All life demands struggle.

pablo (23)I often use an exercise called The Lifeline in my teaching.  I found a good summary of the exercise here.  In the exercise people reflect on the important positive and negative experiences of their life.

Something that has struck me after all these years of watching groups work on the exercise – it is the hard times in life and how we dealt with them that most inspires.  We are inspired by the struggle more than the end point.

“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.” Henry Ford

I guess if an inspirational speaker came and gave a speech that went: “I had this idea to climb a big mountain, so I went there and I climbed it.  It wasn’t too hard and the view from the top was lovely.” – it wouldn’t be too inspirational.  It is what she had to overcome, the unexpected obstacles, the discovery of previously hidden strength – that I want.

This reminds me of rule number 6 from Kurt Vonnegut on rules for telling a story: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

“All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.”  Pope Paul VI

Photo Credit: Grant MacDonald via Compfight cc

A worthy struggle? Photo: Grant MacDonald

The Opposite of Fragile

What is the opposite of fragile?  I hear you saying “robust”, “strong”, “durable”, “flexible” or even “unbreakable”…  but these words are not the opposite, they are the zero point on the line from breaks under pressure to grows under pressure.

A wine glass when dropped on the concrete floor will smash.  It is fragile.  A plastic glass when dropped on the concrete floor will not smash.  It is “flexible and robust”.  However, there are some systems that when dropped, they come back even stronger.

Nasim Taleb coined the term “Antifragile” for things that grow under stress.  Evolution is a process by which species become stronger when stressed.  When I go to the gym, I actually damage my muscles – but they grow stronger as they repair.  A broken bone will heal stronger than the surrounding bone.

“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.” Peter Marshall

We humans are “antifragile”.  We learn and grow faster in the struggle than in the garden.

8 comments

  1. […] All life demands struggle […]

  2. […] All life demands struggle […]

  3. Tim Walsh · · Reply

    Excellent as always, Conor. The first counter-intuitive — human evolution and “anti-fragility” — is inspiring and valid. I would be interested to see you expand on the second, implied counter-intuitive: The easy life, without struggle, is destructive. At least, it is counter-productive.

    Think of this in the context of generational accomplishments of modern history. The so-called “Greatest Generation” was born into global depression, struggled through the world’s greatest worst war and emerged to create an era of unprecedented prosperity… and comfort for their children. How have the children (Boomers) done with this inheritance, largely in the absence of personal struggle? What does it mean for “Gen Y” which, one could argue, have a high degree of comfort but were born into a world of constant upheaval and now certainly struggle with a stagnant, disrupted economy. How do these western generational designations compare with their contemporaries in China and India, in the context of anti-fragility?

    Can we get one of your doctoral candidates on this? 😉

    1. The lifeline exercise is an interesting one… One thing that I see is that happy and sad are partly driven by reality but also greatly driven by expectations of “how things should be” – my grandfather and his generation never expected life to be easy (he saw siblings die as children and many friends during the war).

      One challenge of facebook etc is that we are more and more exposed to other’s fantasy versions of their lives – not the reality “I’m on facebook now because I don’t know where to go to just hang out with people that want to be around me, but I’ll post a picture of a good time and see how many likes I get”

      High expectations for success, for health, for monetary achievement make it harder for reality to live up to our fantasy. Rich people are usually young in films – but I don’t know too many rich 30 year olds.

      Expectations around deserving to achieve and how quickly I should see results are dangerously out of whack.

  4. Matt Cox · · Reply

    Interesting point and obvious once you think about it but not until you do.
    At what age do you think you can teach kids this? I remember you and I discussing the test done where one group of children were rewarded for trying harder exercises even though perhaps not always succeeding, versus a second group who were praised for doing well. The result was that those were simply praised for doing well were more reticent to try harder activities and as a result, the former group did better in tests. So, as per Pope Paul VI’s comment, the struggle is important to learn how to strive.

    1. Matt – thanks, and I remember our conversations 😉 On how young can this be understood – I think “understanding” doesn’t come for a while, but it is important to praise kids for the effort they put in more than for the results that they achieve – this way we are fostering a joy in the journey more than a hope that the end will “fix everything”

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