August 29, 2012

Do Hard Things

by Jesse Johnson

Today, a teenager is considered a “good kid” if he gets good grades, gets into a good college, and stays out of trouble. In a culture where the perceived norm for high school students is drugs and detentions, making the honor roll is an accomplishment worthy of a bumper sticker. But the sad reality is that at many schools even the honors classes are so dumbed down that merely showing up and turning in all the work gets you an A. So if a student gets straight A’s, plays a sport and joins a club he is considered top-notch. And if he regularly attends church, well… that is even better.

Alex and Brett Harris (yes, the younger brothers of Joshua Harris, and yes, the Joshua Harris) have noticed this trend. They have noticed that teenagers are consumed by low expectations, and by and large have bought the myth that reaching a bar knee-high is something to be proud of.

The Harris brothers point out that this expectation of worthlessness has produced years of wasted potential. In their book, Do Hard Things, they expose this culture of mediocrity as the teenager’s enemy. They make it clear that the victims in this are teens who squander their first opportunities in life to excel — to do things that count for eternity.

Where did this culture come from? They blame “the myth of adolescence” (a term Al Mohler and Rick Holland have been using for years). They assault the idea that there should a be a time period between being a kid and being an adult, and that in that fictional time period it is acceptable to squander your years staying out of trouble, instead of seizing them to serve God.

The first way the myth gets teens to waste their life is by convincing them that being above average is actually something to be proud of. Excellence is defined by getting good grades in easy classes, and if the classes are to hard, at least trying to get good grades should be sufficient. The second way, the Harris brothers say, is by getting teens to be known for what they don’t do, rather than what they do. “Tim doesn’t do drugs or get in trouble at school — what a good boy he is!”

This book, which came out five years ago, is refreshing because it is unlike most other books written for teens; it challenges them with real challenges. It challenges both the myth and the culture of mediocrity the myth creates. And it encourages teens to try things at which they might very well fail. In this vein it reminds me of John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life.

The Harris brothers are now around 24, but they wrote this book when they were 19, and it is certainly written for a teenage audience. I heard someone say that this book would be suitable for adults to read, but I’m not sure how the Harris brothers would take that. After all, the point of the book is that teenagers need to grow up and act like adults. If culture has set the bar too low for adults too, well that almost misses the point of what the Harris brothers are trying to say. They are not calling teens to rise to the level of the average adult — they are calling teens to excellence.

The most helpful part of the book for me was a section highlighting examples of hard things to do. There are five categories of hard things given, and while I won’t give you the list here, I will tell you that they range from making your bed and working out consistently to ending childhood poverty in Africa. The most common example the book gives, and some might find this the book’s most obvious weakness, is political activism. The Harris brothers themselves worked on a campaign for a state supreme court candidate, and the longest example in the book is about a girl who ran a county-wide election in Colorado.

The appendix of the book is an explanation of how the Gospel fits into this call to do hard things, and it is very evangelistic. I would have liked to see the Gospel at the front end, and I would have liked to see them show in each section how the call to follow Christ fits in with the overall message to teens. But this is a minor concern, and the book is replete with Scripture passages and allusions, so it is not as if they were trying to obscure the Christian message. I just wish it would have been more integrated to the theme.

I would recommend this book be given high school students, and the younger the better. It could be a good graduation gift, but at that point the thrust of the book would already be in a person’s rear-view mirror. It is more suited for freshman. Those who read it will be challenged to escape the trappings of modern-American adolescent mediocrity.

Finally, the Harris brothers have a website which is an excellent source of information and forums for Christian teens. It is worth exploring, and youth pastors especially will mind much that is helpful there.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Larry

    Jesse, the book sounds like a good read. I had no idea such a book of “challenge” was available. They apparently do a good job of shifting paradigms.


    • Yah. It is a good challenge. By teens, for teens.

  • Mumbles

    If Jesses endorsement isn’t good enough, just know Chuck Norris wrote the foreword… Game. Set. Match.

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  • Sam VanDyke

    Thanks for the review, it looks like a good resource.

    • No problem Sam. Good to hear from you here. Thanks for reading.

  • John_D_11

    The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager is a great book for adults about teens and the myth of adolescence, this looks like a good book to teens about the myth of adolescence. As a youth ministry minor at TMC, Rise and Fall of the American Teenage was by far the most impactful and memorable book I read on youth ministry (and it has nothing to do with youth ministry, it’s just a history).

  • John_D_11

    Jesse does the book cover pursuing basic responsibilities, such as simply getting a job?

  • Bill

    This book is a good gift for seniors starting their school year.

  • We only discovered this book in the past year, though we’d seen it on the bookstore shelves often. We have college age sons, and are always seeking to impress on them the truths of Ecclesiastes 12:1 and Lamentations 3:27 … to “remember your Creator” and to “bear the yoke” while you’re still young. So we bought the book for them, and came to appreciate it so much that we decided to purchase a quantity of them and gave them away as Graduation gifts to every High School grad in our church and among our friends. Great book! Thanks for reviewing it.

  • GRD

    The Harris boys are probably very nice young men, but after all their older brother did to mess up my generation, I’m afraid I’d be very leery of a book coming from any member of that family. My peers and I are still deeply affected by the heavy promotion of Joshua Harris’s groundless theories about romance, and not in good ways.

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