Make Me Work for It: Challenge Psychology

Fifth-degree black belt.


Rocket scientist. Triathlon competitor. Fighter pilot. Franciscan Monk. Astronaut. World-record holder. Five-star General. Firefighter. Navy SEAL. Everest scaler. Antarctic explorer. Olympian.

What comes to your mind when you read these titles?

For some, these titles were the answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up”, before they grew up. For others, these titles represent an obvious demand for respect. What’s invariably true is that none of these titles is easy to attain. In fact, quite the opposite; to earn any one of them, one would have to invest an enormous amount of energy and commitment.

What’s more - we attach a sense of elitism to these labels. Perhaps that’s why we wanted to be one of them when we grew up. We naturally have an appreciation for the difficult-to-attain. But why?

 Our Addiction to Simplicity Ignores Our Affinity To Challenge

As designers, entrepreneurs, developers, etcetera, we often believe it is of utmost concern to make everything “simple.” We have taken Rams’ principle of “as little design as possible” and over-extend it to mean that anything difficult is evil.

This is not the case.

In fact, Rams’ idea of making something simple should be reframed: design should be easy to understand. Actions should be clear, but not always easy to accomplish.

Let’s take P90X as a ubiquitous example. If you haven’t heard of P90X, you probably don’t watch TV at 3AM… but if you do, you know Tony Horton quite well. He’s that guy reminding you how lazy you are, but also letting you know there’s a path to no longer being lazy via his infomercial.

It’s not an easy path. It’s not a short path. It will take a lot from you, but if you commit to it, a lot of other people who have committed and followed through show you proof that you’re likely to see results. You can get ready for the beach, but it’s going to take putting yourself through 90 days of hell.

I am in no way affiliated with Beach Body, but I find this phenomenon fascinating.

Why would somebody commit to something that is so difficult? Why would they pay a significant sum of money just to hear someone tell them to push themselves harder than they are comfortable pushing? Haven’t we learned that people only do things that are easy and obviously rewarding?

People have the capacity and drive to do hard things. We have that natural affinity to the hard-to-attain - an affinity to challenge that causes us to pick up the phone and order those P90X DVDs, not just because we want to lose our soda-and-Cheetos-weight, but because Tony looks us in our collective faces and gives us a challenge worth engaging.

 Challenge: Competition, Achievement, Worth

I believe we have such an affinity to challenge for at least these three primary reasons.

 1. Competition

I’ve been watching the College World Series this year. (In fact, it’s playing in the background as I write.) I’ve never watched baseball until this season, and it’s my new sports addiction.

We watch sports because we love competition and collective identity. We even mindlessly attach ourselves emotionally and face-paintedly to a team, without any logical connection, because we identify with competition and create an identity space for ourselves by joining in the highs and lows of fanhood. Why is so much energy, emotion, and resources put into a game? Because we fundamentally are wired for competition. We self-actualize by competing, giving definition to our place in humanity and in our individual communities by adding the dynamics that come with winning and losing, and the excitement of the tension of the game.

 2. Achievement

The psychology of Flow (as defined by Mihály Csikszentmihalyi) requires two things: a high skill level and a high challenge level. Furthermore (directly from the Wikipedia summary), flow requires these conditions:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

In other words, challenges aren’t really challenges if they are impossible, but they need to be at the edge of our skill set. “Flow” state gives us a sense of movement and achievement.

 3. Worth

When we can compete with others, we understand who we are in relation to our competition. When we experience achievement, we naturally develop self worth. We recognize that we have done something significant.

 Design Challenge

Perhaps we have an inappropriate amount of value placed on simplicity. Maybe we should take a chance to challenge those engaging with what we create - to ask them if they are willing to do something harder. To invest in doing something: time, money, energy.

Did you set your pricing strategy based on making it easier for the user? Consider the worth your users attach to something they invest in versus something free.

Does your sign up form let anyone with an email address register for your application? Consider requiring users to justify their membership by asking them why they want the membership.

What classes are worth taking? What weights are worth lifting? What walls are worth climbing? Trails are worth hiking? Miles worth running? Time, money, energy worth spending?

Ask this question of yourself: Are you taking away the opportunity for your users to face a challenge worth facing, and trading it for “simplicity?”

What does this say about the worth you place on what you create? Most times, the most rewarding things require challenge. Open a conversation with your users. Be clear, and make it simple, but don’t lower the barrier to entry by making everything easy to accomplish.

 Your new marketing pitch:

This is going to be very difficult, but once you’ve gone through it, it will have been worth it. And we are here with you every step of the way.


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