Updated on 09.18.14

The Truth About Path of Least Resistance

Trent Hamm

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
– Albert Einstein

In response to my recent article, Are Poor People Lazy?, where I concluded that laziness doesn’t always equate to poverty and vice versa, Pamela left this comment:

There are many factors that lead a person to the life they are living. I am quite shy. No matter how much I socialize no matter how many times I try to assert myself I remain shy. Because of this I do not take classes or do many of the things suggested for me to do to get ahead in life. So according to you I am lazy. NOT SO. If allowed I would work 12 hour days at my job.
I also agree with many of the comments that being in the right place at the right time can have a more positive outcome on you life than anything.

For most of my life, I’ve been very shy. Sometimes, I’ve been able to cover it up by essentially adopting another persona – simply pretending to be someone else who was outgoing – but that would only work for short stretches. Usually, I would just maintain that level of false outgoingness until I could get out of the situation.

I told myself that it was impossible to be any different than that. It was a convenient excuse, as are all excuses that take us away from great opportunities in life.

In truth, adopting that “outgoing” persona, escaping social situations, and believing I was just shy and nothing could be done about it was merely taking the path of least resistance in life. In other words, it was the easiest path available to me. Being more social and extroverted was far outside my comfort zone – it was a lot easier to just put on a mask, get through the situation, and remain introverted.

It has taken me a very long time to grow beyond that level of introversion and shyness. I’ve had a lot of painful social interactions along the way, and I’ve practiced in ways that would have seemed ludicrous to me years ago.

Now, though, I feel completely fine starting up conversations with people I’ve just met. I can lead conversations with others, as well as follow their lead, and I actually enjoy it because of the human interaction as well as learning a lot of things along the way.

Being more social has opened up a lot of avenues for me. I’ve met interesting people, gained some public speaking opportunities, and built a lot of friendships in the community.

If I had just continued to follow the path of least resistance, I would have never had these opportunities.

Is the path of least resistance laziness? Some might argue that it is – I don’t. People can work quite hard on the tasks that they’re most comfortable with.

However, opportunity rewards people who step outside their comfort zone. The Einstein quote that starts this article really sums it up: if you just keep doing things the same way over and over again, you’ll keep getting the same results. If you don’t like the results you’re getting in some aspect of your life – your economic situation, your personal situation, your health, and so on – it’s time to take a new path, one that’s not easy.

Find it hard to be social? Read Never Eat Alone and How to Win Friends and Influence People and start acting on what you read.

Find it hard to lose weight? Start exercising every day, even if it’s hard, and throw out most of the junk food. Try drinking water instead of soda – it’ll be hard at first, but fighting through that resistance is what will make change happen.

Find it hard to learn and grow your knowledge? Turn off the television and read books on subjects that you don’t know much about. If they’re over your head, back off and read simpler ones first.

Find it hard to execute some particular skill? Use your spare time and practice it, even if practice seems difficult and you’d rather be doing something else. Play the guitar until your fingers hurt. Cook every meal for a month from scratch.

Find it hard to get out of debt? Cut up all of your credit cards and erase those numbers from all of your online accounts and learn how to live on what you have.

Once you’ve broken through some personal barriers, you’ll find that opportunity knocks more often than before. You’ll understand the world around you better – and people will interact with you in a more positive fashion.

It’s hard to change course, but if you keep doing what you’re doing now, you’re going to keep getting the same results. Now’s the time to get off that path of least resistance and try the hard way.

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  1. Yadda says:

    Have you read _Outlier_? Just wondering.

  2. Kristin says:

    Amen to that. You have to break out of your comfort zone to grow, that’s what life is all about. You have to be willing to risk yourself, risk failure, risk rejection. Working 10 hours a day in a job you’ve had for years is an “easy” way of trying to get ahead (in the sense that you’re comfortable doing it). Try taking on projects and responsibilities that make your skin crawl (like facilitating groups or public speaking). The more you tackle uncomfortable challenges, the more…comfortable it is to so. Ironically. :)

  3. Gabriel says:

    Great post! I know in my own life, it’s been trying new things that have gotten me farthest. Yes, sometimes I’ve embraced something new only to fall flat on my face, but most of the time I succeed. It’s by far the best way to improve your life.

  4. Beth says:

    Trent – this was a timely post for me. Just this weekend I was lamenting that I’m not a “morning person.” I find it hard to get moving in the morning and get my kids ready too. Then I had the realization that I was not the type of person to get up early in the morning because I just DIDN’T DO IT. I am free to get up at 6am or 10am. It’s up to me to make myself the sort of person I’d wish to be. That’s the salient message I took from this excellent blog post. Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. leigh says:

    i absolutely agree. i agonized over choices of graduate school, and ended up choosing a top program in my discipline. it was probably the path of MOST resistance, but it changed my entire life. taking the best first job after graduate school, another step off the path of least resistance. but it was much easier to take that step after the initial jump.

    i am far less afraid of snagging the good opportunities that come my way, just because they require me to step outside my comfort zone. it was a great exercise, and it’s done me wonders both professionally and personally. the first one was SO HARD and REALLY SCARY, but now? piece of cake.

  6. alison says:

    I’m naturally very quiet (read: silent), but I force myself to exert a TON of energy to…not be. I’ve had many voluntary leadership positions, and think it’s hilarious when I conduct meetings or present workshops regularly, and the people I work with don’t ask people who are shy to do the same.

    Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. No, I’m probably never going to yell at a noisy crowd to quiet down so we can start. And, no, I don’t HAVE to volunteer or force myself into positions where I get up in front of people. But I still do. It’s good for me. Just like performing in piano recitals was good for me as a kid. Going out and trying something new is going to be a growing experience.

  7. Where you are an introvert, I am curious how you feel exposing your life to the whole world on your blog. I would assume that to be a high resistance path for you.

  8. Stephan F- says:

    Sometimes it seems like doing those things just doesn’t do anything or the returns on investment are phyrric.

    My wife and are are trying to be social, and all the families we’ve been inviting over have had to move or are moving in the next few weeks. As an introvert I consider that a bad return on energy.

    Last week I ran a preparedness class for my church. I had been trying to create a preparedness fair for over a year but it kept getting cancelled so instead of a 4 hour fair it was a 20 minute lesson. I earned some compliments, but I wouldn’t call the return on time spent good.

    None of these things are path of least resistance but I haven’t seen any opportunity come of any of my growth and work for a long time now.

    What next?

  9. Deb says:

    Trent, I agree with you. Its all about hard work and taking a few risks. But then, I think you and I are both from good hardy midwest work ethic stock so we would see it that way!

  10. Dana the Common Cents Coach says:

    @Stephan F. It can be very frustrating when events don’t turn out the way you plan. Is there any way that you might be able to turn your perspective around? Yes, it can be very frustrating to lose new friends. It was good practice for you and your wife to socialize with new people. These “practice” couples could be preparing you to reach out to the people that will stay in your life for a long time. It’s not that it was a bad return on your energy, it’s that it wasn’t an immediate return. Big difference. I think it is harder to make and keep new friends as adults simply because we are so busy in our own lives. However, if this is what you are truly looking for, you will find it.

    Congratulations on your step into the world of public speaking with your preparedness class. How can you use the feedback you got to make your next class even better? Are you sure you are targeting the correct group of people that would be interested in your topic? Would it be helpful for you to find a mentor who teaches the type of class you want to teach?

    The truth is, there is no silver bullet that can get you the life you want, the job you want, or anything that you want, in general. Many times, it takes us taking risks and failing in order to get where we want to be. Keep on moving. If you are stuck, find a supportive person who can help you brainstorm or simply give you the pep talk that you seem to need. Don’t give up!

  11. Johanna says:

    I’ll jump in on the opposite side of the issue. How about at least changing the title to “the path with fewer opportunities”? And even then, I’m not sure I agree. I, for one, have found an abundance of opportunity in my own life without ever having to stray too far outside of my comfort zone. That’s not to say that I haven’t worked hard, challenged myself, or encountered situations that I’ve found frightening. But I haven’t ever had to work to change who I fundamentally am, or pretend to be someone I’m not. And I wouldn’t want to – at least, not if the opportunity I’d gain by pretending to be someone I’m not would require me to continue to pretend to be someone I’m not. That, to me, is no way to live.

    Lately I’ve noticed this blog taking on more and more of a puritanical streak, with Trent (to some degree) and some of the commenters (to a greater degree) repeatedly expressing the notion that making life unpleasant for yourself is some sort of moral good, or even an obligation. It is, of course, to be expected that a personal finance blog would focus on how sacrificing something you want now can help you achieve something later that you want even more – that’s a big part of the essence of personal finance, after all. But it sometimes seems like some people are looking at those sacrifices as ends in themselves, rather than as the means to an end. And I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.

  12. kk says:

    I like what Johanna said in the first paragraph. It seems that what we are getting at is the fundamental nature / nurture issue. The “path of least resistance” is just going with our nature. For some, like Johanna, this works. For others, it may not work, in part perhaps because society (read: other people) do not value our nature all that much. The “path of most resistance” or maybe the “path towards change” is more on the nurture side of the coin.

    I think we all have elements of both. Take commentor #4 above who discussed not being a “morning person”. Some people, who cultivate their nature more, might decide rather than getting up early in the morning and doing things then when they are not at their best, they will instead rearrange the important tasks in their day for later in the day or at night. They work with their nature rather than against it. They are effective. Other people, who cultivate or value the nurturing aspect more, might decide as commentor #4 did that I will just get up earlier. This might still be equally effective.

    In the end, can we really change who we are? I think we can change some of our actions, but not necessarily who we are.

  13. kk says:

    Continuing on my last point, usually you can think of certain people or family members who you knew as kids and now know as adults. I often can identify certain traits in the adult that I also saw in the child. I would suggest that those traits will be very difficult for that person to fundamentally change.

  14. Doug says:

    I don’t like exercise. It’s hard, I’m weak, and I frequently end up out of breath. Not to mention the fact that I get all sweaty and need a shower after I finish. My nature is to sit down and vegetate. I’m not lazy: I read lots, and I play on the computer. I’m not going to change who I fundamentally am.

    Sound kinda silly? That’s because it is.

    I’m an introvert. I could spend the entire weekend not talking to my wife, doing lawn work or fishing, or even cooking. Does anyone thing that will be a good thing for a marriage?

    I’m an introvert, but I enjoy teaching. I’ve taught dance, I’ve led training classes at my employer, I volunteer for hard assignments. None of these change who I am. I’m still an introvert. But guess what? I have a skill my employer knows about (trainer). Was it easy for me to try that route the first time? Nope, but it turned out I was good at it. And after expending all that energy, I go home and enjoy quiet time.

    Personal development doesn’t happen without exercising your personality a bit. Am I ever going to run a marathon? Nope. Am I ever going to be hosting a cocktail party for my coworkers? Nope. Can I stay reasonably fit? Yep. Can I challenge my introvert nature by discovering I actually enjoy some aspects of socializing? Yep.

  15. Andi says:

    Ok, here’s something to think about – coming from an introvert. Introversion/extroversion is not just a personality trait, it describes how we recharge ourselves. I need some time to myself on a daily basis if I’m going to have anything positive to offer my family. Extroverts generally recharge by being around other people. Does it mean that I don’t work at interacting with other people? No. It just means that I know myself well enough to take some time alone. Think about it the other way – do we ask extroverts to push themselves to step outside their comfort zone and spend some quiet time alone? Just because a characteristic is more valued by a culture doesn’t mean we should always try to bend ourselves to fit that ideal.

  16. Mike says:

    The intorvert advantage is also a good read.

  17. getagrip says:

    It seems strange that there’s an assumption through this and other threads that extroverts don’t have comfort zones as well, that they can all just leap infront of a crowd and teach a class, make cold calls by the hundreds, or effortlessly lead a diverse team of individuals. Just because an person is an extrovert doesn’t mean they don’t have “comfort zones”. An extrovert might make a great teacher to younger children, but panic in speaking to adults which can hurt their chances of getting ahead in the education system. An extrovert might be great at starting conversations, but suck at follow-up and closing a deal. An extrovert might have no real problem getting up and talking in front of people, but might not “like” doing and actually resist conducting the research necessary to actually have something worth talking about. To add real value to the things we do everyone has to go outside their comfort zones to some extent.

    Additionally, no one is talking about “changing” who you are and what you prefer. Rather you are looking at changing “what” you can do. I may be introverted, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give a great and entertaining talk on a subject. I may “prefer” to have that talk in an intimate setting with close associates, but with practice I can give it to hundreds of folks in a large auditorium, and while I may find that emotionally draining, it may be more fulfilling in the long run to me to have touched many more folks. Additionally I may be an extravert and prefer to let someone else do the paperwork after I close the deal, but I’ve learned that that’s where I make the real money to put food on the table, so either I do it myself or I closely review it even if I don’t “like” it.

    IMHO it just seems that it’s easier for extroverts to master enough of the skills they need to get ahead than it is for introverts, because we are social animals at our cores and the extreme extrovert is being social, while the extreme introvert avoids it. But even given that, to be successful an extrovert still needs to step out of their comfort zones as well as an introvert.

  18. Meg says:

    For the flip side to this post, read “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham. Success comes from leveraging your strengths, not working on your weaknesses. That’s been my experience, anyway.

  19. Eden Jaeger says:

    This post is a great kick in the pants and something I really need to work on. It’s easy to stay in my comfort zone because it’s good enough to pay the bills and live a comfortable life, but it also leaves me wanting more and knowing that I could do better if I took more risks.

  20. Laziness and an unwillingness to step outside your comfort zone are two entirely different things.

    I think laziness is too harsh a word. I think people that are poor, for the most part, simply suffer from one of several things.

    1) a lack of motivation.
    2) an unwillingness to do something about their finances.
    3)a lack of desire to do something.
    4) some sort of a victim’s complex.

    For years, I was the hardest worker out there, but I was unwilling to fix my finances. Unwilling to do what it takes, and unmotivated to stick with it the millions of times that I tried. This was not laziness. Close, but not really.

    Once I got the willingness, motivation and deisre, everythnig else fell into place.

  21. Dan says:

    I’m more of a Darwinist. I’m glad someone is hesitant or shy, because it opens another opportunity for me.

    Sorry, very blunt and to the point, but true.

  22. Ellen says:

    As much as any of us may hate to admit it, this is all true. We have to do things that make us uncomfortable to get anywhere.
    I graduated from a great University a year ago and just recently moved back out of my parents’ house. My parents, being the types to err on the safe side, encouraged me to stay with them until I had a lot of financial padding under me. This kept me in a comfort bubble, where I always had food and a bed, regardless of my finances. I realized that living this way, I would end up there forever, living off of what my parents would provide me simply because it was familiar and easy.
    Moving out wasn’t easy. I had to find a rental I could afford and start working a lot more. I feel like I am really getting somewhere now, though. And the sense of achievement that comes from pushing out of where you are comfortable is priceless.
    Furthermore, I am a shy person, and moving to a place where I know very few people is also a challenge for me. But it feels good to push myself and get somewhere.

  23. Empty Nester says:

    I think that we are over simplifying this person’s problem. There is a fine line between shyness and crippling social anxiety. When a person is so shy that they can not take part in normal social activities, such as taking a class, they should be encouraged to seek professional help. With help, this person will probably be able to do more. With out knowing more facts, this person should not be just given the old I pulled myself up by my boot straps speech.

  24. Little House says:

    I agree with #23 Empty Nester. There is a difference between shyness that can be overcome with a little work and willingness to take a risk, and a severe social anxiety that requires the help of a professional.

    I also wouldn’t define a shy person as lazy. A shy person may just need to find something they truly enjoy, then take a risk to become involved.

    -Little House

  25. It seems that there’s always some sort of wall between where we are and where we want/need to go, and there are two choices, scale the wall or stay put and doing nothing.

    In scaling the wall, we’ll meet resistance and risk failure; realistically we always have to assess the risk/reward equation here. In many cases it may not be worth the effort.

    By staying put and doing nothing we reinforce habit, and that’ll only make it harder the next time we face another wall. In a way, there’s a real risk to doing nothing, and that has to be factored in as well.

    Ultimate reality: whether we stay put or advance, life isn’t easy.

  26. todo es bien says:

    Trent, I love you man, but Einstein never said that. Common internet fallacy. I always laugh when people say “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” Umm…no, that is NOT the definition of insanity, look it up for yourself. This reminds me on the tiresome spam email a friend sent me called Tips on Cooking and Making Love from the Dalai Lama, lolol… Not sure the Dalai Lama gives a lot of advice on lovemaking, and misattributions only cloud his message. Anyway, its all good, keep up the great work.

  27. IRG says:

    Ditto to what Megan, #18 said:
    Success comes from leveraging your strengths, not working on your weaknesses. That’s been my experience, anyway.

    There are many things that we have to do in life, regardless of our comfort zone or personality. But when you spend your life trying to be what you are NOT, that’s a waste of energy. And perhaps why some who try do not reap any “results” from their efforts.

    People need to be OK with who they are and if that means they are more socially shy, so be it.
    Everybody doesn’t have to be a social butterfly or MR. or Ms Popularity.

    I’m personally happier to co-exist with shy people than the pushy, often aggressive types who are constantly “networking” themselves and totally focused on themselves and their world.

    I’m personally shy but able to overcome that when it comes to business (That’s another persona as it were.)because I am focused on doing business (and not on being liked, etc. though that’s always an element).

    There are ways for shy people to learn how to feel more comfortable and ways to make it easier to connect.

    But you never really succeed in anything in the long run without just being who you are. If you look around the world, it isn’t so much about stretching comfort zones (which, to some extent, you should be doing in certain areas where you want to create change in your life) but about being comfortable in the world, no matter who/how you are.

    That’s the real measure of “success.”

    And, of course, respecting who others are, just as they are, without judgment.

  28. Caroline says:

    Also agree with #18, but at the same time we all have to do things we’re not comfortable with to get what we really truly want. At least that’s what I understand from reading The Pathfinder.

  29. MM says:

    The first line by Einstein made me wonder, do we really get the same result by repetition? Our life is constantly changing and variables keep coming. There are times I have been unsatisfied with one outcome, but I believe if I do THE SAME THING, on a different setting or time, I can achieve a different result.

  30. MM (29)–That’s probably true, at least because of timing. What you did last time may not have worked last time because of the timing. The same action now or at some point in the future would likely produce a different result.

    It’s hard to be certain because we probably seldom do anything exactly the same way twice. Sometimes we make changes that are enough to produce a different result, but still too subtle for us to notice.

  31. Sarah says:

    This person’s shyness is interfering with their life and happiness, and they should get help to overcome it (or work within it) in order to shape their life into what they want.

    Personally, I’m a pretty quiet person, but I have friends I enjoy, a boyfriend, and am assertive and respected in the workplace. I can lead presentations and groups (and actually sort of enjoy it) and I’m not afraid to try a new activity

    But when it comes to small talk and chit chat, I can struggle. I often find myself listening in large groups, not because I’m scared to talk, but because I’m processing what is being said internally. I think before I talk and like to spend a fair amount of time by myself. I like spending time with my friends too, and I love trying new things.

    If there are times when being introverted holds me back, I will force myself to exit my comfort zone (ie, making friends in a new city or speaking up at work).

    But in general I simply don’t see it as something I need to “overcome” and change. Sometimes I wish extroverts would “overcome” their loud and nature and be a better listeners! As long as I can get myself heard and respected and make social connections that make me happy, what is the problem?

  32. Nice post. My view is that you get out of life or anything, proportionately to what you put in . . .

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