Thursday, February 18, 2016

Working at the limit of your ability

If you work too hard, or try too hard, you can hurt yourself, so it's important to keep effort in balance. But sometimes--when you're working near the limits of your ability--effort can feel like fruitless and frustrating struggle even if you're actually making progress.

Sometimes struggle is a sign of a problem, but sometimes it's a sign of progress.

If you push yourself to the limits of your competence and ability, don't be surprised if it is then difficult. The struggle is not necessarily a sign that you're doing things wrong.

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a scholar who said "I'm struggling." There are, of course, all sorts of different struggles.

There are the struggles that come from working on a project when there isn't enough time in a day. There are struggles that come from physical or emotional ailments. There are struggles with opponents and their critiques and negative feedback. All sorts of struggles can develop that are not, strictly speaking, part of the project--they may be the context in which the project is necessarily carried out, but they are not the project itself. This post is not about such struggles.

This post is about struggles central to a given project, and the value of struggling.

Struggling itself is not bad. There are bad struggles, but not all struggles are bad. The question of interest in this post is with struggles that are actually good.

Athletics is an area where struggles are often good. The athlete in training struggles to improve performance, and the athlete in competition (with others or with themselves). A runner pushing the limits of his ability may struggle to complete a marathon and benefit both emotionally and physically from that struggle. A rock climber striving to make a more difficult ascent than she has previously accomplished will probably struggle and benefit from the struggle.

Musical performance is another area where struggles can be good. The difficulty in learning to play music is a struggle, but it is a good struggle that can lead to growth and ultimate mastery (assuming you don't injure yourself in the process--one can develop repetitive stress injuries, for example).

Scholarly writing is like this. It has, in fact, two dimensions of struggle: there is the struggle to clarify one's ideas, and there is the struggle to put those ideas into words. There is a strong interplay between these two struggles--struggling to put an idea into words can help clarify that idea--but they are still independent.

Both these struggles can actually be signs of progress: you won't feel the struggle unless you're engaging in the work engaging the ideas and trying to express them.

If the ideas are new and complex, then you will struggle with them or struggle to express them. This is especially true in dealing with theoretical or interpretive concerns. If most of your work is just defining issues defined by some other scholar or in some other work (for example, an empirical study using measures defined in other work), then the theoretical dimension is not in debate, and struggles are limited to defining the scope of the work and putting ideas into words. For material dealing with theoretical or interpretive concerns, however, there is the added struggle of trying to clarify those theoretical issues.

The scholar who said she was struggling is engaged in theoretical and interpretive work. I've seen some of her work--she's analyzing and interpreting historical texts/evidence and trying to make sense of the many dimensions of the material. The language needed for such discussions is elusive and difficult--a slight change in wording or punctuation can often carry significant theoretical difference, adding difficulty to the attempt to find the right words. I would be worried if she wasn't struggling, because that would mean she wasn't engaging.

Ideally we make progress even as we struggle. Just like the marathon runner, we push to keep going even though there is difficulty. The runner has to be careful not to push too hard, causing a breakdown, and making good judgements like that come from a certain experience in understanding running and his or her own body. The scholarly writer, too, has to be careful not to push too hard. And understanding how to make good judgements also come from a certain experience. One way a writer can push too hard is to blame him- or herself for difficulty that is not his or her fault.

It may seem wrong to struggle to understand or express ideas. This is especially true, I think, for many graduate students who have a history of being able to answer questions easily. If you have been in school for nearly two decades (a dozen years of elementary/secondary education plus four years college plus more years of graduate school), and you have always been able to answer questions easily (which is entirely plausible for most people smart enough to be going to graduate school--and especially people at top universities), then the struggle may be unfamiliar. But the struggle is not necessarily bad: it's often a sign that you're growing and progressing. And it is, I think, a necessary part of the attempt to excel in any field.