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Redefining Struggle with Meaning

Struggling has a bad reputation. It makes us feel uncomfortable, and we just want to avoid it. But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we struggle, what we focus on makes a difference: are we focusing on the painful feelings? Or are we focusing on conscious growth? Often times, it’s the moments of struggle when we stand up courageously to solve difficult problems. We have all heard the saying to “step outside your comfort zone.” This reasoning implies that we move away from comfort to struggle. I find this phrase misleading, and I’ll let you know why. But moving into the learning zone is a sound proposition.

The learning zone isn’t explicitly painful. The learning process can be exciting and intrinsically rewarding. The problem is the anchoring effect that the term “leaving the comfort zone” suggests. And even if we struggle with deliberate practice that results in our personal growth—not all struggles are created equal. Here’s the thing: in order to grow sustainably and internalize our learning, we must first understand the fundamentals of a different kind of struggle: a meaningful struggle. Perhaps it’s the absence of meaning that makes us feel uncomfortable and panicky, not the struggle itself. Certainly, it’s the absence of meaning that prevents us from coming back to engage in our challenging work.

But before we jump into the mechanics of a meaningful struggle, let’s question some assumptions. Does the comfort zone even exist? Of course we do want to spend time for leisure and relaxation. Do you think leisure itself is what prevents us from personal growth? I don’t think we engage in work just to struggle. Also, this comfort-learning-panic zone framework makes it seem as though we have to be in one zone or another. How can this be? Our psychology is more fluid than that.

A meaningful struggle is more like a dance—we flow in and out and around the learning zone. And to a certain degree, even when we are comfortable, we experience regular tension because we always have a learning gap. Humans are naturally motivated to be creative, to get better at something, and to contribute. Is there really a comfort zone? Maybe it’s not a question of comfort, but a question of meaning. 

Remarkably, it’s when we choose to exert effort on something we truly care about that we find meaning, renewed energy, and willpower to work for it. When we apply effort and love the process we feel delighted—just as we feel after a challenging but gratifying workout. The pain and discomfort are not exclusively what we’re after, nor are they what motivates us to take action. Meaningful struggle is when we engage in deliberate practice because the struggle itself makes sense. We consciously focus on the love for what we do. How exactly do we recognize and choose to engage in a struggle that’s worthwhile? Consider the following:

  • Meaning: What about this struggle matters to me?
  • Vision: What does my future-self want and what long-term benefits will I develop?
  • Supportive environment: How can I meet this struggle with encouraging people?
  • Creative output: How can I manifest my creativity with autonomy and passion?
  • Impact: What problem am I solving? How will my work contribute?

Meaningful struggle happens when we are self-directed and intrinsically motivated, when we are able to gain proficiency, be around like-minded and supportive peers, when we are able to express our creativity, and feel that we can contribute positively. To avoid the pitfalls of thinking that in order to grow you must get uncomfortable, focus on meaning. Instead of calling it the comfort zone, we can call it the recovery zone. That seems more appropriate since our goal is to move in and out between the learning and recovery zones. And if we want to enjoy the learning process and stick to it, let’s make sure that our motives to engage are intrinsic and not just for financial gain. Growth itself shouldn’t represent a painful struggle unless it lacks meaning. 

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink explains the shift between what he calls Motivation 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. In Motivation 1.0 our behavior is driven to meet our biological needs and survival. In Motivation 2.0 our behavior is driven extrinsically by punishment and rewards. And in Motivation 3.0 our behavior is driven intrinsically through autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Pink urges the reader to upgrade to the Motivation 3.0 operating system so that we can “meet the new realities of how we organize, think about, and do what we do.” It’s clear that moving into the learning zone is more about the meaning we find in the activity itself and less about the rewards. It’s no wonder that struggling in the learning zone is generally associated with pain and discomfort since our motivators tend to be extrinsic and unsubstantial. 

More than ever, people and organizations are realizing that what motivates us to learn and to work deliberately is not a big paycheck, a pompous title, or a bigger home, but our desire to pursue work that matters. When we are experiencing meaningful struggles, we feel stretched but fulfilled. We become lifelong learners that feel connected to our work and persevere through the challenges of creative and innovative work. A struggle becomes meaningful when we engage it with clarity, passion, and contribution. What kind of work do you stand up for? Why is that work meaningful to you?

Juan F. Diaz

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