Students often complain about how hard it is to learn difficult content. My snarky, cryptic response is always the same:
“Well, you don’t go to the gym to lift Styrofoam weights.”1
My point is simply that the purpose of school is to develop a strong mind. The brain is like a bunch of muscles that need to be challenged. If you’re not being challenged, you’re not growing. So it’s a good thing that schools ask students to learn difficult concepts.
And, in a roundabout way, this is a response to the “Why do I have to learn this? I’m never going to use it in real life!” complaint. This complaint misunderstands the purpose of school entirely. The concepts themselves are not all that important; most of the things students are taught in school have little bearing on their lives as adults. But that’s not why we ask students to learn them. We ask them to learn trigonometry and Shakespeare and meiosis and the subjunctive tense because these things are hard. Learning them requires struggle, and struggle makes you stronger.
Pushing yourself to do the work, even when it’s hard, and even when you don’t want to, is precisely how willpower is developed. And part of what school teaches you, if you’re open to learning it, is how to push yourself. No matter what you end up pursuing in life, you’re going to need mental toughness.
This principle applies to much more than schoolwork. Mindfulness meditation, for example, is beneficial precisely because it is so difficult to stay focused on your breathing. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be good for you. The same goes for pushups and mountain climbing. When you pursue a difficult goal, you often benefit more from your growth along the way than from the achievement itself.
So next time your children complain about the difficulty of their schoolwork, smile and say, “Good. It’s supposed to be hard.”
1 I often hear this from Brian Johnson, though I’m not sure where he read it.
About the Author
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.