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Try Something Hard

Forcing yourself to learn difficult things can lead to creative triumphs

Common sense dictates that people choose their careers based on their strongest skills, then develop those skills based on the work they do. But when I interviewed 34 creative, professional people, that is not what I found. Instead, some participants told me they were drawn to their careers for the opposite reason—because they wanted to do what challenged them.

My unusual background led me to this narrative study of how thinking varies from person to person. Originally I studied biochemistry and neuroscience, and in pursuit of my first love, membrane protein biochemistry, I worked in labs for about ten years. While I am still devoted to neuroscience, my greatest passion is for literature. I left the lab to earn a PhD in Comparative Literature, and since then, I have taught interdisciplinary courses on literature and science, first at Hofstra University and now at Emory University. My research and teaching have kept me in contact with scientists, historians, literary scholars, and creative writers; my students major in every subject from physics to film to global health. From the beginning, I noticed people’s clashing assumptions about what thought involves. Some identified thought so closely with verbal language, they couldn’t imagine what else it could be; others felt as though words distorted and mangled their thoughts. I began to suspect that thinking is like going to the bathroom: everyone does it, no one talks about it, and most presume the experience is the same for others as for themselves. When it comes to thinking, this isn’t true. For the purposes of my study, I defined thinking as the conscious experience of reasoning, problem-solving, remembering, and imagining. Most mental activity is unconscious, but I wanted to learn how people varied individually in the mental activity of which they were aware.

I approached people who varied greatly in their callings and asked them questions such as “What captures your attention?” “What senses predominate in your memories?” and “When you had to study for a test in school, how did you do it?” The interviewees included Temple Grandin, Salman Rushdie, and other respected scientists, authors, designers, painters—and one flamenco dancer. From the interviews, I created verbal “portraits” designed to take readers into each participant’s mind. Like a fiction-writer, I tried to let readers experience thought from each person’s point of view. I interwove the portraits with discussions of recent experiments on visual mental imagery and the relation of thought to verbal language. By alternating creative people’s insights with laboratory findings, I tried to create a dialogue in which the gifted thinkers and the researchers shed light on each other’s work.

I’ve begun this blog with the discovery about hard subjects, because it was the greatest surprise. “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to learn?” I asked everyone. I specified that I didn’t mean emotional life lessons, but academic subjects or physical skills. I was doing narrative rather than quantitative research, and I focused on how each person described his or her mental world rather than on how many people responded in specific ways. Still, I was struck by the number of participants challenged by skills crucial for the fields they entered. A famous translator and literary scholar found reading so hard that he had to repeat first grade. A respected neuroscientist called himself “hopeless” in math and told me, “I don’t think mathematically.” Math and foreign languages topped the list of subjects people found difficult. But among nine participants who found math hard, six had become respected scientists. Those who struggled with languages included a prominent literary scholar, a novelist, and a poet. The results of this qualitative study challenge the classification of any person as “visual” or “verbal,” a subject I’d like to address in future posts. But first and foremost, they place in question the idea that people enter fields for which they’re “naturals.” “The things I want to do are the things I find difficult,” said David Krakauer, who directs the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. “Things I understand easily don’t interest me very much.” For some creative people, the urge to master skills that first elude them motivates them more than quick success.

When combined with persistence, the attraction to mental realms that feel foreign can lead to extraordinary work. In my interviews with a wide range of creative people, I learned how essential it is to study not just what comes easily, but what comes hardest. Puzzling through integrals or strange squiggles on paper may lead one to connect thought patterns that were previously separate. The six-year-old who can’t read may grow up to be a brilliant translator, and the student who can’t understand math may grow up to map the brain.

More from Laura C. Otis Ph.D.
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