Why Difficulty is Good For You

Editors Note: This a guest article by Adi Gaskell, editor of The Management Blog.

If your aspirations are not greater than your resources, you’re not an entrepreneur. For large companies to be entrepreneurial, they have to create aspirations greater than their resources. You can call it “strategy as stretch” or “strategic intent.” – CK Prahalad

One of the fascinating facets of human behaviour is that often our most creative times come when we are faced with quite severe obstacles.  It’s often said that innovation occurs for instance when you simply don’t have the resources to do what you need to do.

The current economic situation presents us with many very real constraints.  So can we use this situation to get our creative juices flowing?  A new paper from the University of Amsterdam recently may shed some light on the subject.

The paper asks how do people cognitively respond to such obstacles? How do the ways in which they perceive and process information from their environment change when an obstacle interferes with what they want to accomplish?

The researchers seek to answer how obstacles impact our information processing.  They suggest that obstacles force us to step back from what we’re doing and take in the bigger picture, therefore integrating seemingly unrelated chunks of information and thus applying creative solutions to the problems they face.

After several experiments the researchers found that obstacles did indeed focus our thoughts and attention on global issues rather than local ones.  They found that obstacles allowed an expansion of our perceptual scope.  They were literally able to take more in when faced with obstacles.

Obstacles don’t just provide benefits in terms of perception however.  They also expand our conceptual ability.  This allows us to consider lots more possible ideas than we could previously.  Participants that were subjected to mental obstacles were found to have much better abstract thought, ie they could ‘think outside the box’ much better than those with no obstacles present.  As so much innovative thought requires a shifting of conceptual boundaries this insight is invaluable.

Arguably the most valuable lesson from the research however is that it underlined the importance of perseverance.  Most of the benefits highlighted earlier only come to fruition if we stick at the difficult task, even in the face of the obstacles we face.  Your mind literally benefits from the struggle that facing obstacles provides, and the mental workout opens up new possibilities as a result.

So often the brain works on autopilot, zoning out things we don’t need.  Obstacles however force it to focus on the task at hand.  It’s only when we’re faced with an unexpected problem that our brain begins to use its full power.

So next time you face an obstacle in your professional or personal life, count your blessings that this opportunity will allow you to unleash the full power of your mind.

– Adi Gaskell

Posted on December 6, 2011, in Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.