The Upside of Uphill Battles: The Benefits of Challenges

I lived the first 22 years of my life academically coasting along.  Sure, I hit the occasional snag or rough spot, but generally schoolwork came easily for me.  I was in the gifted program at school for 2nd – 8th grades, but none of it really challenged me.  While the AP courses in high school required me to work a bit harder, they required more time spent working than true effort spent learning.  Four years of college were similar.  Most people consider earning a college degree to be a big accomplishment, but I remember feeling about the same way at my Auburn graduation as I felt graduating from Hartselle High School – like it was just another step in a natural progression.

Then I hit graduate school.

When I say “hit,” that’s literally how it felt.  I had just graduated Summa cum laude with a math degree, and yet I had no idea how to even approach the work assigned by my professors at Georgia Tech.  I had never faced this kind of challenge, so I didn’t know how to handle it.  I had never learned how to really study, ask questions, and seek help.  Unfortunately, I didn’t handle it well.  I made some choices about which I have serious regrets.

However, a couple of positive results came from that difficult time in my life:

1.  I became a better teacher.

Up until that point, I honestly didn’t know why some people struggled with math.  It was such a logical subject.  How was it possible for someone to not understand fractions or Algebra?  It wasn’t until I didn’t understand math that I understood how those students felt.  I knew what it was like to be so confused I couldn’t formulate a question, and it gave me a passion and empathy in my teaching that likely would never have developed otherwise.

2.  It taught me the importance of challenging my own children.

I don’t blame my parents and teachers for my experience (although in retrospect I wish they had recognized this problem).  I deliberately chose to avoid activities that would have been difficult.  My life had an underlying theme of “if you’re going to do it, be the very best at it.”  I was very good at a few things (academics, playing the piano, being the “good little church girl”), so it appeared to others that I was good at everything.  The truth was that I was good at everything in which I could almost guarantee success.  I skillfully avoided everything else.

I quit band after a couple of years when it was clear I’d never be very good at it.

Instead of practicing and learning how to be a cheerleader or majorette, I defensively joked about them being “airheads” and “bowheads.”

I chose to major in math, not because I was passionate about it, but because I was good at it.

I want my children to know how to face challenges.  I want them to experience the pain of an uphill battle while they’re still at home among people who love them most in the world.  I want to push them beyond their limits before they learn to simply sidestep those limits.

Obviously, there’s a thin line to be walked between challenging and pushing to the point of breaking.  I’m learning this as I go.  But I don’t want my children facing difficulty for the first time after they leave home.  I want them to know how to push through, ask questions, and seek help.  I want them to develop persistence.  I want them to try things in which their success is not guaranteed.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth risking failure.

A little challenge never hurt anybody, but a lack of challenge hurts everybody.