Struggles: An Opportunity for Growth

Anu Bhatia 11th Sep 22


Charles Wagner and Professor S: “A revered speaker whom Theodore Roosevelt once invited to the White House, Charles Wagner began as a poor French preacher shunned by the orthodox sect of his church. In his best-known book, “The Simple Life,” he insisted that we control our own emotional fulfillment as much as external circumstances do.


My professor at George Mason University liked to walk into the lecture room roughly 10 minutes early when she would engage in light conversations, while students streamed in. During one of these conversations, she happily shared her childhood memories of fun-packed vacations with her parents who would take their kids on camping trips. Living in tents under the canopy of a star-studded sky was much more affordable than staying in lodges or hotels, she happily explained, and kept cracking up while recalling instances like having to push the car that broke down on a gravel road as they tried to reach the campsite. Her cracking-up reverberates Wagner’s message- Struggles don’t always torpedo fun and sometimes can be even part of the fun as kids push, laugh, and giggle if the car won’t move an inch, despite the 8 little hands pushing with all their “might”! The example elucidates that struggles don’t always mean deprivation, or to put it in another way, luxuries aren’t pre-requisite for fun. And that kids can still have fun, despite “mediocrity” and its corollaries. Kids engaged in constructive struggles, solving problems, finding solutions, and exploring options are happy kids.


Grit and Perseverance through Problem-solving:


When kids participate in finding solutions to ‘real world tasks,’ they feel a sense of personal agency in bringing about a change in the environment and this sense of autonomy keeps them engaged & motivated. Going back to Wagner’s thought ‘we control our own emotional fulfilment as much as external factors do’, the question that emerges is, ‘what is this mindset that can put a spin on a “troublesome” situation and “cultivate” joy despite the struggle?’ What’s meant by “control our own emotional fulfillment as much as external factors?”


Let me change gears here and explore the theory of motivation before I make my point. There’s mounting evidence that suggests linking performance to effort instead of “intelligence” or ability is conducive to kids’ motivation. Shedding further light on the subject, the Locus of Control theory concerns the degree to which people make internal versus external attributions for their achievements. People with external LOC attribute causality for the events that occur to them to external forces that are beyond the realm of their control, like ability, luck, and so forth. Conversely, people with internal LOC are inclined to attribute causality to the self and believe they have influence over their circumstances (Lefcourt, 2014, Rotter, 1966). To put it simply, Effort is something people believe to have control over (compared to intelligence or ability that is generally considered to have been “gifted” from somewhere). Obviously, when one considers a situation within one’s control (through the application of ‘effort’), s/he will take charge and work to address it (in lieu of someone who considers an external “something” responsible/controlling it). In the following paragraphs I will explore how Eastern and Western cultures respond to struggle when it is concerned with kids’ learning and development.


Struggle: How We Perceive It?


In 1979, Jim, a young graduate student at the university of Michigan went to Japan to research teaching methods. Sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade Math class, he noticed a kid having problem with drawing a three-dimensional cube. To his astonishment, the teacher asked that struggling kid to draw the cube on the board, leaving Jim wondering why would she pick someone who was unable to draw? On the contrary, in American classrooms, it’s generally the best performers that are invited to put it on the board. Now after every few minutes, the teacher would ask the class if the kid was drawing right and the class would look up and shake their heads from side to side meaning ‘no’. To Jim’s surprise, the kid continued to attempt drawing a three-dimensional cube with equanimity and finally got it right! The teacher turned to the class and asked, “how does it look like?” The class applauded and kid went back to his seat feeling jubilant. Clearly, it became evident to the kid that the tool to achieve success was within himself, in his control: effort (and not any “gifted from somewhere” ability).


While the above example elucidates the approach to intellectual struggle, I think the same applies to other kinds of (constructive) struggles, like a bit of discomfort, and the like. Ancient teachings of Confucius echo a similar idea, “To rank the effort above the prize may be called love.”


Eastern vs Western Approach to Struggle:


Sometimes we feel an urge to “clear the path” that our kids will tread upon but little do we realize the lessons the “problem-laden” path can provide. To begin with, constructive struggles provide kids with problem solving skills, emotional development, and perseverance and grit to face challenges when they step into the real world. Jim, who is now a professor at UCLA and studies teaching and learning around the world, fell to thinking about how differently the West views the approach to struggles compared to what he witnessed in the fourth-grade Math class in Japan. While in Asian cultures they are inclined to view struggles as an opportunity, in the West they see struggle to be indicative of low ability etc.




For millions of years, to humans, nagging uncertainty meant danger, increased stress levels, explaining why stability and the comfort inherent in it are so important to humans. But to always stay snug, cocooned in luxuries and abundance hinders the development of coping strategies, perseverance. Too much stability has been scientifically linked to a lack of growth & learning in our lives. As the old adage goes, “Old ways won’t open new doors.” Staying in your comfort zone can restrict you, keep your emotional bandwidth from expanding & cutting you off from new experiences or from taking a leap toward what you really want.



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