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Desirable Difficulty

When a student attends class, the teacher tries to teach. They try to prompt and support them to reach the answer. Different students have to struggle a different amount and need different amounts of time to perfect something. Our academic cycles mean that we are unwilling to afford them the time that they need to figure things out. When you struggle and figure something out, you learn.

American psychologist Martin Seligman experimented as a part of his research into depression in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania. He put two dogs in two separate cages. He then passed an electric current through the cages, enough to cause discomfort to the dogs. Each cage had a lever that the dog could press. In the first cage, upon pressing the lever the electric current would stop. In the second cage, the lever did not affect the current. While the dog in the first cage quickly learnt to press the lever and put itself out of discomfort; the second dog after many attempts stopped even trying.

The dogs were later switching between the cages. The first dog which had been able to stop the electricity tried to act to stop it, the second dog just lay on the ground whimpering. The second dog had Learned Helplessness.

It had learned that nothing was going to be in its control and nothing it could do would change its destiny.

When you take up something challenging or difficult, succeeding by yourself is critical. If you do not succeed at all you learn helplessness. At the same time, if you do not feel it was a challenge at all you do not retain anything.

What did you learn?

How many of you remember how to cycle? Is there anyone who did not fall while learning to cycle? Learning to balance has a certain amount of difficulty built into it. Every person who has learnt to cycle would have had to learn it the hard way. This difficulty in learning is desirable. It leaves you with a sense of accomplishment as well as a memory of it which is far more deeply ingrained.

Also, why most motor skill-based activities that people learn, like playing the piano or a guitar is never lost. Nobody can make it easier for you. There is no shortcut.

How many of you still remember how to solve a calculus problem? Most are often helped through rote learning formulas or even entire methods. There is little that is learnt and even less retained.

Difficulty is essential for learning and without challenge nothing is often learnt.

This is true whether it is a course that you are working on or whether it is a business that you are trying to build. Most of the successful entrepreneurs that I know are those who have spent time with their customers, no matter how hard or challenging.

A story comes to mind. Sumant Moolgaonkar is a Padma Bhushan who played a role in two of India’s most well-known automobile companies – Tata Motors and Maruti Suzuki. While at Tata Motors, he would disappear during lunch at times and return quite late to work. Rumour had it that he was having lunch with some of the affluent dealers of Tata Motors. One day other executives decided to follow him to see where he went and found that he would drive up to a Dhaba (highway restaurant) to sit with the truck drivers and learn more about what they thought of their trucks. Trucks that were often produced by Tata Motors.

Even today I find entrepreneurs who are unwilling to go that extra bit to get time with their customers and seek validation and feedback.

There is a certain degree of difficulty that is important in life. That difficulty is a necessary ingredient to learning as well as to success. Overcoming it teaches you a lot more than anything else and has the power to transform you.

Also, remember – Most challenges in life CAN be overcome.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anil Kumar Siddu

    Overcoming difficulties do teach a lot to everyone whether be while learning to cycle or any motor skills. How does that impact the business acumen??

  2. Nalin Vyas

    These points are so simple yet insightful Vivek. It is good to introspect and revive one’s curiosity.

    “The second dog had Learned Helplessness.
    It had learned that nothing was going to be in its control and nothing it could do would change its destiny.”

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