David Mas Masumoto

The value of struggle as a key to success

Special to The Bee

While growing up, I wasn’t the brightest student and had some language and speech issues – for example, I thought the letter “R” and “W” were the same and could be used interchangeably. My parents encouraged me to toil in school. They supported me yet never helped with homework or class projects. Education was about hard work, exertion and trials. If I didn’t understand something, they quietly reassured me that struggle was good.

Likewise, when working on the farm, they expected me to make mistakes. Dad always gave me jobs I was not expected do quickly or easily. I had to learn the hard way. Pain and effort went hand in hand with success.

Since I could not control nature and the weather, the best I could do was learn from my gaffes. Numerous examples of my blunders included sloppy pruning, skipping small weeds that became giant ones, picking fruit a day or two too late – need I say more?

Struggle was expected and encouraged. Errors were mostly tolerated. I was never supposed to do it right the first time. I was allowed to learn from misfortune.

I believe this came from a blend of rural agrarian traditions, Asian upbringing and an immigrant “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” maxim.

How much of this was myth? I now question if life was that simple: You work hard, accept defeat and then grow. Our modern world doesn’t seem to accept struggle – we want simply to win.

I see this in sports. We celebrate victories and winners and cast aside losers. We reward making home runs, baskets, touchdowns, kills and goals. First place is remembered, not second or third. Victory is determined by the outcome, not practice. Effort seems to be lost.

Yet one study examined American vs. Japanese classrooms. In Japan, problems were presented and if a student didn’t solve it, they were allowed to make numerous attempts. Meanwhile, the typical American student tried and if they didn’t get the solution quickly, they gave up.

I grew up in a home where struggle was predictable, part of the maturing process. Everyone was expected to have setbacks, and persistence was remunerated. The Japanese terms “gaman” (endure) and “giri” (obligation) come to mind.

Today we have a perception that people who are smart don’t struggle. Confusion is seen as an indication of weakness. People who labor are slow, they “don’t get it.” Success is not equated with endurance and tenacity.

I grew up in a home where struggle was predictable, part of the maturing process. Everyone was expected to have setbacks, and persistence was remunerated.

Consider the new Common Core standards in education that value thinking and problem-solving. Students are encouraged to research, analyze and reason. Are we instilling a new attitude: Struggle is something natural and predictable because individuals learn differently?

It’s sometimes called the modern learning paradox. The more you struggle while trying to grasp new information, the more you will understand and be able to recall later. Instead of discarding what you need to know, if you’re allowed to play with missteps, then in the end you will retain more and master tasks.

Perhaps this is where the intersection of the arts and education combine to promote innovation. Process and practice matter, more like an artist than today’s athlete. You work not to win but to simply get better. Creativity is born from contemplation and inspiration – you struggle in thought, challenge yourself to examine things from novel perspectives, then reach conclusions with emboldened ideas.

Perhaps my parents were right. Hard work can pay off. Intelligence may lie in how you think and reason. Valuing struggle may be the key to success.

And it’s the journey that matters, not the end.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”

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