Frederick Douglas said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I don’t think that he meant that everything in life needs to be difficult. But I do believe he meant that sometimes to make progress, a struggle is part of the process. That sometimes it takes work and persistence and time and struggle to reach the goals you have set for yourself. It may even feel like the proverbial two steps forward and one step back. But if we want progress or breakthrough results, we have to accept that there may be a struggle – to learn new skills, to behave differently, to consider new ideas, etc. We also cannot confuse struggle with failure. Struggle means ‘to contend with an adversary, task, problem, etc.’ Failure means ‘lack of success’. They are not synonymous. It is very possible to have a struggle and not fail because progress is made towards a goal. But, if the terms are confused, we may reject the struggle, for ourselves or for others – perhaps preventing progress and success.
I see this every day with children. Some parents are wrapping their children in bubble wrap so that they never struggle and risk failing. Since struggling is part of learning, never being allowed to struggle means that how to overcome the struggle, or failure, to succeed is not learned. More importantly, you never learn that you can overcome the struggle – missing an opportunity to build confidence and self-esteem. In overcoming a struggle, you learn that that you can do more than you thought you could – enabling you to go after the next bigger goal. None of us like seeing our children struggle. But we have to be OK with the discomfort of watching the struggle for their growth. Without being allowed to struggle and fail, an individual may not learn that they can survive a failure. And given that, at some point in life, they will fail, if they don’t have the skills and experience to recover and rebound, it can be devastating and crippling.
My fondest remembrance of struggle was part of learning to drive. I remember at 15 years old getting my driver’s permit. We lived rural Wyoming, 50 miles from the nearest town, so being able to drive was a very big deal. I thought that I had succeeded, having driven with my parents to and from the town multiple times. So, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I volunteered to drive the 4-mile round trip to the local post office and pick up the day’s mail. There was just one hitch – everything I had driven, up to that point, had been an automatic transmission. The vehicle to take to the post office was our old International pickup truck – with a 3-speed manual transmission. It was a ‘three on the tree’ as we used to call it and I had only watched it being driven.
No problem, I thought, a vehicle is a vehicle is a vehicle – right? I am sure that everyone reading this who has ever driven a manual transmission is remembering their first time. I started the truck, put it into gear, and let out the clutch – promptly killing the engine. I then did it again, and again, and again. Sometimes the truck would jerk forward and then die. Sometimes it would just die. Thinking back, it is amazing I never flooded it. All total (and yes, I counted), I killed the engine 24 times. I finally closed my eyes and, as I let the clutch out, ‘felt’ the engine. I drove to the post office and picked up the mail, only killing the engine 6 times before the return trip. I had struggled mightily and had not given up. I felt joy, pride, and satisfaction at what I had accomplished.
But where were my parents during this incident? What type of a parent would let their child go through struggling 23 times before the success? Were my parents cruel or neglectful? Quite the contrary – my mother watched me, through the living room window, as I tried and tried and tried. She stood by and just watched – believing that I could figure it out. After I had killed the engine for the 10th time, the neighbors began to telephone her. They asked all sorts of questions from ‘was everything OK?’ to ‘why was I having such a hard time getting the truck going?’ to ‘how long was my mother going to let this go on?’. Their biggest question was, ‘Aren’t you going to go out help her?’ My mother brilliantly replied, ‘No – she is learning, and she will get it. Why would I want to get in the way of that?’ While my struggle made the entire neighborhood uncomfortable, my mother was OK with it. She allowed me the space to struggle, to succeed and to reap the rewards of pride and self-confidence.
In the business world, this plays out specifically in organizations who state that they want ‘an innovation culture’. Many say they want innovation but are simultaneously very uncomfortable with struggle and failure. This sends a terrible mixed message. It communicates that only ‘sure thing’ success is acceptable – minimizing struggle and failure. However, to innovate, people have to push the envelope and risk. They can’t play it safe – they have to do challenging things and be OK with a struggle. All of this means that the people who should be pushing the boundaries, won’t – sacrificing innovation. Incremental benefit or continuous improvement will be delivered, but the true breakthrough performance will be missed.
For innovation and breakthrough performance, the struggle must be embraced – both for individuals and for the organization. If individuals come into the organization without the skills of overcoming a struggle, they must be taught those skills. And the organization, if it wants innovation and breakthrough results, must put a process in place that recognizes and rewards the struggle as part of the development and innovation process. The process should not protect people from the struggle but support them in the struggle. Mao Zedong said, “Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible.” Embrace the struggle and let the miracles begin!