Why Struggling is Key

Recently, I listened to an interview on the radio with a Psychology Professor named Jim Stigler at UCLA. He was talking about how he'd watched anxiously as a fourth grader in a Japanese math classroom struggled at the front of the class to solve a problem.

Maybe you didn't know this, but I used to be a high school chemistry teacher.  So although I don't teach high school any longer, I'm still keenly interested in pedagogy (the study of teaching), and my ears always perk up when I hear things that relate to teaching, mental training, and that sort of thing, as I think those topics are applicable to agility.

Anyway, this guy was talking about how the teacher had called on a student who obviously DIDN'T know the answer to the problem at hand.  Now, as a teacher, I always tried to choose a student who I was pretty sure knew the answer 🙂 But in this case, the student didn't know the answer, and was up at the front of the room for a LONG time, getting the problem WRONG, over and over again. Finally, they solved the problem, and the class applauded.

I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you're just not very smart. It's a sign of low ability — people who are smart don't struggle, they just naturally get it, that's our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.

To make a long story short, the point of the article was really that in the mind of this Professor, and according to his research, it seems that Eastern cultures have really promoted the idea that intellectual struggle is a GOOD thing, that the process of struggling intellectually is what MAKES you intellectually strong.  He contrasts that to the prevailing notion in Western cultures, that intellectual ability is something innate, something you either have or don't have.

That really resonated with me.

What if we were to change our thinking about ‘struggle' in other facets of our lives? This goes right along with all of my mental training for agility – the idea that it's the PROCESS that's the important thing, rather than the outcome.  That the outcome really is a product OF the process.

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it's just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

It got me thinking – in my day to day life, do I view struggle as a sign of weakness? Or, do I view struggle as a challenge, as an opportunity for growth? In my day to day interactions with my dogs, how to I react when I bump up against something I don't know, don't understand, or struggle with?

Think about this, the next time YOU bump up against a training challenge.

If your ‘training chops' are a muscle, if your intellectual ability is a muscle, and if muscles are made strong by exercise, by working through resistance, then think of your training challenges as that resistance that will make you stronger.

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you're less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you're more willing to accept it.

Rather than getting frustrated, or disappointed, think of anything that you view as a struggle as an opportunity to become more fluent through the process of persistance, not giving up, trying and trying again and trying differently until you SOLVE your training, trialling, or mental game challenge.

If you're interested in reading to or listening to the article that caught my attention, check it out here: Struggle for Smarts

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