The sun shines not on us but in us. - John Muir
A childhood friend and I were talking about the learning challenges we faced in elementary school. I, for one, was never great at math. It was an annoying stumbling block in elementary and high school, and I remember worry incessantly about not getting into university because of my grades. I even dropped an elective to take it a second time, hoping the averaging of both grades would bump me into the B- or (if I was lucky) B category. It didn't help that my grade 7 English teacher told me I wouldn't be more than a B student in the subject anyway. Some people need a lesson on how to deliver bad news lightly.
I felt frustrated by this learning challenge, and somewhat inadequate because I just couldn't ever really get it. I was OK at memorizing formulas for tests, and chemistry started to make sense if I studied hard enough, but by the time I started Physics in grade 11 I realized math related subjects just weren't for me.
What was I doing taking chemistry, physics, and math anyway, when I wasn't even good at it? Well, for one thing, I was told I needed to keep trying at it because that's what you do. Persistence is key! For better or worse, many of us are raised to believe that overcoming our learning challenges is one of the major keys to success.
As William Edward Hickson made famous the proverb:
"Tis a lesson you should heed:
Try, try, try again.
If at first you don't succeed,
Try, try, try again."
While I feel there is no harm in defining success as overcoming our challenges, I do find it harmful when we persistently focus on our challenges and become stressed when we can't seem to overcome them. Sometimes, after hitting our heads against a brick wall for the hundredth time, is it not better to acknowledge that we can't overcome every learning challenge we face, and instead, start to focus more on our strengths?
In the article "What Teens Learn by Overcoming Challenges," on Psychology Today's website, Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell writes that when teens overcome obstacles, they learn initiative, "the ability to propel life forward in purposeful directions." My own reflections teach me that overcoming some challenges has been a great opportunity for learning and self-growth. Others, not so much.
Take for example my experience in graduate school. I finished my Masters degree and overcame the challenge of completing my research and coming up with a (somewhat) comprehensible report for my committee, Yet, I didn't find the experience of completing this challenge (and there were a lot of learning curves along the way) very significant to my personal growth, or find as an outcome, great success or initiative. Perhaps I was too burnt out to realize skills had been developed and life experiences gained. Personally, I felt it was anti-climatic and unrewarding.
In comparison, completing my diploma at George Brown College had quite the opposite effect. I graduated with a great sense of initiative and success, feeling enthusiastic, rewarded, and motivated. In completing this diploma, I did not have to overcome the same big learning challenge as I had while completing my Masters degree. Granted, the programs were different, and so were the demands. Yet, it really had nothing to do with the dynamics of each program, but more to do with me. While my contemporaries thrived in the Masters program, I hadn't. They had a skill set and personality suited for that kind of work. I didn't. While studying to become a career counsellor, I felt I had found my niche. The program enabled me to discover and develop strengths and abilities that weren't as applicable to my Masters program. Demonstrating these strengths through course work, work placements, and eventually work in the field fulfilled me in a way that overcoming learning challenges in my Masters program couldn't.
My question then, is this: if overcoming certain learning challenges won't lead to feelings of success or initiative, is it safe to say we can step away from the challenge and focus on our strengths and abilities that are more innately ours?
My experience has taught me it is not only OK to walk away from a challenge I didn't want to overcome (this being my PhD), it also welcomed opportunity and time for me to explore my other strengths. While I don't endorse walking away from every challenge that faces us, I do think that some of the challenges we face in life aren't always worth our time and energy.
Besides, how often do I use physics and chemistry in my daily life anyway? :)