Embracing the Struggle

The topic of struggle and failure is one that’s been a constant on my mind the last few weeks. It first stemmed from a podcast which I’ll link here, and now has appeared in a few books I’ve been reading over the last few weeks, specifically Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers by Jo Boaler. Jo is a professor at Stanford and her book, she shares that there are a few keys for growth that will help you become “unlocked”; two of which I will share more in depth below.

The first key is embracing struggling and failure is a necessary tool for our growth.

Here’s some science for you – “Our brains function through an interconnected web of nerve fibers (including neurons), and myelin is a form of insulation that wraps around fibers and increases their signal strength, speed, and accuracy.”

What does this mean? It means that when we do things out of habit like folding a shirt, or turning on a lightswitch, myelin has coated those pathways that have already been created in the brain for the task. They are easy tasks because the brain has insulated this decision and we have done it so many times, the pathway is ingrained in our brain and becomes “more fluid and efficient in the future” every time we do it. This also means that when we do something new, the insulation has yet to be created for the task.

Here’s an example. As I write this, I’m in the month of no social media, specifically Instagram. One way I remove that temptation from my day is to delete the app from my phone. What’s funny is that while I don’t have the app, my fingers still remember that motion of swiping on my phone to the screen on the right and then clicking where the app is normally located. While I changed my decision on how to spend my time, my fingers and therefore my brain still think that when I’m bored I should follow that neural pathway that’s been created and insulated in order to open the Instagram app.

So what does this mean for my brain growth? How does it relate to struggle and failure? It means we must enter into new habits and new opportunities to struggle in order to grow. Jo shares, “For students to experience growth, they need to be working on questions that challenge them and questions that are on the edge of their understanding. And they need to be working on them in an environment that encourages mistakes and makes students aware of the benefits of mistakes. This point is critical.”

So not only do we need to create new pathways, but we need to be working on things that challenge us and are just on the edge of what we already understand. These types of opportunities are called “desirable difficulties”. Things that are just outside of what’s comfortable, but not so far outside that they cannot be achieved. In order to grow our brains (and its pathways) we need to enter into places that will look like struggle, mistakes, and failure but ultimately becomes places of learning, growth, and confidence. And to do it often enough that we continue to be stretched and that our brains continue to get coated in myelin.

The second key of becoming “unlocked” is that we need to be in an environment that not only accepts mistakes, but encourages them.

Some of you may think this is a crazy idea – to foster an environment where mistakes are not only accepted, but embraced. I get that it sounds crazy but hang with me. Think back to high school math class. Maybe that class where you’re learning about sine, cosine, and tangent, or maybe the one where you start learning about linear functions. How did the class normally go? I don’t know about you, but mine went something like this: Teacher shares concept. Teacher lectures through steps on blackboard or whiteboard on various steps. You write them down. Teacher does a few and then you do them on you own.

Did you understand how to do them when it was “your turn”. I can tell you I didn’t. I remember a few times thinking “how did I think I understood this when they did it, but not that I’m on my own I can’t remember a lick of what I’m supposed to do?” So I would struggle at my desk and when the teacher took notice, he or she would come over and help, laying out the next steps for me.

“Many times I have observed students asking for help and teachers structuring the work for students, breaking down questions and converting them into small easy steps. In doing so, they empty the work of challenge and opportunities for struggle. Students complete the work and feel good, but often learn little”

We’ve been there. When a teacher, or a coach, or mentor, or even your parent goes with you every steps of the way and then you’re out on your own and you’re thinking “I’m not ready for this!”. These teachers, coaches, and mentors wanted to help us so when they see us struggle, they come in to save the day. They wanted to support us and be there for us and provide us an opportunity to avoid struggle and failure. But in the effort, we didn’t learn or fully understand.

What looks like help is actually the opposite. Jo says, “…It seems that more and more evidence is revealing the value of mistakes and struggle. Good teachers have known this intuitively and impressed upon learning that mistakes are really good opportunities for learning. Unfortunately I have found that this message is not strong enough to keep students from feeling bad when they make mistakes – often because of the performance culture in which many good teachers work.”

So not only do we need to embrace struggle and failure as a tool for growth, but we need to create environments where this is encouraged in order to become unlocked. This means the cultures of our businesses, of our classrooms, of our friendships, and our homes. We need to avoid swooping in and “helping” when instead, we need to let someone struggle. We need to “worry about ourselves” as our little ones are trying to get buckled in their car seats. We need to patiently wait when our students are working through a tough math problem, and we need to avoid the temptation to swoop in and make a suggestion when our employees are working on what to do next when faced with a hard decision. We need to cultivate an environment wherever we are that says “we embrace failure here and we are so excited to to see your brain grow in the process”. We need to shed the mindset that we are perfect, that our kids are perfect, or that mistakes don’t happen. We need to get honest with ourselves and others and acknowledge this statement: To fail is to learn. And to learn is to grow.