As a young teenager, Theodore Roosevelt didn’t strike anyone as the kind of person who would become one of America’s greatest presidents. From the time he was a toddler, severe asthma overshadowed everything he did. He was considered too delicate for school and too weak to stand up to other boys. On doctor’s orders his father and mother rushed him to seashore resorts and mountain cabins in hopes that changes of air would help him breathe. The sickly boy seemed unlikely to survive childhood — let alone amount to anything if he did.
Of course, we all know that Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt did more than survive. In a way that few men have matched, he thrived. In the eyes of his fellow Americans, he went on to reach the stature of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, his face forever immortalized with theirs on the side of Mount Rushmore.
More than any of his contemporaries, Roosevelt led America into the twentieth century. He was a cowboy on the western frontier, a police commissioner in New York City, a military hero in the Spanish-American War, and the governor of New York. He was the first president to fly in an airplane, to be submerged in a submarine, to have a telephone in his home, or to own a car. He was the first president to champion conservation and pass laws to protect the environment. He was the first president to leave American soil while in office.
And in 1906 he became the first American Nobel laureate, awarded the Nobel peace prize for almost single-handedly negotiating a peaceful end to the Russo-Japanese War.
How did a severely nearsighted, asthmatic kid who wasn’t expected to live past his twenty-first birthday go on to experience a life of such incredible accomplishment? The short answer is that as a teenager, Roosevelt chose to go beyond what was easy by reaching for what seemed impossible.
Shortly before his twelfth birthday, his father took him aside and challenged him to dedicate himself to the “hard drudgery” of building himself a strong body. Convinced and determined, young Roosevelt gave himself to it, spending hours each day lifting weights, hammering punching bags, and straining at pull-up bars. His sisters would later write that one of their most vivid childhood memories was the sight of their brother struggling between the horizontal bars, “widening his chest by regular, monotonous motion — drudgery indeed.”
This was the beginning of the transformation — more than just physical — that would shape the rest of his life. Decades later, with conviction birthed in the “hard drudgery” of his teen years, Roosevelt said that the highest form of success would go only to the man who “does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil.”
Theodore Roosevelt learned the most important lesson of his life as a teenager. It was a lesson that informed and made possible everything he did from that point on: “do hard things.” Listen to what he said about what he called “the strenuous life”:
I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.
Of course, nowadays we don’t talk the way Roosevelt did. But what would happen if we embraced the values he did — of reaching above and beyond what comes easy? And what would happen if a new generation of teens lived that way?
Excerpted from Do Hard Things: 5th Anniversary Edition by Alex & Brett Harris by permission of Multnomah, division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.