Some people can have one drink of alcohol no problem, while others find it hard to stop.
Some people are genetically hardwired to be happy, while others are prone to depression.
Some people make friends with ease, while others struggle with crippling social anxiety.
Different people play different parts of life on different levels of difficulty. Yet, this constantly goes overlooked and underestimated because the difficulty levels are largely invisible and almost impossible to measure.
Imagine if life was more like a video game and you could clearly see what difficulty level you were playing on at any given time. Imagine if somehow whenever you were completing a task or trying to accomplish a goal, you could know whether you were playing on easy, hard or impossible mode, and that when you looked at other people, you could know what difficulty level they were playing on too.
What would that change? How would that make life different?
One immediate realization might be that you don’t play every part of life on the same difficulty level. School might be easy, but making friends might be hard. Math always made sense to me, but music never did. Knowing that you're playing a particular part of life on hard would make it easier to be patient with yourself. Instead of kicking yourself for not trying harder, or quitting out of frustration, you might instead look for ways to lower the level of difficulty, by asking for help, for instance, or going slower.
It might also change how harshly you judge people who are struggling with a particular aspect of life. Too often, from the outside looking in, it’s easy to see people who are poor, sad, lonely, anxious, addicted, inept, overweight or uninformed, and assume they must not be trying hard enough, especially when they’re struggling with something we personally never have.
But if you could see what difficulty level they were playing on, you might be more forgiving, more understanding, more patient, more kind. You might be more willing to offer a helping hand instead of a harsh remark. The inherent unfairness of life would be harder to downplay or ignore.
On the flip side, you might also find it easier to stop comparing yourself to others who seem more accomplished or further ahead. Perhaps they really have enjoyed advantages in life you haven’t that are simply difficult to discern or quantify.
Being able to see the difficulty levels would also make it easier to measure the various factors that can increase or decrease the hardness of life more generally.
Good genetics, a stable and healthy upbringing, natural talent, beauty, height, family wealth and connections, being born in the right place and at the right time, white male privilege, good luck, and greater access to opportunity generally lower life’s difficulty level. It’s easier to excel in school, find work, make friends and amass wealth.
And the opposite is also true. Life’s more difficult when you’re a person of colour, female, born at the wrong time or in the wrong place, ungifted, chronically ill, mentally unwell, short, ugly, poor, unconnected, lack access to opportunity, or had a rough upbringing.
One reason it’s hard for people to have productive conversations about privilege is that it’s hard to see past the things in your own life that have increased the difficulty level. If only people really knew what you’ve been through. It’s easy to get the sense that the challenges you’ve faced are being diminished or dismissed by others.
But just because your life has been hard in certain ways doesn’t mean that other people’s lives haven’t been hard in different ways. Difficulties don’t negate one another, even if it often feels like that’s what’s being said.
They do, however, stack. One of the reasons we should pay particular attention to the voices of Black women who live in poverty is that they face many of these challenges all at once. The difficulties overlap and build, one on top of the other, making life harder and harder, until merely surviving is nearly impossible and thriving is entirely out of the question.
Much of the perceived tension, conflict and competition would dissolve if it was easier to measure life’s difficulty levels objectively. But unfortunately, in reality, they’re complex, multifaceted and always in flux.
And the stories we tell further obscure the truth.
People often fail to appreciate just how lucky they are to start parts of life on a lower difficulty level because the story that gets told ends up centering on hard work.
It goes like this. When school is easy, it’s easy to get good grades, so you work hard to get them. And as that hard work gets rewarded, you keep working harder to pass more difficult tests. On and on it goes like that. You end up looking hardworking and the story that gets told ends up being about how your hard work led to achievement—which to some extent is true, yet largely ignores the fact that the virtuous cycle was kicked off by getting to start on easy mode.
The same thing happens with work. When it’s easy to get your first job, it’s easier to get your second. When your hard work gets rewarded with promotions and higher pay, you keep working harder. And the same story gets told. One not about the initial difficulty level, but about the hard work that came after.
When people graduate into tough labour markets, their earnings suffer for years. When Black people are snubbed by recruiters solely because of the unconscious bias against the name on their applications, it's harder for them to keep trying and caring and playing a game that’s rigged against them.
That’s not to say that hard work is unimportant. Just that it gets you further when you’re starting on easy. One of the most underappreciated forms of luck is to have your hard work rewarded.
The takeaway is that the level of difficulty people play on matters far more than we ever acknowledge. When people quit—when they stop caring, stop trying, stop striving—it’s often because they started on an impossible level of difficulty where they couldn’t make any meaningful progress. When effort goes completely unrewarded, it’s far more difficult to keep going.
Oftentimes, when we think about making the world more fair, we assume that making sure everyone plays by the same rules is enough. But that fails to reckon with the fact that people are playing on different levels of difficulty. If some people are playing on easy and others are playing on hard, it would in no way be a form of reverse prejudice to lower the difficulty level for one group and not another. That’s exactly what would be required to give everyone a fair shot at success.
If difficulty levels were easier for everyone to see, that much would be obvious.
But life’s not a video game, and the levels of difficulty aren’t clear or easy to measure, so they continue to go unseen and underestimated.
Try to fight against that tide. Try to be mindful of the invisible battles other people are fighting that are making life far harder than you might imagine. Try to always acknowledge that different people play different parts of life on different levels of difficulty.