When I’m working on something very, very difficult, I often find myself bumping up against an invisible wall. It is as if my mind just isn’t clear enough to break through. For example, when trying to learn a new, complex mathematical concept, I seem to spend a lot of time teetering just on the verge of a full understanding with no real idea of what is holding me back. It is like looking through a fog.
The feeling is similar to running at your top speed and trying to go just a little bit faster. Obviously, this is very frustrating. You can almost taste success, but it just isn’t happening.
When I find myself in this situation, I can sometimes get past it by focusing more. This may mean getting rid of distractions, re-reading everything in an empty room where I know I won’t get interrupted or even just trying harder to understand. Usually this doesn’t work–it helps, but it doesn’t get me over the difficulty.
I have come to realize that this type of mental strain is the same thing that happens when trying to lift a weight that is just a little too heavy. It is a matter of trying to make connections in my brain that it simply isn’t ready for. Similar to lifting weights, the best approach is to try a weight that is slightly less heavy. For mental activities, this may mean breaking down the concept into several parts and making sure you completely understand the foundational components first. For college classes, I’ve found it helpful to get a different textbook and read the related sections, but from the perspective of a different author. (You can tell how difficult a particular class was for me by the number of textbooks I have on the same subject.)
In the end, breaking through these hard mental challenges is what springboards me forward. I can point back to several places where things were extremely difficult for me that I finally broke through and now serve as a foundational experience for a current skill set. For example, I was once taking a computational theory class that I was finding very difficult. I eventually dropped the class and took a discrete mathematics class before going back to the computational theory class and passing it. I found that the concepts from that class changed the way I think about solving many different types of problems–not just computational problems. It was difficult because it required me to learn a new way of thinking–something that is much harder than just learning a bunch of facts.
Your ability to conquer difficult mental challenges is what will set you apart from the crowd and differentiate you. Find the experiences that make people give up and be the person who doesn’t.