In Praise of Effort

I want to take a moment and reflect on what we value in learning – both in ourselves and in others. It is so easy to be focused on the goal, the end result of knowledge or skill achieved. We are so quick to congratulate someone on reaching that goal – without noting how easy or hard it was to get there. Every day we encounter messages that reinforce the idea of end goals, of achievements, of someplace to get to that’s better than here.

This is in direct conflict with the messages that we pull out to comfort someone when they fall short of achieving some goal. That’s when we say, “That’s ok. You gave it your best.” or “Keep trying. You’ll get there!”

I think about this pattern and how it directly undermines placing value on effort. It takes away value from the process of learning, from the journey of discovery.

I study a lot. I teach a lot. I know that we all learn at different paces. Not only that, but even though I’m generally a good student and smart, I know that I learn at different paces depending on the subject, what else is going on in my life, or what else is churning in my mind.

This focus on the end result instead of the process makes it no surprise to me that our impatient culture is rife with get-rich-quick schemes and convenience everything. I have known many kids and adults who give up quickly when things get hard, or who don’t even try because they expect they won’t be able to do it well. I’ve found it depressing that people take note when I “work hard” as though it’s something unusual.

When I teach or coach, it’s heartbreaking to see people who fall short of their goals despite having worked really hard, but it’s even worse to then watch them beat themselves up. Their frustration and disappointment then takes on a flavor of shame. I also find that it closes them down from being able to absorb anything else and makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the process of learning.  I’ve seen this happen in academic settings, doing athletics or dance, and even in personal transformation work. We are never far from an image of where we “should” be.

I would like to invite us all to consider changing what we focus on. It will require a shift of perspective, of language, of core structures. What if we always made two evaluations – one for effort and one for achievement? What if each was graded separately? What if we started to drop the achievement and just focused on effort? What if “success” was measured against an individual’s potential and not against an abstract level? What could happen?

And what if we focused on the experience of learning itself? The incremental insights and improvements that we accumulate throughout the long process of trying out something new? Could we learn to enjoy everything that we’re learning whether we do it well at the end or not? What if we took on the idea that learning is infinite and there is no one who knows all? That everyone has a perspective they can contribute and that there is always more to learn? That we are all students together?

What if “E for Effort” really was the highest grade of all?

Coda: I send this out as a challenge to our society and to myself. I am definitely someone who sets a high bar for herself, who evaluates herself on achievement, who can forget to enjoy the journey. And I am also someone who has experienced peace and happiness every time I manage to remember. So I write as both a challenge and a reminder.

This article in the NY Magazine is quite related. I read it years ago and have been thinking about it ever since.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Michael Lewis

    Jim Rohn used to exhort his students to set the goal of becoming a millionaire – not for the money, you might end up losing it, but for who you would have to become to achieve it.

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