Struggle If You Want to Learn

The impetus for this post comes from a short talk I gave at our school’s Advanced Placement Kickoff Event.  As I was thinking what I could say to these students sitting before me, a thought came to mind.


We ask students to struggle, challenge themselves, keep going, and accept that what they are doing is going to help them.  I’m sure the students understand that these classes will help them prepare for life after high school, but do they truly understand the reason they must struggle as part of the process? Many adults have trouble with this concept. This is where I could have spoken to them about productive struggle and possibly Zygotski’s Zone of Proximal Development, but on this day, they did not need to hear any more educational speak. So instead I told them something I believe to be true in all facets of life in words that I typically use.

Greatness doesn’t come in one fell swoop, but in the accumulation of pushing through many small struggles. You do not wake up one morning and realize that you have become great.

Wishing doesn’t do it. Dreaming doesn’t do it.  Greatness only comes through adversity and it often doesn’t have to do with talent or as some call it; luck.  It has to do with tenacity and an unwavering desire to overcome any obstacle in your path.  It doesn’t have to be loud or boastful. Many people who have achieved it have done so in the quiet, consistent effort they put forth every day.


This doesn’t just go for students. It pertains to all of us no matter the goal we are pursuing. I discuss this with my son often as we go to different practices or when he is struggling with something he doesn’t particularly feel like doing. I explain that while he doesn’t notice each small improvement, he has to train his mind to understand that hardship, failure, and struggle make him better as long as he keeps going. This found success in a practical way at a recent wrestling practice where he was beat down as the team was repeatedly sprinting with bear crawls, rolls, jumping lunges, etc. added in to the mix.  The coach looked at him as they returned from a repetition and asked him how he felt.  Red faced, out of breath, and dragging, he replied; “I died two minutes ago. Let’s get going and finish.” as he walked back to the line and got ready to go again.

A recent study came out that addressed the idea of productive struggle in academics. It found that students who pushed themselves and struggled with difficult courses in high school had a much higher rate of perseverance than those students who did not struggle with their course load.  The reason is simplified by saying that the more an individual deals with challenges, the more they are able to internalize strategies to overcome obstacles.  Another study explained it pertaining to academics by explaining that when you experience a difficult learning experience, it has a greater impact on your memory. That may not seem like good news to those of us hoping to find an easy path to learning or doing something new, but it does reinforce an understanding.struggle2Learning takes work, often hard work that is fraught with mistakes and failure. It is when we look for the easy road or don’t reflect on our shortcomings that we do not find success. So the question becomes about our willingness as teachers, parents, and students to accept that we need to face difficulty instead of having someone else solve our problems.  In fact, we need to face this in every facet of our lives. We must take responsibility for solving our own problems and the only way we can learn to do that is by struggling with obstacles, frustrations, and failures.  The only way we truly learn, in the end, is through productive struggle.

Calvin Coolidge once said; “No person has ever been honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.” We all need to take this a step further and understand that no one can be given greatness.

What problem are you currently struggling with that you wish someone would solve for you? How much would your life or you improve if you pushed through and took care of it yourself? Now…no matter what walk of life, issue, or obstacle…put the time in and Go Be Great!

When you think you have accomplished that…make those around you great!



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