How frustration helps us discover and build new skills

Oct 25, 2016

The way of frustration is not a path we willingly choose but oh, what new skills we would build if we more often did!

Recently, as I reflected on my career in advertising, I was reminded of the advantages of frustration and how it helps us discover and build new skills. During my first few months in advertising I floundered. I hated it. Instead, I dreamt of joining the music industry or becoming a MP. But I’m so glad I stuck it out, because my frustration eventually helped me discover and build new skills. It helped me surpass many of my peers.

It took me a good three to four years to really begin to enjoy advertising, which came in direct result of the process of becoming good at it. I did it by turning what looked like my disadvantage into an asset. I learned everything I could, and not just how to do my job well, but how to keep on improving.

Obstacles help you discover and build new skills

I was in the place that Rockefeller called the school of life. He is once quoted as saying, “Oh, how blessed young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and beginning in life.” Few of us may feel like that but in the Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday argues that it is those who learn to flip their obstacles upside down that do best. They overcome, they solve problems, they innovate, they start trends, they win. “There is no good or bad without us”, he writes. “There is only perception” and “the story we tell ourselves about what it means”. This can be a hindrance to discovering and building new skills.

The more I learn about the way we grow and develop as human beings the more I appreciate the advantages of having our passions and interests disrupted. It’s the way we discover the new and make great-er things happen. I mean, what would happen if you embraced your frustrations more often?

If you want to discover and build new skills, embrace frustration

This is what Tim Harford’s Ted talk on ‘How frustration can lead to greater creativity’ asks us. Harford talks about Vera Branders, a seventeen-year-old German concert promoter, who persuaded the American musician Keith Jarret to perform a late night jazz session at the Cologne opera house in January 1975. Trouble was that the piano was not up to scratch so Jarret refused to perform. He demanded Vera find a replacement or the concert was off. Then off he went and sat in his car to wait.

Hours before the performance was due to begin, and unable to find a replacement piano, Vera stood in the rain pleading with Jarret not to cancel. He took pity on the girl and reluctantly agreed to play. The broken keys forced Jarret to avoid certain notes, to adopt a playing position that would enable him to hit the keys more forcefully, and to create rumbling repetitive rifts so as to create sufficient sound to fill the auditorium. Playing differently forced him to discover and build new skills.

The result was electrifying, says Harford. It produced the world’s best-selling piano album and best-selling solo jazz album in history. He “was handed a mess, embraced it and it soared” said Harford. But Jarret’s initial instinct was not to play. And we are often like that too.

Embrace your frustrations

Harford argues that we need to gain more appreciation of the unexpected advantages of having to cope with unexpected mess. Certain types of difficulties can improve our performance.

To support his point Harford provides a few other examples. In one of them groups of students were given whodunit problems to solve. One group comprised of three friends and a stranger, the other was formed of four friends. The group with the stranger had a 75% chance of finding the right answer in comparison to the 50% for the friend group. The friends also felt they had done a good job and that they had had a good time working together. The other group did not enjoy the process as much due to the awkwardness and randomness of working with the stranger. Harford says this shows how “disruptions help us solve problems and become more creative” even though at the time “we don’t feel they are helping and so we resist”.

Do yourself a huge favour. Embrace your frustrations more frequently. Next time you’re faced with what appears to be an out-of-your-comfort-zone situation, identify the most irritating aspects and use them, incorporate randomness or change the tools of the job. Remember, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not helping. On the contrary, it’s a pretty good sign you’re about to discover and build new skills.

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