From the last wondering thought:
So,... if you have entered a work situation, or class setting as the stellar individual, everything coming super easy, and a year later are left wondering, “how has everyone passed me up?” Yep, your boredom undercut your motivation and they all did pass you up. The right level of difficulty keeps us at our best.
Too difficult - the downward spiral.
At the far end of the difficulty spectrum, is the place few desire to hang out. And, honestly, you shouldn’t. (Although, there is more to it than we can digest in this draft, in a later blog - “Why some people excel and others don’t as things get harder.”)
I think we all have been there. Shut down is usually inevitable. As a kid who could generally coast through life, my first real experience hitting a wall came at a summer “I DID IT” Iowa style intensive wrestling camp. It was basically a boot camp for high school kids. One of the many slogans was, “I know I’m going to heaven, because I’ve already been through hell.” It was likely the only camp where campers disappeared daily after parents came and rescued them.
But, thanks to J. Robinson and his crew, the majority of us survived. We learned over 10 days how to push through the “wall,” and win. Because we were forced to do it,... repeatedly.
Thankfully, perhaps, difficulty is fluid. Practice, communication, seeking help, all slide the difficulty level down. Think of the video game you mastered, and then grew bored with over time. A well designed video game always keeps pushing the upper difficulty level at a comfortable and addictive rate. Other factors move the difficulty level the other way: limited time, distraction, memory dump,...
A quick note: Some of us are a hair-trigger each way, between too easy and too difficult. It is good to be aware of your fickleness when handling difficulty. It is something that can be worked on, if you are aware of it. Life is more engaging for those of us with wide engagement lanes, where what defines too easy and too difficult is significantly different.
Our motivation is directly connected to how well we learn, perform, and engage. And this is true in many settings. There is an amazing researcher, who’s name I still cannot pronounce: Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the mid 70’s described his thoughts on balancing our motivation and our engagement to reach a state of “flow.” Imagine times when you were caught up in an activity where you completely lost track of time. Mihaly would say you were in a state of flow. Activities which are too difficult or too easy do not make this happen. Some researchers have said not in the middle either, but a bit above center. We need a challenge, just not too much of one.
We need difficulty to engage. If we choose healthy doses of difficulty, we are more likely to engage.
It amazes me how many kids today do not know Michael Jordan. MJ is the poster child of self-competitive motivation and achieving flow. He always needed a challenge. As a highly talented individual, on the spectrum of difficulty - he always worked towards moderately difficulty. Even an average difficulty level wasn’t good enough. Annually improving himself in the NBA. Taking the Bulls to the championship round,... and winning, repeatedly. Setting record after record. Just Google “Michael Jordan NBA records.” Needing a new challenge, he tried the MLB. Then, coming back to the NBA, after time off and doing it again! Average was never good enough. That million dollar bet he made for a golf shot makes some sense, now.
Too easy not good. Too difficult not good. In the middle - maybe okay, but not as good as a good challenge we can handle. It makes some sense? But there is more to it.
I hope this has been of value. I often ask student, “Make sense?” More than a comment, a time of self-reflection, to help us find our zone.
More on this next time.
To investigate more of the work of Dr .Csikszentmihalyi and others: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26924995/