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Desirable difficulties. This seems to be a contradictory phrase, however, as Malcolm Gladwell points out, some difficulties in our lives can be desirable.

“Some difficulties in our lives can be desirable.”

It’s an idea old as the Beattitudes. The idea that something bad can be turned into something good. In Gladwell’s research he became fascinated with the disproportionate amount of dyslexics that have become very successful entrepreneurs. On the flip side of that, there are also a disproportionate amount of dyslexics in prison. Executives who experienced severe trauma as children have become brilliant and ruthless business men. And those who have experienced similar trauma have been emotionally crippled and terrified. So, the question is, “How can dyslexia or trauma be a desirable difficulty for some, but not for others?”

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Gladwell says that the ability to use your difficulty is often dependent on who you are, what your capabilities are, your support system and how many others advantages or difficulties you have. One of the pieces of that puzzle that he focuses on is the support system. Everyone’s initial support system begins with their parents; handing them a help or a hindrance when it comes to difficulty. As parents, it seems a perpetual mental process to determine when to “save” your child and when to let them learn how to save themselves.

“Everyone’s initial support system begins with their parents; handing them a help or a hindrance when it comes to difficulty.”

One of the common threads for the individuals who chose to overcome their desirable difficulty is that they had someone who believed in them. Every time someone asks me what it feels like to have ADHD, I tell them that for me, it’s like the scene in the movie Man of Steel when Clark Kent is in the schoolroom.

Malcolm Gladwell David and Goliath cover goodkin

His abilities are abnormal and unfocused. His powers of super-sonic hearing, see-through vision and super-strength are all pulsing, fighting to be the top sense. He runs and hides in a closet, but this doesn’t necessarily fix anything. Only when his mother teaches him to focus on her voice does he come out of the janitor’s closet a new boy.

My mother used to do something similar with me. She would hold my face in her hands, so that I couldn’t see anything else, while she was talking and giving me instructions on my next chore or assignment. Being met with understanding and help as a child has given me the tools I needed to be a highly functioning adult.

“Being met with understanding and help as a child has given me the tools I needed to be a highly functioning adult.”

“There is an important idea in psychology: The ‘just world theory,’ which says that it is very important for us to convince ourselves that the world is just and things happen for a reason. That there is some elemental fairness in everything, which creates the illusion of justice. Our affection for the underdog is a version of this theory. It is very important for us that underdogs win, to believe that they win.

Malcolm Gladwell on Bicycle goodkin

If underdogs would not win, but the person with the most advantages would do so all the time, then the world becomes deeply unfair – more than that, it becomes profoundly depressive. We are powerfully motivated by the desire to make the world conform to a set of principles. And that absolutely motivates people to rebel against authority. If you think of David’s actions against Goliath: he is rebelling against a notion that the big, tall, strong guy should win every battle, right? Does not seem fair to him. Only a handful of people are 6’6″; why do they get to win every battle?”

Stories are often what we see in life or what we want to see in life. The story of Superman could have turned out very differently. It could’ve been titled, “Basketcase Kid in a Sanitarium” or “Super Villian.” But instead, because of who Superman was, his support system and his desirable difficulties, his story is named Man of Steel.

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