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In this NPR podcast, Alix Spiegel interviews UCLA professor Jim Stigler and Brown professor Jin Li about the differences between Eastern and Western school children and their actions toward struggle.

As I listened to the observations and studies about Western children and their quickness to give up, I couldn’t help but think of my own struggles and my actions.  Stigler spoke about a specific study done with Western and Eastern children that struck a chord.

“We did a study many years ago with first-grade students,” he tells me. “We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up.”

The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’ ” he says.

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’ ” Stigler recalls.

“Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime,” he says. “That’s a big difference.”

That is a big difference!  And if Western school children act that way, do Western adults do the same, do I do the same?  I thought about this for a long time.  Yes, I think many Western adults do, including myself.  Although, I do know of one arena where they don’t – CrossFit.  In CrossFit, athletes drive, obsess, practice, and tackle the workouts and movements to the point of stubborn relentless pursuit of their goal.

How freaking cool is that?!  And if they do it in one arena, then surely it translates to other areas of their lives.

Stigler further comments, “I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

Yes, this statement is in the realm of academics but it also translates to that of athleticism.  Many athletes see struggle as an embarassing element of their training.  They see being the last one to finish as a bad thing, the inability to do a kipping handstand push-up as a sign of weakness, and the imperfect practice of a skill as one to be avoided at all costs – even at the expense of one day being able to accomplish the task.

As an athletic community, we at Roots, should change our own views of what it means to struggle.  We should push through, learn from our mistakes, relish in our failed attempts, embrace the struggle knowing it will bring growth, success, and achievement – and admire the folks around us who do the same.

Spiegel and Li point out:

This is not to imply that the Eastern way of interpreting struggle — or anything else — is better than the Western way, or vice versa. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, which both sides know. Westerns tend to worry that their kids won’t be able to compete against Asian kids who excel in many areas but especially in math and science. Li says that educators from Asian countries have their own set of worries.

” ‘Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots.’ You hear the educators from Asian countries express that concern, a lot,” she notes.

The first time I attempted 30 muscle-ups for time it took me 48 minutes and it was ugly.  Recently I did it in 8:00.

Struggle pays off and if not for the creative assembly of muscle-up skill work, I probably would still be at 48 minutes.

Find the balance between struggle and creativity.


11 Responses

  1. JakeDurling

    This post made me think of watching Brad in the 6:30 AM class today. He was the last one to finish and was clearly exhausted, struggling, ready to quit… and didn’t. Every time he dropped his barbells during those last rounds of push presses, I thought he was walking away with a DNF… but he didn’t. He caught his breath, picked them back up, and kept chipping away. He grabbed his barbell and hoisted that sucker (form be damned) up on his last three cleans. It was really cool to watch. Give this dude an impossible math problem and you’d have to rip it out of his hands when the hour was up.

  2. Yeppers. I totally GET this. That’s why my focus in 2012 has been SKILLS practice. And it IS paying off 🙂 3 kipping pull-ups in a wod + rope climb so far this month. The JumpNRope DoubleUnder clinic on Sunday will nail the 3rd of my Top 3 goals for this year…. YES!!

  3. lauren

    There is a lot of research that part of the reason why American kids are so quick to give up (especially girls) is that they have been praised their whole life. We place too much of an emphasis on the rewards from doing something (good grades, dessert, tv time, whatever) and less on the intrinsic motivation (learning, making people happy, being healthy, etc.). If you overpraise someone (kids) for their strength/intelligence/ability, they fear failing at it and are less likely to try hard. That’s why a lot of kids/people give up or get frustrated at hard problems and stick to the less-challenging things.
    I am a total praise junkie and am trying to make sure our kids don’t end up that way. We try to praise things we can control – like effort, attitude, compassion, and respect, and not things we can’t.

  4. Charlie

    I don’t entirely disagree with the authors, but I wouldn’t extrapolate too far. My experience is that Americans are pretty damned good at solving hard problems, even when they’re a struggle, with plenty of creativity and ingenuity.
    I agree with Lauren, though, that there’s a lot of misplaced praise for kids out there. We got off track a while ago, thinking kids will achieve if they have high self esteem, when it’s really the exact opposite – they’ll gain self esteem by achieving a difficult goal.

  5. I spend a lot of time observing children in classrooms and in individual interview settings (I do education research) and I have seen many (American) children persist for incredible lengths of time on challenging problems.
    People (adults and children) have to decide all the time what to spend their time and energy on…I could try to get to Crossfit class without catching a red light, and try really hard at that, but I don’t – I choose to spend time working hard towards other goals. If culturally a child has learned that there is no point in attempting a ‘school’ type problem if they haven’t been explicitly instructed on how to do it, from one perspective that is perfectly reasonable. That doesn’t mean that the same child doesn’t persevere in other situations, even on other “school” type problems. I haven’t known a kid that didn’t work really hard at *something* some of the time…even if it’s ‘looking cool’ or ‘being funny’ or ‘beating’ a game, even in the face of (repeated) failure.
    I would hesitate to attribute to an individual the trait ‘willing to struggle’ or ‘not willing to struggle’, in favor of a more nuanced view that looks at the *context* in which a person does or does not persevere through a challenge and what factors of that context contributed to their behavior.
    And…then i would look at how I’m categorizing which struggles have value and which ones do not. In the post, “school” type problem solving and Crossfit workouts are considered valuable challenges to struggle with. Those are value judgments made by people, not something intrinsic to those tasks, and not ones we can assume all others share.
    And, just ’cause this post isn’t long enough… I don’t believe the statement that Asian children “are not creative”. All children (and adults!) have the capability to be creative, it’s the context and the measures *you* use that could result in one group seeming more creative than another.

    1. That’s a good point Emily but I don’t think the post was saying that it is as black and white as if a kid gives up on a difficult math problem then he gives up on everything. Maybe the bigger idea here is why are American kids less likely to continue to try on a math problem that they have never been exposed to than Asian kids are? Your point that it’s reasonable for a child to give-up on a problem they’ve never been exposed to before because they’ve been raised in a culture that says so is dead on, so my question is why and how has our culture created that notion and is it something worth changing?
      What is that something that we want our kids to try really hard at and how do we create that? Is ‘looking cool’ it? being funny? beating a game? creativity?
      Of course this is one study and I agree that not ALL American children fit into this category, just like I’m sure not all Asian kids lack creativity, but it brings up some good points to think on.