The Value of the Struggle

April 10, 2009

Coffee shops can be like airplanes – where you can hear everything around you, but pretend you aren’t listening. 

Sitting at the next table was a guy in his early twenties who was trying to be patient as he waited for someone who was obviously late.  It was about 9:20, so I’m guessing the meeting was scheduled for 9:00 or maybe even 8:30.  He took out his cell phone and dialed, but stopped the call abruptly deciding not to complete the call.  He took out the laptop he has put away earlier and started to type.  Finally, the person he was waiting for arrived.  It was a man in his 50’s and it appeared as though they were meeting for the first time.  After introductions and apologies, the conversation began. 

The older man started telling the younger man about the struggles in his early career, working several jobs to get through college and several businesses he had started that failed.  He proudly described each challenge as a thickened scar that was now overlaid with a badge of courage.  The more difficult things were, the more proud he became as he described them. 

Observing the pride in the speaker and the admiration in the listener made me think about my son who gets impatient at the first hint of not knowing how to approach a project; my students who became instantly frustrated when I wouldn’t give them a template for the project plan I’d assigned; some (not all :-)) of my career launcher clients who, despite the poor economy, still expect magical sweat-free job offers to materialize; and organizational clients who are managing new-to-market employees who want everything spelled out for them.

It made me think about the value of the struggle.

Now it’s easy to talk fondly and nostalgically about struggles of the past.  It’s much harder to appreciate them as you go through them, when you’re not assured a positive outcome.  It’s perhaps harder still to watch as other struggle around us.  There’s a huge gap between not being supportive and “doing it for them.”  But, there’s a fine line between helping too little and helping too much.  With Gen Y, we’ve clearly been on the helping too much side of that line.  In The Transitional Parent I wrote of children, teenagers and young adults who are always looking for someone to help them get from zero-to-one, not dealing with disappointment, and jobs that are disposable as soon as something is not perfect. 

Well, it’s no wonder that Gen Y’s are not experienced in bouncing back from disappointment, need so much direction, and bolt at the first sign of difficultly or things that are not to their liking.  We (as parents and teachers) do too much smoothing for them.  For example, regarding Gen Y’s weakness at going from zero to one, we often do so much smoothing for them (behind the screens) that they might not even know where zero is.  They come into the project at step one and can think they’ve mastered the full project.  What a shock when they get into the workplace and get “fix this” as their assignment.  Not, here’s the problem, here’s the background, here are the tools you’ll need, here’s a model you can follow, and let me know if you need any help.  Just “fix this” can leave them paralyzed, be cause whether they realize it of not, they haven’t had much experience with a simple “fix this.”

The effort to avoid a struggle is natural and understandable.  But struggles are where you grow the most.  My “Information Technology Leaders” and “On the Career Path”   interviews with executives have demonstrated that struggles and mistakes have made for the best learning and growth opportunities.  The one that immediately comes to mind is my interview with Tamra Chandler   Tamra was the Managing Partner for the Pacific Northwest Business Consulting practice for Arthur Andersen when the Enron case occurred.  In the interview Tamra described her realization that the Enron debacle was going to take Arthur Andersen down.  She spoke of the difficulty of orchestrating an arrangement that was in the best interest of her staff.  The decision to take the team to Hitachi Consulting came after long nights and challenging negotiations.  It eventually turned out great for Tamra and her staff.  It also positioned her to start her own company PeopleFirm, a consultancy that focuses on helping organizations build a successful “people strategy.”  The Arthur Andresen transition was extremely difficult, but it strengthened Tamra in many ways that led her to greater success.  Struggle does that.

Struggle is where you find your strength, learn that you can push beyond your previously assumed capabilities, find creative solutions, and learn that you can and will come out the other side.  Throughout your life, your struggles are your rights of passage. 

So, when we protect our children and students too much from ever having to struggle, we’re actually doing them a disservice.  We’re denying them the growth opportunities that will make them stronger and assure them that they can do it.  When we step in too much, we can taint their success rather than assuring it.  We’re also sending a subtle message that we don’t have faith that they can break through the struggle.  They’ll then always be looking for someone to save them, rather than knowing they have the strength, creativity, and potential to succeed on their own. 

So parents— let your kids struggle as the work they need to do doesn’t come to them immediately.  Before you step in, remember the toddlers’ pride when they buttoned buttons and tied shoes all by themselves for the first time.  Think about the broad, true smile of your teenager who made the team without your call to the coach or got an A on a large project that you didn’t help with.  They know the difference between succeeding on their own and the success with your backing.  One clearly means more than the other and you both know which.  Stepping in too quickly also makes kids lazy.  They don’t need to try their best or work their hardest because they know you’ll step in a do it for them. 

Before you step in to provide “smoothing” assistance, I encourage you to think about why you help so much.  Is it because it truly hurts you to witness your struggling child or because you can’t stand the whining anymore?  Is it because you really don’t think your child can do it and needs your help or because you feel great by being able to help.  Is it because your child is really in trouble or because you need to get on with other things and can’t do that while your child is in struggle mode.  Think about which one it is before you step in.  Children need to know that their parents are a loving safety net, but they also need to know that their parents will give them the room to learn and grow on their own.  When a child says “I can’t do this,” and you step in, you’re saying, “you’re right you can’t do this.”  That’s what they hear.  (FYI, I’m not passing judgment here, I’m holding up a mirror.)

Teachers —don’t just give your students a template and a “clue” day one, make them figure it out.  I know it’s far easier to give them a template that they can fill in – it’s easier to assign, easier to grade, and easier to get a better result early.  But are you helping create future leaders who will think for themselves or creating employees who can fill in the blanks and do what they’re told without sufficient thought or sweat?  And give the constructive criticism if it’s warranted.  In my experience, students value the harsh comments if they know you truly care about their growth and success, and you’re not cruel.  And give the low grade when appropriate, even though it will likely mean an unpleasant conversation with a student and, possibly, an even more awkward conversation with a parent.  I know it takes time to have the depth and clarity to prepare for those conversations.  But when you give the better grade when it isn’t earned, you’re resetting a standard.  You cut corners by avoiding the need for intensively detailed feedback and the conversations that are never any fun, but the message to students is that they can cut corners.  (FYI, I not passing judgment here either, I have two mirrors  :-))

Managers  —given that parents and teachers didn’t do it, you will likely have some new-to-market employees who have never really had to use their full capacity to address a challenge.  That overlaid with their inherent lack of patience and desire for immediate results will create a challenge.  If you give them too much background and provide all the smoothing they desire, you will be perpetuating the problem.  If you don’t provide it, you’ll be viewed as unsupportive.  Tough spot. 

This is why Bruce Tulgen of Rainmaker Thinking refers to Gen Y as “the most high maintenance workforce in history.”  Part of your job in effectively managing Gen Y will be walking that tightrope between providing too little direction and too much.  As you provide “just the right amount” of direction and training, let them know that you need them to figure things out for themselves and to work through resolving an assignment’s ambiguities, even if it makes them impatient with you and themselves.  Be there to support and encourage, but don’t just give them all the tools or create the framework for them.  Reassure them that you know they can do it, but be balanced with constructive feedback that will help them grow from their mistakes.  As with teachers, if they trust that you care about them and the constructive feedback is thoughtful and accurate, they’ll appreciate it, even if they bristle a bit.  It won’t be easy or low maintenance, but you’ll be helping to create a confident, self-reliant and successful employee, and isn’t that a manager’s job?

Gen Y —I truly believe you are an incredibly high potential group.  But technology, the internet and all the “smoothing” that’s gone on in your support seems to have left you, not only super efficient, but also extremely impatient.  When a struggle arrives, your efficient-minded approach (which often serves you well) can backfire in encouraging you to look for a work-around or exit, rather than embracing the challenge for what it is.  So whether it’s your parent, your teacher, or your manager, take a breath before you ask for help and take an even bigger breath before you accept it.  A simple, “let me give it a try first” can create a wonderful learning opportunity.  Take a bigger breath still before getting frustrated with your parents, teacher or manager when you don’t get what you “need” in term of their support.  Maybe they’re giving you the gift of opportunity to earn some battle scars and badges of your own.


3 Responses to “The Value of the Struggle”

  1. Christopher Redner on April 10th, 2009 4:47 pm

    Good insights, Laura.

  2. Margaret on April 11th, 2009 2:48 pm

    We talk about this constantly. I think your points also apply to relationships, in terms of not giving up and being patient with the shortcomings of ourselves and others — and living through the pain of finding our more competent/patient selves. Thank you for posting this!

  3. How I Lost Thirty Pounds in Thirty Days on May 4th, 2009 7:10 am

    Hi, interesting post. I have been wondering about this topic,so thanks for writing. I will definitely be coming back to your posts.

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