In 2013, the Economist’s sister publication, 1843, published an important essay from Ian Leslie on the uses of difficulty. The essence of the argument comes from brain science and observation of human behaviors. Simply put, we need challenges.
Our brains come alive because of challenges. We get creative and innovate when obstacles and limitations hinder our progress. Without them we become lazy and complacent. Mr. Leslie provides several examples of people and organizations that did their best work when faced with difficulty, including the Beatles' recording of Abbey Road.
Particularly noteworthy is that we learn best and retain information and skills longest when there is difficulty in attaining them. Bite-sized, simple lessons might be quickly understood, but they are not retained and become unavailable for recall and reflection when they are needed down the road. It is the difference between “I’d recognize it if I saw it,” and “I know this.”
Think about the moments of great celebration in your life. You likely did not celebrate them because they came easily but because you worked to accomplish them. Anything accomplished without effort, such as winning a drawing or receiving an inheritance, might be clung to but not cherished as something achieved with effort.
Put this in an organizational context, and a parallel is easily observed. Disruptive and leap-frogging technology, innovations in providing service, and entrepreneurial dreams tend to succeed because difficulty was present. Remove difficulty: vision does not get sharpened and adjustments are not made. We need to understand that there is no patented shortcut through the slog of figuring it out. Difficulty is what leads to new solutions, organizational advances, and the development of managerial character.
We need not add to the difficulty, however. Life is difficult enough with its natural disasters, pandemics, famine, racism, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Our historic and ongoing ability to innovate against them should not be encumbered by sullen stubbornness and resistance to change.
You will not find an advocacy for removing obstacles here—not for the individual’s growth, and not for the organization's. However, it is possible to erect obstacles that block and kill initiative. Kill the potential of fulfilling a dream, and people and organizations cease trying — or, they riot.