A couple months ago, Sarah and I were hanging out with four close friends, three of whom have graduate degrees in mathematics. (For someone with no advanced math chops, I seem to get along great with people who do. Maybe I figure they can cover for me if some sort of math emergency arises.)

At one point in the conversation, I asked the group one of my favorite questions: “What do you wish ‘regular’ people knew about your field?” This is a great cocktail party question, by the way. It gives folks a chance to share their hard-won, domain-specific expertise, and everyone learns something interesting.

A great discussion followed, but one response stood out to me. My friend Rob, who has a PhD in math, gave the following answer: “‘Math people’ don’t find math easy,” he said. “They find it interesting.”

Easy vs. interesting

What should we seek—the easy or the interesting? Society certainly points us toward the easy.

  • There’s an app for that.
  • No pain, no pain.
  • Go for the heated seats.

Over and over, we’re nudged toward the path of least resistance. Sometimes, it’s a good thing—light bulbs outperform candles, and horses cannot compete with tractors. I’m not swapping my power drill for an old-timey hand drill any time soon. But when it comes to using our minds, to designing our intellectual lives, easy ain’t good.

The intellectual path of least resistance doesn’t take us anywhere worth going, and besides, it’s crowded. Things worth doing are, almost without exception, hard. They’re supposed to be hard, and they’re hard for almost everyone. But most hard things are also interesting. And because so many people are uncomfortable with hard, there’s an opportunity for those who are willing to prioritize interesting over easy.

Easy is overrated, but interesting is underrated—as long as we don’t mind a little hard work.