Is The Hard Work Worth It?

There comes a few moments each year, when I stand in front of my desk and I watch pieces start to float together. Articles I’ve written six months earlier come to light online and in print; books I’ve designed years ago get transfered from manuscript to first draft to pushing iterations; invisible lines of website code mesh towards reality and revisions finalize into a product that someone, finally, sees.

Some projects never make it past the drawing board; tired iterations get thrown softly into the garbage, piles on my desk shift sideways into obscurity. But other things–magical things–those projects that make it out into the air; these are the beauties. And sometimes, things I’ve worked on for quite a while start to align themselves seamlessly and I get a glimmer of inspiration, excitement, and relief.

In landscape architecture and architecture, especially, it can take years before a project comes to fruition. Thousands of hours of labor, drawings, computers, meetings, policy, documentation and endless amounts of “red lines” behind a desk, staring at CAD (computer-aided drafting) software take their toll on even the most fastidious of designers, wearing them out before they see the results of their hard work. 

Things that are worth it take time.

The first time I saw my landscape architecture work turn into reality, I was wandering down Market Street in San Francisco. Suddenly, I was overcome with a strange sense of deja-vu. Behind a chain link fence next to me was a place I knew I’d been before. I didn’t know why, but I recognized it. I looked at my friend. “This is weird,” I said. “I feel like I know this place already.” And suddenly, I gasped: I did know the place.

I spent a summer working on the technical drawings while an intern, laboriously and meticulously testing lighting patterns, bench construction details, and determining the final art piece for the center of the plaza. The plaza – now a central location downtown between Market and Mission streets – was coming to life in three dimensions.  They were building the project.  A place in the world. From drawings. Some of them were my drawings. Did they get it? Did they do it right? Did I do it right?

I stopped, hands pressed up between the chain links, and stared at every inch of the project. My eyes mapped the walls, the colors, the paving textures, the lighting, the signs, the planting, the crevices, the trees. I knew instantly the parts that had changed from our original ideas, the plants that were new, the benches that had been cropped from their first iteration as cantilevered extensions from the wall, the art pieces that had been swapped last minute, the effect of the winter shadow from the towering buildings on the temperature of the concrete.

I felt the building in all it’s dimensions, the lighting and skin entirely different than any two-dimensional drawing could capture, and I felt the size of the space, the thickness of the air. On the ground I saw what decomposed granite looked like in real life, what tree spacing rows felt like in vertical space, and whether or not my imagination from years’ before was accurate in picturing what we wanted to build. It was here.

I helped make something happen.

These moments–the moments of publication, of realization, of recognition, of creation–when something you’ve built in your mind and spent hours of energy on becomes real, tangible, concrete–are invaluable. And standing there, and now again here, today, words and drawings spread out all over the walls and tables and desks, I think briefly to myself:

The hard work is worth it.

My swim coach used to call this “cashing in.” At the end of the year, all of your work, all of your invisible hours in the pool, laps painted and erased on top of each other in tireless sequence; every set a measure against yourself; each frustrating day in the cold pool, each microscopic change in threshold potential–it’s all work that you’re putting in the bank.

Exhausted, I would look up to my coach from the water and ask him with my eyes, “Can I ever make it? Am I doing it? Is this worth it?”

He knew, intrinsically, the phenomenon that is cumulative, additive work, of minor changes built into powerful movements, and yet all he could do was push us to do our best in the present, enticing us into the future by telling us the stories of great legends before in his attempt to inspire us and make us dream. Without knowing, without having been there, I had to put my head down in the water and trust, trust, trust that the hard work would be worth it. My muscles shivered. I was tired. Could I do it?

Yet throughout the year, he would tell us over and over again, “Put your money in the bank!!” And when we did something great, he’d jump up and down and shout excitedly, “THAT’S the money in the bank!” I would return to the wall, trying again, reaching, stretching, hands seeking something invisible and unknown, wondering if any of my work would add up, doubtful that the painstaking days of testing would measure up to something worthwhile. But I trusted. I continued.

And then when the collection time came, when all other fanfare was stripped away and we were faced, naked, with the clock and a crowd and our bodies, when the end-of-the-year championship performance would arrive as it inevitably did each year, we’d see what we were capable of. How we did. What our cumulative actions amounted to. Whether or not we’d been working hard and building up assets. We would cash in.

And somehow, in the four-year tenure of my time there, somehow they transformed an awkward, inexperienced, shy teenage swimmer from the slowest lane into a chiseled, daunting, All-American swimmer–this person I still don’t fully recognize today, despite years gone by. A trophy on the wall: this is the evidence that I marvel at as a reminder that yes, it can happen. It can happen to me. I can make it happen.

You can make it happen.

It happens. 

So many people give up mid-way; drop steam, or set anchor long before their hard work has time to marinate and develop, missing the beauty of the intricate shorelines, of the tidal pools washing in and out over a rocky surface, building life slowly over time. We get lost in the dreary, in the tired, in the details, and we haven’t had the chance to get to the other side and know what it’s like to see a project finish. Many things worth working on take lots of time–sometimes years.

Don’t give up. 

Projects underway.

Aside from writing as a hobby — this strange craving and insatiable need I have to write, all the time, every day, deliriously addicted to capturing my thoughts in chicken scratch whenever I can — and which I do, here on this website and also on my observations collection — I actually spend the majority of my time working both as a landscape architect as well as an editor for a publication about the emerging profession and theoretical ideas of landscape urbanism.

Each of these projects and career work is something I’ve worked on for years. These aren’t singular efforts or rapid bursts mere months in the making.  A collection of essays happens slowly, patiently, tirelessly over time; a book takes diligence, endurance, and dedication; a singular building or landscape can take a lifetime of work. There are digital hard drives filled with millions of crappy essays, each discarded and moved along in search of better work, each thought building slowly into bigger ideas.

This is just the beginning.

When I start, I make small goals — very small goals, sometimes, and then when I manage to stick to the plans, when I get out of my own way, I stop and I take a look around and check in to be sure that I’m building something worth building. And when these small pieces add up in sequence, I am exceptionally, extraordinarily grateful.

When a post hits the web that I’ve been working on for several months; when a book launches that I’ve written a year ago; when a design goes public; when I see the results of my hard work in the form of a person sitting on a bench (my bench! I designed that! I put that there! I think gleefully, someone else’s happiness enough to make me skip through the day and smile at dozens of strangers)– it’s not the day of the launch that I’m celebrating. It’s the years of work that I’m celebrating. It’s remembering that we need to do things that matter. It’s the designers and editors and teams and people involved in all of this goodness. It’s the beauty of intricate collaboration, of idea exchange, of working towards things that are meaningful, of setting out and accomplishing great work. It’s that sigh, that feeling – we did it.

Things that are worth doing take time.

And I look back at my imaginary self from six months ago, stuck behind a desk, working tirelessly, writing late into the evenings, patient phone calls and iterative emails in piles, stacks of books wiping themselves into my brain through constant reading, staring deep into the throes of a coffee cup in one hand and a wine glass in the other hand. I want to go back in time, touch the hand of the girl who’s working so hard, and say to myself —

Thank you.

Thank you for your hard work, for believing in yourself, for making your dreams come true, slowly.

Thank you for the hard nights, for those less-than-glamorous-moments, for believing in the outcome even when you didn’t know if you would get there. For doing it anyways.

These moments are rare: when I do things that meet my own expectations, and for a brief moment, I am grateful. I honor the hard work.

Make it happen.

Because it’s not just about cashing in. It’s not about epitomizing a singular feeling or moment or day. It’s about the multitudes of moments. One moment in time, a representation of the thousand moments that came before that: it’s about the hard work. It’s about the good work. It’s about the process. It’s about making what you want to have happen, happen. You have all the time in the world; you have all the time of today.

And so, already, today I’m back, back to the desk, working on creation and production and things that are better, raising the bar again and demanding more challenging things. I’m working on the things for six months from now, for twelve months from now, for the books I want to publish, for the drawings I want to produce, for things no one will see yet and that might not work out, but I’m trying them anyways. Next year, when I publish one of my books, you’ll know that somewhere behind the blogger, behind the published articles, behind the silly blog and the facebook statuses and the collection of tweeted conversations, those microcosms and moments in a day–is a person who’s sitting at home in the evenings, writing from coffee shops in the morning, who is running breathlessly through the mornings, chasing after dreams, putting the small bits together, day by day, to make it happen. And you?

You need to make it happen. 

But for a moment … today, I smile, I breathe, I believe in it. Remember, it’s worth it.

The hard work is worth it.

Do something. Make something. Build something. Build something worth building.

We’re waiting for you.

17 Responses to Is The Hard Work Worth It?

  1. Amy says:

    You write so beautifully, Sarah. I just want to drink up your words and swim in them!

    As a personal trainer, I often find this to be the case, especially with all the media around Biggest Loser-type TV shows and quick weight loss solutions.

    I began training a woman about 8 months ago that told me she wanted to lose 50 lbs. Today, I received this text: “Today it’s official – 40 lbs! Woo hoo!”

    Things that are worth doing take time. If we had given her a die-hard program and starved her in her nutrition plan, she could have definitely lost the weight faster, but a lot of it would have been her muscle, she would have been hungry all the time, and she would be miserable… especially when the weight inevitably would come back on after giving up the unmaintainable program. She is now stronger than ever, inside and out, and her lifestyle has completely and permanently changed. And we’re still going strong!

    It’s so important to trust that the work you’re putting in will lead to the result you’re after, and there’s a certain point where you just have to let go and let it happen for you.

    Great post, Sarah. Looking forward to reading much more here!

    • Sarah says:

      Amy – Thank you so much for the beautiful notes! I’m so glad that this inspired. I agree, completely. Things that are worth doing take time – and it’s a lesson I have to remind myself of over and over again. Congrats to your trainee and your hard work — forty pounds! That’s impressive! She should be incredibly proud of her sustained hard work. It’s not an accident that these things happen. Congrats!

  2. A resounding “yes” to all of this, Sarah. What’s so compelling about you (well, at least other than the fact that men want to marry you at first glance while wearing yoga pants and no makeup – you said it, not me), is that you’re doing so much, while not spreading yourself thin.

    I think focusing in on one thing, too strongly, can be the wrong way to look at things. It’s a catch 22 because while I see multi-tasking as heavily overrated and talk all the time about the power of focus, by allowing yourself to experiment and try new things, you grow exponentially as an individual.

    From training for a marathon, swimming to Alcatraz, starting Landscape Urbanism, writing here, and holding down a full time job (to name a few), you’re proving that, if you’re willing to do the work, to hustle, to fail AND succeed, great things will happen along the way, and without a doubt, the hard work IS paying off.

    Cheers to the continued and ongoing hustle!

    • Sarah says:

      HAHAHA! Thanks for posting that … I mean … so, if we can FOCUS, as you said — yes, I completely agree. And I’m so glad that you liked it, and that I met you! Thanks for your kudos, kindness, and cheer. I sometimes feel like I fail far too often, but then there’s a glimmer of success and I’m happy I persevered. Can’t wait to see what YOU do next and all of the hard work you’ve been up to – it’s so much fun to watch.

  3. Srinivas says:


    Your writing continually just gets better and better. Every time you don’t post for a few days I experience withdrawal :). I love what you wrote about the buildings in San Francisco that you helped to make. I know what you mean about pieces of a puzzle fitting together. Everything I write these days seems that way because when I first write it it makes no sense. Then I find myself putting things together that I wrote over the last couple days into a final idea. Over the last few weeks I’ve seen the seeds of things I planted over two years ago come to fruition.

    I had no idea you were an All American swimmer. We’re gonna have to surf when I make it up there. It’s funny because you’re naturally athletic and evolved. I’m not genetically pre-disposed for anything athletic (just a scrawny Indian kid), who somehow learned to surf through brute force. Your story reminds me of my attempt to master the waves in Costa Rica. The first month I actually felt like I had become worse because the waves were so different. They were faster and steeper. But by the end of 6 months I went back to the place I had started surfing and was surprised by my own abilities.

    You’re definitely not chasing ordinary ;)

    • Sarah says:

      Srini, we DEFINITELY have to go surfing! And sorry I don’t post more frequently! I made a conscious choice to try to maintain excellence (and post less frequently) than try to post all the time just for having something to say. This time I had to wait a while; I’ve been mulling over so many ideas and it’s sometimes slow going for them to manifest into legible ideas on paper.

      I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, completely, about puzzle pieces fitting together!! I can’t wait to see what you’re working on and all of the excitement, changes and projects coming to fruition with your business and writing — good luck!!

  4. Caroline says:

    Thank you! I really needed to read this today :)

  5. Naomi Niles says:

    I don’t have any words to say that will do this justice. So, I’ll just say…thank you.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you for stopping by, Naomi! I’m so elated that you enjoyed it. :) Keep up your hard work and tenacity, wherever you are … it will grow into something amazing. :)

  6. Dan says:

    Like always Sarah, a really good post! The quote I like the best is “things that are worth doing take time.” I think about where I’m at, and what I want to accomplish, and know that with some hard work and patience it will all pay off in the end. Thanks yet again for your jaw dropping inspiration!

  7. Adam says:

    Sarah, I’m so grateful to have found your blog and especially this post. I’ve had several “moments” over the past year when, seemingly all at once, I could appreciate the long hours of hard work and the process of creating and building as a designer and project architect. Other times, and more recently, I’m “staring deep into the throes of a coffee cup in one hand and a wine glass in the other hand”! It’s refreshing and inspiring to read your writing and remind myself that the lines on paper and the computer screen actually mean something; that the meetings, phone calls, and submittals are necessary steps along a sometimes twisting and winding path. You’ve given me a much-needed perspective to stay focused and be patient, despite the inevitable hurdles, late nights, and uncertainty along the way.

    Here’s to the journey! Thank you.

  8. chase says:

    you write good!

  9. Mary Tanner says:

    OMG This is the best post I have ever read. You are SO talented with your words. I am a follower!

  10. […] The hard work is worth it. […]

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