Struggle Means Learning, Challenge Means Fun

tarotastic / Foter / “Lion Taming for Beginners 101” CC BY-NC

I read a really interesting post from KQED’s Mindshift blog this week about the value of struggle as a learning experience. It describes the differences observed by UCLA psychology professor Jim Stigler between the value of struggle in Eastern and Western cultures, and what surprised me was this—he said:

“‘I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,’ Stigler says. ‘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.’

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.”

The article makes it clear that there are plenty of exceptions to this East/West difference—it’s not all black and white. But I love this idea of struggle as opportunity, and as a way to show that you “have what it takes”. As you may remember back in my blog post about Learnability vs. Intuition, especially as it relates to web design and use of web tools, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of persistence. None of us wants things to be onerous, and it’s true that when they’re TOO hard we might just give up. I’ve been there. However, when presented with a challenge just above what we think we can achieve, we feel pretty great having achieved it. And isn’t that what learning is about? Stretching, growing, learning how to do something you couldn’t do before? Whether it’s true or not, I think back to half-remembered science lessons of my youth: that the “wrinkles” in your brain are produced when you learn things—that the effort, or struggle, to learn creates a physical difference in your brain. It seemed to me that was an actual manifestation of learning to me.

This also got me thinking about the fun that challenges, and even struggle, present. I know I don’t often think of “struggle” or “challenge” and “fun” in the same sentence, but when you really think about it, they can absolutely go hand in hand. What’s actually fun doesn’t always look like fun. I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project and she talks about the Three Levels of Fun. She claims that the “most rewarding”, but also most demanding, level of fun is “Challenging Fun”. I think we’ve all experienced this on some level. Maybe you learned to play a new game or sport, and the learning and mastery of that game, while difficult, turned out to be rather fun. Or maybe you learned to draw, dance, or play an instrument—all of which require a fair amount of effort, but can be seriously rewarding. Or, heck, you learned to code in CSS and HTML and therefore customize your blog! Seeing those changes appear, in color, font, or layout—and knowing you made them happen—can be extremely gratifying and fun.

I think there’s something profound to be gained by thinking about how encouragement of struggle and persistence can be woven into the fabric of our workplaces, online spaces, and institutions of learning. I’m not sure we give each other enough credit for our capacity to meet the challenge of learning, and that it can actually be, well, fun.