Ad Astra: How Teens Can Benefit From Struggle
Written by Olivia Weber, 12th grade student; written for her college dual enrollment English class
When the words difficulty, struggle, or hardship cross people’s minds, they usually have negative connotations; but what if mental and physical struggle is actually extremely profitable for everyone? For example, in the midst of all the paranoia and difficulties that the Cold War created, no one would have imagined that the United States could actually make it to the moon. Yet, America resiliently persevered through the many obstacles and failures that came with making it to the moon. This tremendous feat, through difficulty, gave the American people hope and a realization that they can do much more than they thought possible—even at the brink of the Cold War. When it comes to the difficulty, struggle, and hardships in life, some wish to be removed from them in order to limit suffering. However, evidence shows that these difficulties, struggles, and hardships are necessary growing pains to further the development of the brain, educational learning, and personal growth.
While some would suggest that struggle shows mental and physical weakness, evidence reveals that struggle aids in the growth and development of the brain. The science of homeostasis confirms this. Homeostasis is defined by the National Library of Medicine as, “[T]he process by which the internal milieu of the body is able to maintain equilibrium in the face of constant insults from the external world.” 1 When considering homeostasis in light of the brain, the brain
physically reconstructs itself in order to adapt to a hard mental or physical task, making the difficult task easier the more it is done. 2
For example, when one embarks on the incredibly difficult journey of running a marathon, he cannot begin his journey by running the twenty-six miles. He has to build up to the twenty-six miles, starting one mile at a time. By embracing the mental and physical struggle of pushing through the first mile, his brain will rewire itself to be able to run two miles, then three, and so on. Finally, he reaches the point of being able to run all twenty-six miles. By the time he can run a
full marathon, one mile is considered easy. The runner is able to run the marathon because his body and brain went through homeostasis with each mile—they adapted to the struggle of one mile at a time. The body and brain developed and grew stronger with each mile. However, he would have never been able to run the marathon if he had not subjected himself to the pain of beginning the first mile.
Along with the role that homeostasis has in developing the brain by adapting to struggle, the feeling of accomplishment after conquering struggle also has a great effect on the brain’s development. Anthony Fieldman, a writer for Medium, also points out, “[K]nowing you have overcome something daunting, difficult, or horrific makes you psychologically and emotionally stronger [italics in original].” 3 Here, people’s brains rewire themselves to remember that they can make it through a hardship when another comes up. However, if people never try to conquer a challenge, they will never know that they can actually overcome it.
Even if one fails a task, it still produces good results; Stanford professor Jo Boaler argues that failures result in “brain growth and connectivity.” 4 Thus, the reoccurring roadblocks everyone encounters actually do serve a purpose—they stimulate and develop the brain and make hard tasks easier over time. Both mental and physical struggle keeps the brain healthy and allows its development.
Not only does struggle allow the healthy development of the brain, but it also allows for people to learn educationally. When considering tests and education, many wonder what the purpose of testing is. Anecdotal evidence says that testing is a way to torment students. However, the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning contradict this common misconception: “Testing is not only a powerful learning strategy, it is a potent reality check on
the accuracy of your own judgment of what you know how to do.” 5 Even though tests are often unwanted, they are more helpful than many realize; tests clearly show people what they do not know, which material needs to be mastered, and what areas require more study. Because of these benefits, the daily mental and physical tests are extremely beneficial to help people gain an understanding of educational concepts and lessons.
Along with testing, the forgetting and remembering process also aids in educational learning. For example, when one forgets a name or a term, the struggle of trying to remember actually creates new synapses in the brain that build on each other, making it easier for one to remember the term or name the next time it is needed. According to Make It Stick, this process of embracing the struggle to remember something results in a deeper learning. 6 By embracing
struggle, one can learn more effectively.
Another aspect that challenges, struggles, and hardships help with is personal growth. Everyone will experience hard times in his life, but everyone will have different responses to these struggles. A natural response to difficulties is to try to get away from the pain and remove the possibilities of struggle, but Fieldman says, “this is both self-destructive and unhuman.” 7 Jo Boaler also supports this: “Research shows that struggling is absolutely critical to mastery and
that the highest achieving people in the world are those who have struggled the most.” 8 Therefore, when people give up after a few times of failure, they are only hurting themselves. Struggle does not mean one cannot complete the task—it simply means there is a new learning opportunity being presented. Even though struggle hurts, struggle helps.
Struggle also allows humans to break free from their comfort zones and realize their full potential. Ashley Cullins, a writer for the Big Life Journal, argues that if parents step in and stop their children from struggling, it will actually hurt their children more than if they were to continue allowing their children to struggle. Parents who shelter their children from experiencing struggles are depriving them of discovering how to handle struggle once they are grown up and
on their own. Without mental and physical struggles during childhood, children are put at a disadvantage and will be unprepared for life. 9 Taking away all problems gives children a wrong perception of reality—reality includes problems; reality includes struggle; but reality also includes the ability to overcome those problems and struggles. Of course, there is a limit of when struggle or pain needs to be evaluated; but the point is that people should not just immediately give up when faced with a roadblock. There should be an attempt to find a way through the roadblock. Through hardships, problem-solving skills are developed, aiding in personal growth.
Along with the personal growth that comes from developing problem-solving skills, people also grow to develop a mindset of curiosity and discovery through struggle. Embracing struggle removes the stigma around not understanding something. This creates the desire to learn new things instead of being afraid to go through the natural learning process, which includes struggle. It encourages one to say, “‘I don’t know, but I will find out.’” 10 This reveals that it is alright to be wrong, make mistakes, or even fail—discovery is close by.
Through struggle, many also grow to realize that they are more capable of succeeding in life than they thought possible. Fieldman argues, “Every perceptual limit that we survive and surpass opens a new world of possibility to us. That’s because most limits exist only in our minds [bold in original].” 11 It is natural for people to be scared or hesitant when it comes to challenging circumstances, but many have subconsciously predetermined that they cannot make it through those hardships. When people are not given any other choice but to try to conquer hardships, that subconscious inclination is broken. Many realize they actually can make it through much more challenging circumstances than they thought.
Even if people fail at overcoming a hardship, valuable lessons can still be taught through the failure. Fieldman states that failure “humanizes us [italics in original].” 12 People can easily become prideful and caught up in success, but once failure hits, it hits hard. However, the failure gives a reality check and reminds people that mistakes will happen. 13
Additionally, personal growth can be developed through the struggle in individuals’ belief systems. During these inevitable times when people question their personal beliefs, many often try to run from that struggle. People usually shut down other opinions that are contrary to their personal beliefs because they do not want to be presented with the possibility of questioning their own beliefs. That specific struggle, however, is not only crucial to understanding one’s own
character and morality, but also to understanding the nature of Truth itself. It is necessary for people to welcome their doubts and questions because it is only then that they will begin to realize what they actually believe and why they believe it, thus strengthening their personal beliefs. Through all of these struggles, people grow and develop as individuals.
Struggle gives the chance for the brain to develop and advance, for people to learn, and for personal growth to begin. Hopefully, the words difficulty, struggle, and hardship can now be interpreted in a new light. They can be read through the lens that allows people to see the opportunities made available to them through the inevitable growing pains and obstacles presented in life. Whether mental, physical, or spiritual, struggle extends an invitation that opens
up new possibilities and reveals the stars. As the Latin saying goes, ad astra per aspera—to the stars, [but] through difficulties.
1 E. C. Azmitia, “Serotonin Neurons, Neuroplasticity, and Homeostasis of Neural Tissue.” Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 21,2 Suppl (1999): 33S-45S. doi:10.1016/S0893-133X(99)00022-6.
2 Peter C. Brown, Henry l. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 179.
3 Anthony Fieldman, “The Importance of Struggle,” Medium, December 19, 2020, https://medium.com/curious/the-importance-of-struggle-e0a71e46365e.
4 Jo Boaler, “Why Struggle is Essential for the Brain—and Our Lives,” EdSurge, October 28, 2019, https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-10-28-why-struggle-is-essential-for-the-brain-and-our-lives.
5 Brown, et al., 72.
6 Ibid., 75.
7 Fieldman, 2020.
8 Boaler, 2019.
9 Ibid.10 Boaler, 2019.
11 Fieldman, 2020.
Azmitia, E C. “Serotonin Neurons, Neuroplasticity, and Homeostasis of Neural
Tissue.” Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of
Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 21,2 Suppl (1999): 33S-45S. doi:10.1016/S0893-
Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of
Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
Cullins, Ashley. “7 Reasons Why it’s Important to Let Your Kids Struggle.” Big Life Journal.
September 3, 2022. https://biglifejournal.com/blogs/blog/struggle-is-important.
Fieldman, Anthony. “The Importance of Struggle.” Medium, December 19, 2020.
Boaler, Jo. “Why Struggle is Essential for the Brain—and Our Lives.” EdSurge, October 28, 2019. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-10-28-why-struggle-is-essential-for-the-brain-and-our-lives.