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The psychology of taking Pleasure in challenges vs. Fear of failure

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[Cross posted at my blog, Psychology of Selfishness]

The psychology of taking Pleasure in challenges vs. Fear of failure

One crucial choice of approach to life we all face as children is how to deal with challenges.

The approach one develops and practices over the years affects one's self-esteem and one's ability to pursue one's values and goals.

Some adults find intense pleasure in complex challenges that take a long time to achieve, while others feel intimidated by them and shy away from them.

The reason for the difference is one's subconscious evaluation of one's ability to succeed, to acquire skills.

The man who takes pleasure in challenges feels pleasure because he judges what he is doing as being on a road to proving his own worth once more.

The one who dreads the challenge has the subconscious evaluation of themselves as being on the way to failure, of which every difficult step is further proof of that impending failure.

In reality they may have everything it takes to succeed had they had different motivation, but their motivation can be such a great barrier that they will never achieve that goal and start building their confidence.

It all starts in childhood when a child faces their first few challenges.

At an early stage kids seek immediate satisfaction without delay. If they solve challenges, they are of a simple, short-duration nature. If a child succeed in solving challenges with gradually increasing durations, eventually they learn that it pays off sometimes to pick tasks with delayed satisfaction. It starts from putting a cube through the right hole, to arranging some pictures in the right order, to building Lego models of an airplane (which takes an even longer time to complete) - to more complex tasks like programming.

It is not all a smooth sail - every kid faces those challenges in which they fails a number of times, and here comes the crucial waypoint where the two opposite approaches form.

The child, having failed several times, and still having the frame of mind of pursuing immediate gratification will face the decision to persist and try again or to give up and go back to the familiar, easy stuff they know how to do.

They have not yet experienced, at this stage, the value of delayed satisfaction and they barely have yet a concept of their own ability, because confidence develops based on success in challenges like the one they are facing in this case.

Here is where the parents have a crucial role in guiding their kids in the right direction. The parents can encourage the child to give up and go back to "fun stuff", or they can push him and slightly help the child persist in the goal.

They can teach the child that persistence in pursuing goals is a virtue, create a comfortable atmosphere for failing (so long as the child tries again) or teach the kid to take the easy road so that they don't have to see the kid upset.

Even given the right idea, a child still faces the choice of insisting on succeeding in a challenge or giving up, but having the right emotional background and (non-verbal) approach play a central role in what would occur to a child to choose.

A child learns a great deal what emotional reaction is appropriate for a situation.

You often see kids look at the parent's faces after some occurrence to observe their parent's expression and learn how they should react.

If they look at the parent's face after failing and see fear, they are likely to decide that this is the right response. But if the see a smile and quiet confidence, they learn that the right approach (or emotional background) is patience and calamity.

The reason this waypoint is so crucial is because those first attempts at a challenge are the base for a child's confidence and attitude toward challenges.

A child that has overcome the initial negative emotions and succeeded several times, develops a positive view of their own ability, of challenges, and learns to associate challenges with reward and self-esteem at the end.

A child that has repeatedly given up, on the other hand, forms a pattern and learns to associate challenges with failure and pain, creating a loop which cannot be broken until and unless the child (or the adult) decides to "do it anyway" and keep on doing it until they succeed.

So the conclusion?

If you have a child, teach them that the appropriate emotional background to challenges is relaxation and patience.

If you are an adult with a fear of failure (as I am, to some degree): Pick some tasks which you want to succeed in, and stick to them. Break them down to small steps which gradually increase in duration and go for it. It is only after succeeding over and over again despite temporary difficulties (or failure) that you will eventually build your confidence and learn to associate challenges with pleasure.

Your feeling about yourself and about what is possible for you in the world depends on it, so the investment is well worth the time.

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Good article. Your child dev assessment seems right on but there was an emotional aspect to risk taking that you left out(perhaps intentionally) that I thought that I would recommend if you don't mean to focus only on the child development aspects. As an admitted life long risk taker, (jumping off my roof with an umbrella-as-parachute, free climbing, business starting, stock investing) a major, if not primary motivator for me has always been failure itself. There's always a little disappointment when failure occurs, but I've noticed that I quickly forget because I get immediately distracted by why it has occurred. The mystery and learning that occur in tracing the wrong causation or sorting out the mistakes is inherently pleasurable. Likewise, succeeding feels nice for a moment, but quickly bores me which causes me to seek out new things to fail at. ;)

As far as child development goes, I'm not going to go into all the reasons why I suspect that I have developed this way, but generally I believe that lacking this quality is the result of artificial systems of rewards and punishments from parents and schools such as candy, grades, etc. Children tend to naturally enjoy their activities as ends in themselves, and then loose this interest as the people around them emphasize the rewards as being of more importance. Even worse if the regard the work as a drudgery.

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Great article Ifat.

And that's a good point aequalsa, if parents frame every activity as something subject to reward/punishment from them, the child may internalize the overarching notion that life is about getting other people's approval (and stuff) instead of the intended message.

One way around this is to make most rewards of the "if you achieve X you can enjoy the results" type instead of the (easier) "if you achieve X I will give you Y".

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If you want your kids to not fear failure, don't tell them they're smart. Tell them they are hard workers.

"Carol Dweck, a researcher at Columbia and Stanford, is a leading researcher in the effects of praise on students. She and four female research assistance studied the effect of praise on 400 fifth graders in New York schools. Students were divided into two groups: the praise group and the encouragement group. All of the students were given a series of puzzles that were easy to complete. The praise group was told, "You must be smart at this," while the encouragement group was told, "You must have worked really hard."

After the one line of praise or encouragement, the students were given a choice of the type of test to take next. They could either choose a harder set of puzzles that they would learn more from attempting or an easy test like the first. Of those children given praise for their efforts, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. The majority of students that were told they were smart chose the easier set.

Dweck concluded that, "When we praise children for their intelligence we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes." This is exactly what the students did, they were afraid of failure and chose the easy road.

Dweck and her researchers then did a second and third round. In the second study the students were given puzzles that were very difficult, two grade levels above their abilities. Everyone failed, but their responses were the interesting part. Those praised for their efforts assumed they just hadn't tried hard enough; tried a variety of solutions; got very involved; and still enjoyed the test. Those praised for their smarts assumed they just weren't smart after all and were miserable."

http://hubpages.com/hub/How_should_we_praise_our_children

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If you want your kids to not fear failure, don't tell them they're smart. Tell them they are hard workers.

... ...

Dweck concluded that, "When we praise children for their intelligence we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes." This is exactly what the students did, they were afraid of failure and chose the easy road.

Good advice. More often than not, young children do not understand why they succeeded at some task. Even adults do so many things without stopping to think "why was that good?" Telling a kid he is good does not help him identify why he was good. Therefore it does not help him be good the next time. The danger is that -- wanting the praise -- he might then try some other strategy, and when that does not work, try to get the praise some other way. Or, he may be fearful, because he does not quite understand why he succeeded the last time. Or, he may denigrate success: "I really didn't want that".

I suspect that the biggest factor in helping a kid not be afraid of failure is for the parent not to be afraid of the kid failing. I also think this is related to the broader fear of the unexpected.

Edited by softwareNerd
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The man who takes pleasure in challenges feels pleasure because he judges what he is doing as being on a road to proving his own worth once more.

I thought feeling the need to prove one's self over and over was psychologically unhealthy.

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I thought feeling the need to prove one's self over and over was psychologically unhealthy.

Her wording might not have been ideal. The need to prove oneself to others definitively is a symptom of an unhealthy mindset. I don't think Ifat meant that in terms of proving anything to someone else, but to yourself. Even better, look at it as "accumulating further evidence of one's own continued effectiveness".

Edited by mrocktor
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