The other day as I was getting ready for work, I put on NPR programming as I usually do and was captivated by this short segment titled, “Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning.” The segment wasn’t your stereotypical rendition of why Asians are generally smarter than Americans. It instead looked at the nature of struggle in learning and how it is perceived in each culture. Eastern cultures see struggle as an opportunity to grow, while Americans see struggle as a sign of incompetency. When someone is successful in an Eastern culture, they attribute it to their hard work and dedication. In America, we assume that a person’s accomplishments are just a reflection of our intrinsic abilities.
The NPR segment told the story of a graduate student who went to Japan to do some research on classroom teaching methods. In one particular fourth-grade math class he visited, one student was struggling to draw a cube. So, the teacher invited him up to the board to draw it in front of his peers — a place, the segment notes, that is typically reserved for the exemplary students in class. The student tried, and tried and tried again to draw his cube, and with every failure, the class just shook their heads no, until he finally got it right. Amazingly, the student was overjoyed — not beaten down or humiliated — to have overcome his struggle and finally achieve what he set out to do.
This story got me thinking about a lot of things, but in particular about the difference between a challenge and a struggle. In the work place, I always hear about what a “great challenge” something was, and how “we all like to be challenged,” “overcome challenges,” etc. To me, a challenge is an obstacle — something that came at someone unexpectedly, but they had the experience and/or knowledge to deal with it. A challenge could be doing more work in a shorter amount of time, giving a public speech when you never thought you were ready or any other activity that you’re equipped to handle but may not be fully confident in your abilities – yet.
A struggle, on the other hand, is grasping for that next level that’s just out of your reach so that you have to build your own stepping stones to get there. You don’t have these tools in your toolbox, and you’re not sure if/how you’ll ever get them.
So how does this relate to yoga, you ask? Well, I think of hitting the gym as a challenge, and yoga as the struggle. When you go to the gym and lift weights or run on the treadmill — even if it is more weight than you’ve ever lifted, or longer/faster than you’ve ever run — you’ve still been preparing yourself to make that incremental increase since you’ve been running and lifting. Yoga, on the other hand, is a practice usually guided by someone else who directs you into poses that may make you uncomfortable and that you’ve never had experience contorting your body that way before. On top of that, you are struggling to stay physically and mentally balanced. You are building mental and physical stepping stones for yourself to reach these poses and a greater sense of self awareness.
I think one can argue that yoga still helps you inadvertently build to a pose you’ve never tried before, but in yoga I really do feel like I’m struggling and grasping blindly for the next step, as the student aimlessly drawing the cube.
What are your thoughts on the value of struggle? Do you see it as different from challenge as I do? Can we benefit from struggling more at work or in school?