Do Hard Things – A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion against Low Expectations, by Alex and Brett Harris. Multnomah Books, 2008; 224 pages + appendix.

Do Hard Things. It’s such a catchy title that the book’s subtitle could easily be overlooked. That subtitle, “A Teenage Rebellion against Low Expectations” is a very accurate indicator of the book’s contents, and it should not be overlooked.

The authors, twins Alex and Brett Harris, are the younger brothers of Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye). Alex and Brett were nineteen when they wrote Do Hard Things. They are very open about the fact that the book is written by Christians and is intended for other Christians (225). As Christians, they felt a need to inspire other Christian teenagers. Dissatisfied with the type of teen help books commonly available, the Harris brothers poke fun of “books written by forty-somethings who, like, totally understand what it’s like being a teenager” (3). Instead of saying “like, totally” a lot, the authors’ style is to present clear arguments and a challenging message that isn’t dumbed down to teenspeak. The book is quite well-written.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first when I saw that the foreword was written by the Zen-promoter and Hollywood movie actor Chuck Norris. In spite of this serious flaw, many Christian teenagers could benefit from reading Do Hard Things.

The book hinges on the premise that our culture stifles the work and the spiritual lives of young people by expecting very little out of them in the teenage years. For example, they insist that the common saying today “Just do your best” actually promotes settling for less (89). The Harris brothers make a very convincing case that remaining childish well into the teenage years is a quite recent phenomenon. Their answer is what they call a rebelution: “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.”

In Do Hard Things, they include an important section called “What the Bible Says about Teens” (42-44). They use Romans 12:2 (“Be not conformed to this world”) to support their idea that Christian young people should not be going by what the world expects out of teenagers. They apply I Corinthians 14:20 (“Be not children in understanding”) directly to teenagers in particular. Above all, they appeal to I Timothy 4:12 as their theme; their take on it is that “Let no man despise thy youth” was Paul’s instruction to Timothy regarding hard responsibilities that Timothy had to do regardless of his youthfulness.

Alex and Brett offer an insightful treatment of Psalm 1:1 (“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly”). Their advice for understanding verse 1 is to go on to read verse 2 (“His delight is in the law of the Lord”). This means that it is not enough for teenagers to stay out of trouble (“not…in the way of sinners”), but to do something right and profitable instead.

So do something. Do hard things. Do what hard things? This is the question that nagged me throughout the book. I appreciate how the authors make a case for rebelling against low expectations; they did an admirable job. But they should have been more clear on what types of hard things they are encouraging. I don’t mean to say that they hide their opinions. They speak very highly of teenagers managing political campaigns, organizing relief programs for the homeless or in Africa, or producing good films; is this the type of hard thing they are looking for? Then they highlight figures such as George Washington, David Farragut, Clara Barton, and Teddy Roosevelt; is this the type of hero to pattern ourselves after?

To be fair, Alex and Brett also spend a little time addressing the need to be faithful in doing small hard things. Do even the things that don’t appear glamorous, such as doing your homework or spending time with a sibling. And although they speak very positively of the noble calling of a wife and mother, the subject keeps going back to being world-changers. They devote a lot of pages to fixing the social ills of this world—doing something huge for God.

What exactly they mean by the often-repeated phrase “for God” is unclear. I do want to recommend that you read Do Hard Things, but don’t just read it and run off to change the world. Do Hard Things can leave the impression that the teenage years are wasted if Christian young people don’t step out of their comfort zone and take on a large-scale project. In reality, the Christian life is much more: observing the Lord’s day, living the antithesis, nurturing friendships, being despised for Christ’s sake, etc. I am sure that, as Christians, Alex and Brett Harris would agree that the Christian life includes all of these things, but it is a weakness of the book that such activities are de-emphasized, even overwhelmed by the idea of doing something huge for God. Even a whole chapter on “Small Hard Things” does not do enough to correct the imbalance.

Alex and Brett are unashamedly Christian. Not having exactly the same Protestant background that we are used to, their different views on theology are to be expected. For example, they seem to have high hopes for starting a movement that will inspire a generation and change the whole world—this world—for the better; no mention is made of this life as a pilgrimage while we hope for “a better country, that is a heavenly” (Heb. 11:16). They have different practices, too. For example, they talk often about films and movies as good things. Regardless, these things will not hinder the discerning reader from gleaning many good ideas out of their book.

I do recommend that you read Do Hard Things, especially for the aspect of fighting against low expectations. Read it as a student. Read it as a teenager. Read it as a Christian. It will be worth your while.