When it comes to getting better in sport, many of us walk around with the idea that we need to push until failure. To grow our muscles, we lift until they are Jell-O; to improve endurance, we run until we’re sprawled on the track gasping for air. Go until you have nothing left is appealing. It sells the notion of the grind, of going to the well, pushing through barriers and being a badass.
Yet, if we look at the research, even in the area where we’d expect the most benefit from going until failure (lifting weights), the results are disappointing. In a recent study of well-trained athletes, lifting to failure led to worse gains than a training approach that stopped a bit before exhaustion.
Complete failure isn’t the ideal stimulus for change. We don’t need to overwhelm our body and mind, we just need to embarrass it. In physical activities, we need a signal that says we aren’t quite strong enough or don’t quite have the fitness required to perform a given task. This signal tells our muscles to grow a little stronger or process a bit more oxygen. That way, when we face that stress again, we’re prepared.
Intellectual pursuits work in much the same way. Experiencing a bit of mental struggle and frustration is a sign that we’re on the path towards learning. When we struggle with a problem and commit errors, our brains compare what we thought we knew versus what we actually do. That gap (or error) is the signal for learning. In order to learn, we need to make mistakes. Not so many mistakes that it seems hopeless, that our brains get the message that we don’t have a chance to close that gap. But just enough mistakes to trigger further inquiry and learning.
In a survey of elementary, middle, and high school students, the perception of being challenged dropped as students progressed from elementary to high school. As their perception of being challenged decreased, so did their perception of how much they learned in class. According to a 2015 Gallup poll that surveyed over 800,000 students ranging from middle to high school, only 50 percent reported being engaged in school.
As Brad and I outlined in Peak Performance, whether you’re trying to intellectually or physically grow, the key lies in finding just manageable challenges, tasks that push you to the point of slight embarrassment so that your body and mind adapt. In athletic pursuits, we often push too much; we move from the embarrassment zone to overwhelming zone far too swiftly. In academic and intellectual pursuits, we often err on the side of pushing too little; we stop before we struggle, or we choose the easy way out, immediately finding an answer on google instead of problem solving and further mulling it over.
As Dr. Jo Boaler says in her book Limitless Mind, “if we are not struggling, we are not learning.” A little bit of discomfort is a good thing. Skills come from struggle.