I recently heard about a man called Jim. This man called Jim (last name Stigler) is currently a professor at UCLA in the States – psychology is his thing apparently.
He’s very interested in (and has been for a very long time) the differences between the attitudes we have around learning here in the Western world, compared with those from Eastern cultures. In fact, in 1979 (that’s ages ago) he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded math class filled with 9 and 10 year olds.
“The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So right there I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’ “
Stigler knew that if this were a typical school in a western culture, with a typical teacher – they would usually ask the best kid in the class to come draw on the board. And so, he was curious to see what would happen next. The young Japanese student came to the board and started drawing, but still wasn’t completing the cube correctly. Every few minutes or so the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the child had it right, the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. As this continued, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.
“I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” he says, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ “
But the kid didn’t break into tears. Stigler says the child continued drawing, over and over again until at the end of the class he’d finally done it right! The teacher asked the rest of the students what they thought, and they all looked up, said ‘He did it!’ and applauded. The young boy sat down with a smile on his face, clearly proud of himself.
So many of us are scared to try new things because we’re afraid to fail; and the reason we’re afraid to fail is because we’ve been taught our whole lives that getting something right straight away is better than struggling to get it right eventually. We’ve been taught that finding something easy is better than finding something difficult at first. The end result is that we see struggling to learn, fighting to grasp a concept, wrestling to understand as a bad thing; so when we experience those things what do we do? We quit – because our paradigm is: “If I can’t do this as easily as that person, if this is hard for me – clearly I’m not meant to be doing it.”
There is huge reward in struggling to learn, huge reward in finally mastering something that we previously couldn’t do. We need to learn to embrace the struggle, to embrace the challenge. So, next time you find yourself thinking: “I can’t do this – it’s too hard.” remember the little Japanese boy with his cube and keep going!