rebelling against low expectations

Grow Up, Don’t Grow Cynical


Every college campus has its sub-groups: the jocks, the nerds, the cool kids, etc. When we attended college our campus sported two additional, very distinct, sub-cultures: idealistic freshmen and cynical seniors.

Idealistic freshmen are just what you would imagine. They are the new kids, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and stoked to be attending the greatest school on earth, learning from the greatest professors on earth, while living in the greatest country on earth. For this species everything is awesome.

Cynical seniors are an older species who (to hear them tell it) have been chewed up and spat out by “the system.” They’ve been around the block a few more times than you and seen more of how the world really works. Their seniority is their trump card.

If you don’t agree with their bleak assessment of reality it is because you just haven’t lived long enough to be adequately disillusioned.

While both these species thrive on college campuses, they also exist in large numbers in the world beyond. Young people in our generation tend to align themselves with one of these groups and to look disdainfully on the other. See if you recognize our generation in these descriptions:

  • We either buy the t-shirt and brand our life with cause-related memorabilia; or we steer clear of all allegiances, saying we care about issues but not for movements.
  • We either act like popular authors and leaders are infallible and live perfect lives; or we treat popularity as sure-fire proof of compromise and look for evidence of corruption.
  • We either wear our hearts on our sleeves, keeping everyone constantly abreast of how we feel; or we become adept at guarding our hearts and hiding what’s really going on.
  • We either kow-tow to authority figures as if they can do no wrong; or we view their every action with suspicion and imagine them sitting in their offices plotting our demise.

Conventional wisdom says each of us, over the course of our lives, will gradually move from idealism to cynicism.

Major crises, breakups, rejections, and disappointments will serve as mile-markers along the descent.

Cynicism, some people will tell you, is the inevitable result of living. Growing up means staying disengaged and distrustful of authority figures, institutions, and organized movements of any kind.

But are they right? Is life just a slow process of disillusionment? Is youthful enthusiasm doomed to die a gradual death at the hands of disappointment and heartbreak? Does growing up mean growing cynical?


The way we answer these questions matters. Our answers will dictate our life path — whether one that leads to contentment or one that leads to bitterness. Our answers will determine how we handle disappointments (e.g. Is this setback an opportunity to grow or proof that the world stinks?).

The longer we live the more important it is to talk about how to grow up without growing cynical.

3 Ways to Grow Up Without Growing Cynical

  1. Stop complaining. Complaining has become a cultural sport, where opponents attempt to top each other in how much work they have to do and how hard their lives are. Besides being gold mines for the First World Problems meme, these conversations are a fast-track towards cynicism. Looking for the bad in your life can easily change from amusing past-time to permanent perspective.
    “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15).
  2. Expect disappointments. The first step towards not getting disillusioned is to avoid the illusion. Life isn’t easy! Don’t be surprised if colleges, employers, and girlfriends reject you. This has happened to millions of people throughout history and almost all of them went on to live meaningful lives. Many of them even grew through the experience. They got wiser without getting whinier.
    “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
  3. Raise your expectations of God. When our expectations of God are high we can lower our expectations of people without growing cynical. To quote our dad, “Let God be God and let everyone else be human.” We’ve found that human beings make pretty awesome creatures, but lousy gods. If you are repeatedly disappointed by others you may have set your hope in the wrong places.
    “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146:3).

Growing up is necessary, cynicism is not.

Cynicism is a big problem, but remaining blissfully naive isn’t the solution.

As our dad likes to say, “There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.” Avoiding one ditch by swerving into the other is no improvement.

Our goal is to stay on the road and out of both ditches.

Growing up means grappling with disappointment and heartbreak without being broken by them. Growing up means knowing there are risks to loving people, supporting causes, and aligning yourself with institutions — but doing so anyway because that’s the way things get better.

The problem with idealistic freshmen is that they risk carelessly. The problem with cynical seniors is that they risk nothing. The solution is to risk purposefully. Both species must grow up.

Question: Have you had to struggle with cynicism as you’ve grown older? You can join the discussion below. There are currently __ Comments.

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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.


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  • This… was very helpful. Especially as I am soon graduating from high school as well as going off to college – I have definitely been in both categories before! 🙂 Thanks again!

    • Thanks for commenting, Laura. You said that you’ve been in both categories. I’m just curious: What did that look like for you? (i.e. how did you express your idealism and cynicism?) God bless!

      • Well, I have a generally optimistic spirit. When I meet someone, I am inclined to defend them without necessarily knowing the truth about them. That’s not always a bad thing; but I’ve found that it’s more biblically sound to realize that everyone is fallen and to, as you said, expect disappointment. I now see situations around me where I have expected much more of others – more than I even expect of myself.

        Having been let down by some of these experiences, I have become cynical. Not only cynical, but spiritually proud. I began to think that I personally knew the better way, or that I was somehow more mature than those around me. This is a lonely place to be! And it also elevates myself above others who are just as fallen as I am. In a way, it even elevates my opinion of myself to a higher degree than my opinion of God.

        The more I grow closer to my Lord, the more I see how he truly sees myself and others.

  • This post showed up in my feed just three days before the end of my freshman year of college. 🙂

    I would definitely say I was the idealistic freshman – I pretty much expected all A’s, great friends, and in general, smooth sailing. (That was before I moved in.) For the most part, a year later, I’m still idealistic. I enjoy my classes, have made some great friends and had wonderful experiences, and for the most part, have had smooth sailing.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen why some seniors (and even juniors and sophomores) have become cynical. It’s hard work, college is. Especially at such a large university (there are 25,000 undergraduates here), it’s extremely easy to live out your entire undergraduate career “under the radar,” never getting to know professors or classmates. And on a personal level, living with people all the time (in dorms) is work. And you will get hurt. This last year as I have been developing friendships, I have gotten hurt. I’ve been lied to, angered, and disappointed. And it would have been so easy to become cynical.

    However, praise God, these difficulties have not made me cynical, but grateful; not angry, but thankful; not frustrated, but more trusting. In the times when it’s most difficult to see past the frustrations of life is when God has molded me the most. I rejoice in that!

    ~ Madison Hexter
    Akron, Ohio

    • Thanks for sharing, Madison. Your story is a great example of what we’re talking about.

      Do you mind sharing a bit of what it looked like practically for you to reject cynicism and become more trusting?

      If you need to wait until after finals to share, I totally understand. =)

      • Now that finals are over, my brain power can be diverted to other things. 🙂

        As far as how I rejected cynicism, I would say it was a conscious choice that I made with God’s help. A specific example I can think of was one day in lab.

        I am a Biology major/Chemistry minor so needless to say, I spend many waking hours in lab. This particular day I was in chemistry lab. We were working on an individual lab that day where if you messed up one step, it would mess up the rest of the lab. Somehow, I knocked over my sample and had to start over, which since the labs are timed, was to say the least, disastrous. I remember consciously panicking, wondering how I was going to finish the lab. As I was standing at my lab bench physically shaking, I realized I had a choice: I could continue to panic, become frustrated, angry, and cynical, hating lab for the rest of the semester and my undergraduate career; or I could choose to praise God, thank him for the opportunity I had to be in lab and learn things, and finish that lab with his help.

        I chose the latter. It certainly was a difficult choice, as I was physically, mentally, and emotionally distraut (not finishing a certain lab experiment means you get an “F” on that experiment). But I can say that I am thankful I chose to be hopeful. That particular lab, while difficult, has not scarred me. 🙂

        ~ Madison Hexter
        Akron, Ohio

        (I did end up finishing that experiment.)

  • Oh, I really like this. It’s something I’ve thought of for years (probably since I was 10 or so, and I’m 23 now.) but something I’ve never been able to articulate as well as you did here. I knew I didn’t want to get old and grumpy and boring, but I also knew that it bothered me terribly when people who were supposed to be grown up acted foolishly.

    It has been a struggle for me to avoid cynicism as I’ve grown up–life isn’t easy, and I’ve been dealt some especially difficult blows in the last two years. God is very gracious, however, and has helped me to stay hopeful and focused on Him in it all. Staying thankful has been a big part, as has worshiping God (which tends to help out with that last point you made.) It is a wonderful thing to know and say that God is still just as good as ever when it feels like your world has shattered.

    Thank you for writing this, and for the practical steps toward this mature optimism. I’ll likely be sharing these thoughts with others.

  • Not aligning with an organization isn’t always cynical, sometimes it is biblical. For example, discontinuing your support of Planned Parenthood because you find out they murder children in addition to helping poor women with healthcare or discontinuing your support of a church because you find out a pastor molests children and the church has neglected to remove him or inform parents they should consult with their children to find out if they were victims. In fact, it is very cynical for you to say what you have — you sound as if you assume that everyone who is discerning is cynical. Furthermore, things don’t get better by aligning yourself with institutions — things get better by aligning yourself with Jesus, His Love, and His commandments to us.

    • Hey Former Rebelutionary,

      You seem to want to argue. The post in no way implies that discernment is wrong. We said that both “idealistic freshmen” and “cynical seniors” need to grow up — the former because they lack discernment and the latter because they lack passion.

      If anyone comes away from the post thinking we advocate supporting Planned Parenthood or defending abusive pastors — they should read it again. *wink*

      Finally, the church itself is an institution and God seems to like using it to accomplish His purposes in the world. You sound like someone who has been hurt by institutions and wants to go it alone. I doubt you will be as effective in the long run.

      God bless,

  • Thank you! This article was a blessing to me as I can relate! I’ve called it “skepticism,” but I notice the same trend in my heart and have been very discouraged by it this last year. I have asked myself multiple times, “will I be skeptical the rest of my life?” It is a miserable place to be and a reality I don’t want to live.

    Cynicism/Skepticism can lead to (and has for me) a lack of trust in God, a reliance on self/our own wisdom, doubt of your faith, fear, judgmentalism, introspection, and selfishness (because you seek to protect yourself from everything).

    God and I have working on trust for sometime, and your concise words gave me one more confirmation that my adult life can, and by God’s grace WILL, be different.

    I agree wholeheartedly with all that Carissa wrote below, and I too will be keeping this article around.

  • As a recent enthusiast of the rebelution, and a relatively old dog at 35, I can offer a retrospective view on this post. It is absolutely critical to keep optimism, but it should not depend on your circumstances. It should grow from constant re-evaluation and re-invention of your goals.

    As most of you reading this probably haven’t made mistakes with zero’s on the end of them yet, I’ll give you a snapshot of mine, and hopefully help you avoid them, and keep your chin up.

    I dropped out of college at 19 to marry my wife (to whom I am still happily married, with three kids), started two businesses (one of which failed miserably, and the other at one time brought in six figures). I am no longer self-employed, and in the fall of 2012 I decided to go back to school, to get equipped for what’s next. Business failure isn’t the end, nor is debt (though it feels like it, slowly working our way out of $214,000 of it). Both of these are opportunities to learn, not become cynical. I learned that starting and operating a business on credit is a bad idea. But I also learned that if your plan isn’t working, don’t look for somewhere to point a finger; look for–seize–the opportunity to revamp your goals. Surround yourself with goal-driven, purposeful, intentional, and highly motivated people. Read. A lot. Pray.

    Every problem can become an opportunity for solution, if you choose to see it that way. The road will not always be easy, but it is important to keep your eye on the prize and strive after it. The only really good stories are those in which adversity is overcome, and challenges are met with the courage and will to endure them to victory.

    • This is excellent, Timothy. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I especially like your point that optimism should not depend on your circumstances. I am also going through a season of life where I’ve had to re-evaluate and re-invent my goals. This redesigned website is one of the good things God has brought out of my “unwelcome” circumstances.

      God bless you!

  • Thanks, Brett (and Alex). This was very relevant to me.

    Three months ago, I was very discouraged with a class I had been looking forward to. The teacher put a lot of work on us and always seemed to be criticizing me, and it didn’t help that I was already hard on myself as a perfectionist. I wrote an email to my department head, and sat down to talk with him. He was humble and sympathetic about the teacher’s shortcomings, and said he’d take my perspective into account in trying to improve the program. He also encouraged me to press on, take lightly the things I couldn’t control, and to try asking the professor for help rather than challenging her. This stuck with me, and I’ve found myself often coming back to my department head to talk things through.

    Lately, in my volunteer job, two of my colleagues have quit and one was seriously considering it. I’ve tried to be a listener and an encourager to them, and to bring them together with our boss to discuss their concerns. Yesterday it started to pay off, as the one who decided to stay met with me to brainstorm for the coming semester activities. I thought I was going to have to stimulate discussion, and I was coming up dry. But instead, she asked me about my talents and passions and how we could use them at our university, and she shared with me two or three pages she had already written up for herself. Somehow, I think my commitment has rubbed off on her, and it’s exciting now to plan what we’re going to do this coming semester to build community in the dorms and encourage the students and staff.

    • Hey Nathan, great to hear from you!

      Thank you for sharing your stories. They are both good examples of how we can be proactive about the problems around us. A cynical response would be to disengage — but when we engage with renewed enthusiasm it can bring everyone else up with us.

  • I’m just a freshman in highschool, so I guess I would classify in the group as “idealistic freshmen” even though I’m not in college. However I would definitely say that I’m am much more cynical than four years ago. Thanks so much for posting this article that is relevant with Christian teens (and all teens, for that matter). This article has helped me realize what I need to do to keep from growing even more pessimistic. Also, way to go with the new website!! It’s really awesome…

  • I never thought i would struggle with cyncism. I grew up trusting God and having a bright positive outlook on life. ive noticed a change this past year but wasnt able to put into words what was happening. i am so doubting of everything and everyone anymore and i dont want to be. thanks for the post

      • After thinking about it for a while i think that the change happened after an accumulation of events. i started working a lot more weekends thus not being able to get to church regularly. I got tired of being alone and wanted to make friends thus started becoming like those around me. This made me make some decisions that i disorder. i started relying totally on myself thus grew in cyn

  • This post can be applied to so many areas of life, including a person’s education. I am always struggling to find the happy medium between these two “ditches”. I am naturally optimistic, but at the same time, I have been often disappointed. I’m a big dreamer… one of those people who believe that the impossible is always possible with God. Those big dreams tend to become an addiction–it’s a hard lifestyle to always focus on what you’d like to do, what you want in your future, rather than what you’re doing now and what you have at this moment. Cynicism for me sets in when hopes I have or plans I’ve made or just something I’ve really wanted either doesn’t happen or falls through. Each time it happens, my confidence dips just a bit lower. I lose my strong belief that God can and will do anything and everything. I am constantly having to remind myself that God has a plan, and that plan is ultimately better than anything I could ever imagine. After a while I find the optimistic idealism coming back little by little, and am glad to see it coming through in my life once more. My confidence in God’s ability to do everything returns, and I find passion–God’s passion–filling me once again, and I am so excited. I am at one of these crossroads in my life. I’m graduating this year, and am struggling to find the direction in which God would have me move. So I have to battle both cynicism and idealism at once, to balance the two. It’s a hard war to fight, but I know, whatever happens, it’s God’s plan. I do not have to worry, every, because He will always be there.
    Anyway, thanks for the post, it was great and I really appreciate a lot of the comments below for their experience and the encouragement they each give.

    • Thanks for sharing, Sadie.

      I think what you are discovering is the importance of trusting the big plans to God and just being content and faithful right where He’s placed you. That doesn’t mean you stop dreaming, but it means that your hope is in Him not in whether your plans come to fruition.

  • Thanks for challenging me! I don’t want to be cynical, but I can get cynical in certain areas; I need to remember that I am only who I am because of Christ’s blood, and others are beloved by God, too, and a work in progress. It is not beyond God’s power to work in every situation that I am prone to be cynical about!

    Thanks for inspiring me to have a vision, take risks, and invest emotions, passion, and energy, but see people and situations from God’s perspective, not my own idealistic one, and when things go wrong – forgive, pick myself up, and move on.

  • I’m now 24, out of college, working two jobs, and preparing to leave on a two-year “missions trip” to teach in Tanzania. My primary place of employment is a suburban high school, where I teach the Senior English Composition and Literature classes. What scares me in many ways is that the disillusionment and cynicism of college seniors is reflected equally in many of the high school seniors. By most standards, these students are privileged. They attend the best high school in the area. They live in nice suburban areas. They have access to gyms, tanning beds, club sports, and Starbucks thanks to their relative wealth. But all I hear is complaining: “I hate this school,” “I can’t believe the dress code is so strict,” “the teachers demand too much,” “this school is so dumb,” etc.

    My educational path was far different, as I was homeschooled K-12, attended a tiny discipleship school for two years, and then finished out my teaching degree online through Liberty University. My parents chose to limit our organized extracurricular activities (speech & debate for me) in order to prevent the classic “taxi-driver” syndrome for Mom, I paid for my own college education, and I was driven to work hard through college because I knew I wanted to move overseas after graduation. In other words, I had a purpose that drove me to see past the little things that I didn’t enjoy–discussion board posts, multiple-choice tests, and endless hours of lifeguarding to pay for it all. But now, as I finish out my second year in the workforce, I see the cynicism seeping in. I try to blame it on exhaustion. And sure, at the end of a fourteen-hour day, I’m tired. But that is not the root of the issue.

    Cynicism is contagious. The complaints of co-workers and friends inundate our minds…and begin forming a part of our own thoughts. Its much the same as inappropriate language. Most of us don’t start off cussing during our elementary years. But as time goes on and we are exposed to it more and more, eventually, many of us will find ourselves covering our mouths with horror after a “bad word” slips out. Its not because we wanted to say it, its not because we want to be cynical—its because eventually, those words, those complaints have so infected us, that they become what our mind sees as the “natural response” to events.

    So far as I can tell, the solution is gratefulness. If I am truly grateful that I have the opportunity to work at this amazing high school (even though it is now “summer” and I’d rather be outside), if I am grateful that I have the chance to sell bicycles in the evenings and be completely immersed in a sport I love, then I cannot complain about the evils of education, or the tiresome customer who has tried every bike in the story without purchasing a single thing, or whatever it is. Instead, when I am grateful, my focus slowly begins slipping off of me and my desires, to the joy that can be found in teaching youth how to communicate effectively, to sharing a passion for bicycles with a “newbie”, etc.

    And so life goes on. Whether you are in high school, college, or the workforce, you will always have the choice to be cynical or the choice to be grateful. And, unfortunately, its a decision that you have to make every day…and sometimes more than once a day. But its one worth making. A joyful heart is good medicine. =D

    • This is excellent, Abigail. Thanks for sharing. I love your point about cynicism being contagious. The comparison to cussing seems appropriate.

      Would you mind if I used your comment as part of a follow-up post?

  • I have been struggling in this area too. Lately I have thought, I’m turning into this old crotchety person that I don’t want to be. Thanks for posting this.

  • Wow. You really hit the nail with the hammer here. I am still in high school and thus have a somewhat limited experience in this matter, still I do have some thoughts. The first thing I was reminded of when I read this post was an experience I had last summer:

    Me and two friends were at the airport catching a flight to Chicago. From Chicago we would fly to Europe for an international conference for Christian young people – it was my first time leaving the country. Loooong story short – our flight was canceled and we were standing in a two hour line wondering what in the world to do. Our plight was shared by 200 or so other people, angered by the cancellation. An enraged man behind me tried to explain to us what was happening –

    “You see kids, there really aren’t any weather delays- the pilot wants to clock out so he can go home. What a mess! I’ve never seen this before. Outrageous!”

    Me and my friends calmly listened to his diatribe( mentally bleeping out the language that surrounded us). Despite his convincing cries of foul play, he could tell we just weren’t getting flustered:

    “Just wait kids, someday you’ll be as old and grumpy as I am.”

    I thought about this comment for a long time afterward. Why weren’t me and my friends angry – or even scared? We perfectly understood the conspiracies and rumors swarming around us. We knew we’d probably been jipped. I had waited for this day for months and now things weren’t working out, why wasn’t I worried or bothered?

    The man would have cited naivety and youthful optimism. Yet I hope it was more then that. Such a trait cannot withstand the test of time – the more you see of the horrors of this earth ruled by satan, the more “grumpy” you may easily become. White it is a rational reaction, it leaves God out of the picture.

    I like to think that it was the Lord’s mercy and Grace that helped to keep us calm in that situation. It is a huge mercy to view the world through the lense of “the heavens do rule”(Daniel 4:26). If God wanted us at the conference he would get us there, that was that.

    Throughout Junior year I have been working pretty hard on my studies. As I develop my education and begin to immerse myself in human culture, current events, history, and philosophy little by little – I found the phrophecy of the angry man coming true. The more I learn of the world ( wether through books I read or hardships I experience) the grumpier I am getting.

    Your post was a wake up call to remind me of the sweet experience me and my friends shared that evening last summer – by setting our hope in Christ even a bitter situation was made sweet. If you set your hope in this world ( including careers, money, even human relationships) you will be disappointed. Remember what Solomon said about “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and “vanity of vanities; all is vanity”(Ecclesiastes 1:2?

    Now let us remember Jesus, who was prophesied in Isaiah to be a “root out of dry ground”(Isaiah 53:2). He had nothing in his outward environment to hope in. Throughout his life he was rejected, denied, and accused- yet he was never discouraged or cynical. He didn’t look down or around for his hope, peace, enjoyment etc… He looked up to his Father!

    Now we have the Lord with us all the time. What a life he offers for us to choose! It is not naivety or ignorance – it is recognizing that Jesus is the only one who can truly satisfy us. May we maintain this testimony as we grow older and continue to have hard experiences. May the lord simplify each of us to be lilies trusting in him!(Luke 12;27).

    Thank you for this word! I can choose Christ and be saved from the natural disappointment of a purposeless life!

  • I’m so glad I came here. I picked up your book in a used bookstore, followed it here, and I’m glad I did. I’m a rising senior in college, close to becoming that cynical senior. Growing up without growing cynical is really tough to do, and I’m glad to find that some young people refuse to let it happen!

  • Wonderful post! I struggle a lot with navigating those two ditches! Growing older around a lot of non-Christians has meant dealing with a lot of cynicism. Things like violence, gangs, pregnancy and drug use are pretty prevalent at my high school, and being around them tends to make people lose a lot of innocence. It’s really hard to see God’s glory when everyone’s cynical about everything: school, drugs, their future, their parents… What people struggle with at my school is bad. It’s ugly, and it’s hard, which is why idealism doesn’t thrive. It’s hard to fight back against a culture that deals with so much brokenness.

    When I feel disappointed, frightened, or disillusioned with the world, I turn to God because he gives me hope that doesn’t disappoint. I, more than any of my friends, can see brokenness in me and in my world, but I also can see more beauty in God than they can imagine.

    I’m super convicted by the challenge to stop complaining; I need to work on that. That’s a way to demonstrate the difference between you and those around you, and is a good safeguard against defaulting to cynicism.

    I think it’s really important to articulate those thoughts to people around us. The best way to stay on the road is to purposefully explain that you’re not disappointed, and that you put your trust in God. Not complaining is the first step, but countering cynicism with God’s truth is also necessary, both privately and publicly.

    • Excellent thoughts, Sadie. Thank you for sharing!

      I like your point that not complaining is only the first step. We must purposefully replace complaining with the promises of God.

  • Thanks for this post guys. I had no idea how cynical I had become lately. When I was little I mostly saw the good in people, but now that I’m an older teen I notice the evil as well. It hurts when I see my fellow humans treating others and themselves as creatures without value, when Jesus gave so much for each one of them. It hurts too when I realize how selfish others can be, and that I can’t trust people. What is worse is that I had been letting it make me cynical, and that I was coming to accept the evil as something I couldn’t change. I was wrong. I can still use the little light I have to help change the world. I can still make a difference. The world might seem like a pretty bad place sometimes, but God is still good, a fact that will never change. There are many good people too who care just like I do. (This website helps prove that 🙂 Thanks for sharing this!

rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →