Albert Einstein said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, I just stay with problems longer.” And surely, without his perseverance, our world would be without the remarkable advances he made for the world in which we live. Einstein aside, our culture is full of inspirational speeches, stories and quotes about the people who didn’t give up when the going got tough. These people struggled and pushed forward and triumphed in the face of adversity. These are the people who go down in history. The ones we remember.
Right now especially, it seems, we are being asked to buckle down and persevere through a substantial amount of change and challenge. The current unrest and uncertainty have asked us to add more struggle to what already feels like a full plate. And so we do. We do what we have to to get through it. But regardless of whether or not these struggles we face are born from necessity, we have learned that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And so we plod on.
If you look at the science, it also supports embracing struggle for extended periods to thrive. Angela Duckworth, the leading expert on Grit, defines it as “holding steadfast to a goal through time.” Her research has proven that having Grit is highly predictive of success, much more so than someone’s IQ or level of natural talent.
Anders Erikson suggests that to master something, it takes focused practice over a sustained amount of time. He coined this term “deliberate” practice,” or leaning into a challenge with every ounce of your mental and physical capacity. In other words, he suggests intentionally creating struggle for yourself as you embark on the task.
And of course, there is the well-known concept that persevering through difficulty actually ignites learning and growth of skills. Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset has illustrated that people who view challenges as an opportunity to learn fare better, in the long run, those who hold fixed or limiting self-beliefs as they begin new tasks.
The truth is that the brain is a muscle. To strengthen it, you should be outside of your comfort zone. Things should be a bit of a struggle. It’s meant to be slightly uncomfortable. It would be the same way with exercising your body. To see results, you have to be willing to challenge your muscles. Not too much, or you’ll want to quit due to exasperation. So just enough to feel the burn.
Yet, in a world of constant distraction, working with laser focus on a task while holding steadfast to goal with an open mind over time isn’t easy. It can even be harmful in certain instances. And many of the concepts that these researchers have put forth have also been refuted.
And in no small degree, these ideas about struggling and working through adversity have caused a tremendous burnout in our society. Although the current collective condition is asking us to endure more struggle at the outset, the culture of grinding away incessantly without pausing to reflect belongs to a crumbling paradigm. If there is anything we can learn from the state of the world, it’s that we have been doing up until now could use some significant re-evaluation. Deep down, we know this is true.
It seems as though the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, the vast body of research proves that keeping an open mind while embracing struggle and will make all the difference in achieving a goal. Yet the science seems incomplete without adding mindfulness to the battle.
And so as you embark on the challenges you face, it’s crucial to check in with yourself on a fundamental level consistently. Ask yourself if the tasks you are doing continue to align with Why you chose to do them in the first place. And take time to regularly question whether your endeavours are adding to the ways you genuinely want to evolve and grow as a person. If not, find a way to shift your path. You only get one chance at this life. And sustained struggle is hard. But if it supports helping you evolve into the person you were truly meant to be, it’s worth it. In fact, this type of struggle will be one of the most rewarding this you can do in this lifetime. So choose wisely.