Friday, April 30, 2010

Pleasure in challenges vs. Fear of failure

One crucial choice of approach to life we all face as children is how to deal with challenges.

The approach one develops and practices over the years affects one's self-esteem and one's ability to pursue one's values and goals.

Some adults find intense pleasure in complex challenges that take a long time to achieve, while others feel intimidated by them and shy away from them.

The reason for the difference is one's subconscious evaluation of one's ability to succeed, to acquire skills.
The man who takes pleasure in challenges feels pleasure because he judges what he is doing as being on a road to proving his own worth once more.
The one who dreads the challenge has the subconscious evaluation of themselves as being on the way to failure, of which every difficult step is further proof of that impending failure.
In reality they may have everything it takes to succeed had they had different motivation, but their motivation can be such a great barrier that they will never achieve that goal and start building their confidence.

It all starts in childhood when a child faces their first few challenges.
At an early stage kids seek immediate satisfaction without delay. If they solve challenges, they are of a simple, short-duration nature. If a child succeed in solving challenges with gradually increasing durations, eventually they learn that it pays off sometimes to pick tasks with delayed satisfaction. It starts from putting a cube through the right hole, to arranging some pictures in the right order, to building Lego models of an airplane (which takes an even longer time to complete) - to more complex tasks like programming.

It is not all a smooth sail - every kid faces those challenges in which they fails a number of times, and here comes the crucial waypoint where the two opposite approaches form.
The child, having failed several times, and still having the frame of mind of pursuing immediate gratification will face the decision to persist and try again or to give up and go back to the familiar, easy stuff they know how to do.
They have not yet experienced, at this stage, the value of delayed satisfaction and they barely have yet a concept of their own ability, because confidence develops based on success in challenges like the one they are facing in this case.

Here is where the parents have a crucial role in guiding their kids in the right direction. The parents can encourage the child to give up and go back to "fun stuff", or they can push him and slightly help the child persist in the goal.
They can teach the child that persistence in pursuing goals is a virtue, create a comfortable atmosphere for failing (so long as the child tries again) or teach the kid to take the easy road so that they don't have to see the kid upset.

Even given the right idea, a child still faces the choice of insisting on succeeding in a challenge or giving up, but having the right emotional background and (non-verbal) approach play a central role in what would occur to a child to choose.
A child learns a great deal what emotional reaction is appropriate for a situation.
You often see kids look at the parent's faces after some occurrence to observe their parent's expression and learn how they should react.
If they look at the parent's face after failing and see fear, they are likely to decide that this is the right response. But if the see a smile and quiet confidence, they learn that the right approach (or emotional background) is patience and calamity.

The reason this waypoint is so crucial is because those first attempts at a challenge are the base for a child's confidence and attitude toward challenges.
A child that has overcome the initial negative emotions and succeeded several times, develops a positive view of their own ability, of challenges, and learns to associate challenges with reward and self-esteem at the end.
A child that has repeatedly given up, on the other hand, forms a pattern and learns to associate challenges with failure and pain, creating a loop which cannot be broken until and unless the child (or the adult) decides to "do it anyway" and keep on doing it until they succeed.

So the conclusion?

If you have a child, teach them that the appropriate emotional background to challenges is relaxation and patience.
If you are an adult with a fear of failure (as I am, to some degree): Pick some tasks which you want to succeed in, and stick to them. Break them down to small steps which gradually increase in duration and go for it. It is only after succeeding over and over again despite temporary difficulties (or failure) that you will eventually build your confidence and learn to associate challenges with pleasure.

Your feeling about yourself and about what is possible for you in the world depends on it, so the investment is well worth the time.


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