Thank You, Difficulty.


We go to great lengths to avoid difficulty. We cut corners and sleep in. We finish the pint of Chubby Hubby instead of going for a run. And why wouldn’t we? Difficulty is unpleasant, and Chubby Hubby is delicious. Perhaps more importantly, difficulty invites vulnerability, the fear that we’re not good enough, smart enough, thin enough. It’s no wonder so many give up when the going gets tough.

Cognitive psychology calls this the “principle of least effort”: Individuals tend to work through problems in the easiest ways possible using cognitive shortcuts that cut processing time, speed up decision-making, and yes, allow us to evade difficulty (Chen & Chaiken, 1999).

At first glance, neither of these points seem particularly provocative: difficulty is unpleasant, and we’re hardwired to avoid it whenever possible. However, problems arise when we reach the conclusion that, because we so naturally avoid it, difficulty is a bad thing, a signal that something has gone off track.

Think back to the last time you learned a challenging new skill or concept: what was your immediate response to feeling confused? If you’re like most people, you likely assumed you had missed something due to a deep-seeded deficit. This response to the experience of difficulty is understandable. It’s also misinformed, unfair, and highly unproductive.

It’s time for a difficulty revolution. If we’re to be better partners, employees, and friends, we must embrace and celebrate moments of difficulty. Why? Simply put, difficulty is the crux of all learning and growth, and one of the clearest indicators that we’re achieving our goals. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky hinted at this conclusion with his “theory of proximal development,” explaining there’s an optimal level of difficulty for learning new tasks that straddle what a learner can do independently and what a learner —> Read More