Why is it that when faced with challenging situations, some of us are tempted to avoid the problem or the conflict? When it comes to success, avoiding a problem is not an effective strategy, and hope, although important, cannot be one’s only action. I see these limiting habits (avoidance and wishful thinking) emerge in the classroom and on the home-front at times, but there are also lessons we can learn from even our difficult experiences — if we are willing to do something paradoxical, if we are willing to view problems as opportunities.
I remember a challenging class my son Gray had some time ago, where a clear pattern emerged – at least the pattern was clear to me and to Gray’s English teacher. Gray would believe he had followed an assignment’s directions – only to be disappointed later when his grade did not meet with his high expectations. I would encourage my son to talk with his teacher as soon as possible, before additional miscommunication or misunderstanding occurred. As a young teenager, at that time Gray was often tempted to ignore or avoid problems, just as many of us have probably done on one occasion or another, and we all know the saying: “de-nial ain’t just a river.”
After Gray had several experiences navigating “de-nial,” along with many instructional conversations, he started to develop new coping strategies. He realized that when problems emerge, avoidance makes the problem worse. He learned to face issues immediately, no matter how uncomfortable, before the topic escalates (or devolves) into a crisis. Gray learned to view a problem as a learning opportunity.
As Gray matured, he began to demonstrate these new problem-solving skills and growth mindset. As a high school student, I remember an occasion when Gray’s football team had suffered a defeat. I was concerned Gray might be feeling down about the loss, but when I asked how he felt, Gray surprised me. He responded insightfully, saying, “Now that we have learned our mistakes, if we have the opportunity to play that same team again, I think we could beat them next time.”
I was impressed with how Gray’s thinking and behavior had changed. Rather than ignoring a topic that was a disappointment (i.e. losing a game), Gray had learned to transform the experience into a lesson that he could use at the next game. This is the ideal mindset needed for overcoming setbacks: face the issue, whether it’s the loss of a football game or a disappointing test grade, and learn the lessons that are possible because of the experience.
I see similar patterns and growth opportunities in my students each year, and I am always affirmed when students overcome limiting belief systems and abandon avoidance strategies in favor of more effective, proactive problem-solving strategies. Each time a problem is faced, it helps us learn the skills needed to overcome the next challenge with a little less trepidation, a little more confidence and a little more courage. As the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho puts so well, “When you find your path, you must not be afraid. You need to have sufficient courage to make mistakes.” Further, Coelho writes, “When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change.” In our problems, we find the unexpected opportunity.
We will all have setbacks, obstacles and problems. On such occasions, rather than avoiding the topic or relying solely on wishful thinking, take action; be brave; face the issues; and be willing to make a change. Remember that nothing is a failure if you learn something from the experience.