:48:19+0000: Loved the story! Reminds me of the books I read as a teenager. Heinz Helfgen cycled around the world in the 50's and wrote 2 books about it later. "Ich radle um die Welt".
  • Jennifer Miller said at 2012-11-01T12:46:12+0000: Thanks for all of the positive feedback people! So great to know that there are other people out there who want to do the hard things and take their kids along!
  • Karen Schindel Johnson said at 2012-10-30T00:05:11+0000: very encouraging, to face the hard things rather than running, and even purposefully choose some hard things. I sometimes panic, that we've just bitten off more than we can chew as tomorrow we start heading thru the states for Mexico & beyond. But stories like yours and others gives encouragement, that Yes! We Can Do This!
  • Dave Bennie said at 2012-11-01T14:37:33+0000: excellent article, thinking about what I could do with the six week summer holiday I get.
  • Ebenezer Vinodh Kumar said at 2012-11-03T07:49:09+0000: really its great ,, I too love challenges.
  • Alex Lawrence said at 2012-10-29T16:31:45+0000: Fab read, thanks for writing it :)
  • Gisella Cambi- Selden said at 2012-10-29T15:38:31+0000: Love this article.