Productive Struggle

Steps in Bellagio, where my sister and I went after I finished my first week of school.

Steps in Bellagio, where my sister and I went after I finished my first week of school.

Ciao from Milan (I say “ciao” now)!

In a former life that wasn’t that long ago, I was a high school math teacher. One teaching concept that I incorporated as much as I could in my own classroom and that I have continued to think about in the years since is called “productive struggle.” Basically, there’s an important difference between spinning your wheels, getting nowhere no matter how hard you try, versus having a tiny seed of an idea for how to solve a problem, and still stumbling around in the dark, missing the answer again and again as you narrow in on it. In the first case, your efforts are getting you nowhere, like you’re a dog trying to learn calculus. But in the second case, your repeated failures are priming you for an eventual success; when you do find the answer, you’ll know it, thanks to all the wrong answers you’ve already ruled out.

Your repeated failures are priming you for an eventual success.

I would often give my students problems that they didn’t have a roadmap for (if you have instructions for how to solve a problem, it’s not exactly a problem, is it? This is why most textbooks should be burned), and they would get so exasperated with me. Productive struggle is uncomfortable, and it often feels like the furthest thing from productive (this is especially true in a high school math class, a place that feels hostile and triggering for so many people). But ideally, at the end of the period, if I had chosen the problem well and they hadn’t given up, they would find the solution. And they would really get why it was the solution, and why all the other things they tried hadn’t worked. Sometimes a student would roll her eyes and say, “Miss Hennessey. That took so long! Why didn’t you just tell us we needed to use that equation in the beginning? We would have been done like thirty minutes ago!”

The reason of course, is that thirty minutes ago they wouldn’t have understood why that was the equation to use, and certainly wouldn’t have felt the satisfaction of solving a problem on their own. They also wouldn’t have gained any skills that would serve them well in the future; the only thing they would have learned is how to solve that specific problem, which is extra-useless because there’s no point in re-solving a problem you’ve already solved. It took thirty minutes (an eternity in teenager time) for them to be primed to understand why the answer they finally found was the right one.

The first two weeks of handbag school have felt so amazing thanks in large part to my struggles of the last three years. I’ve spent so many hours scrutinizing bags, trying things that didn’t work, lying awake at night wondering how to make leather behave the way I want it to. Then I started school. So many mysteries solved! So many puzzles I have pondered for so long have their pieces sliding into place before my eyes. If I had decided to start a handbag brand and then immediately gone to handbag school, the things I’m learning wouldn’t feel nearly as revelatory. Thanks to all that time spent alone, trying (and failing) again and again and again, have primed me to receive this wisdom. I am ready in a way I couldn’t have been when I first started.

If I had decided to start a handbag brand and then immediately gone to handbag school, the things I’m learning wouldn’t feel nearly as revelatory.

It’s thanks to what I learned as a teacher that I view every minute of the last three years as necessary. I needed to wander that circuitous path (and often go off into the bushes or backwards by mistake) to end up here. It’s thanks to knowing about productive struggle that I don’t think of those three years as wasted time. Instead, what I’m learning in school is coming at exactly the right moment. I earned it.

In my newsletter I’ll be sharing more about life in Italy and, eventually, where I see my business going when I get back. Sign up if you’re into that sort of thing!