Here's a brilliant blog post by Ben Orlin, on his blog Math With Bad Drawings. It's about being stuck, taken from an opportunity to speak with famed mathematician Andrew Wiles. I feel stuck lately. I'd encourage you to read Ben's thoughts. Here are some things that stood out to me:
...being stuck, Wiles said, isn’t failure. “It’s part of the process. It’s not something to be frightened of.”
Every trip has red lights, stops and starts, necessary pauses. I think a lot of us (myself included) neglect the importance of such pauses. Imagine trying to drive from Los Angeles to New York without stopping. Obviously your car wouldn't make it, but you'd also end up with some pretty serious health issues from a lack of sleep and bathroom breaks!
I read about one woman who drove two days straight to be with her dying sister, only to pass away from kidney failure when she got where she was going. Morbid, I know. But it illustrates the value of stopping. Being stuck in one place, having to stop, isn't something to be frightened of. In fact, we should be frightened of the opposite, of what might happen to us on our career path if we were to go without stopping, all gas and no brakes.
When it comes to math, Wiles said, people tend to believe “that there is something you’re born with, and either you have it or you don’t. But that’s not really the experience of mathematicians. We all find it difficult. It’s not that we’re any different from someone who struggles with maths problems in third grade…. We’re just prepared to handle that struggle on a much larger scale. We’ve built up resistance to those setbacks.”
We tend to view successful people as 'naturals' in their field. There's a trope I hear over and over: He or she "was born for this." He's "the chosen one." She's a natural. One suggestion I hear all the time and really, really hate concerns athletes, that something about their bodies make them more capable than other competitors. I hear announcers say, "He's built for speed, look at his long legs" or, "This guy's got the ideal physique for the tight end position." Something dumb like that.
Sure, genetics play a part in building the perfect competitor in a particular sport but pinning a player's success on their body type diminishes their years of targeted physical training and their many, many setbacks along the way to becoming a professional athlete. It's like when someone says a guitarist is great because of his long fingers—sure, Paul Gilbert's hands are massive and skinny, but he also practices his ass off. And yeah, he's had tremendous success as a guitarist, but Gilbert himself will be the first to admit that his career path didn't go the way he had predicted.
Some people exhibit a fixed mindset. They believe that one’s intelligence and abilities are unchanging, stable traits. Success, to them, is not about effort; it’s about raw ability. To struggle is to reveal your intellectual shortcomings. They can accept the state of being stuck only insofar as they accept the state of being visibly and irrefutably stupid—which is to say, not very far. By contrast, those with a growth mindset believe that effort fuels progress. The harder you work, the more you’ll learn. To be stuck is a transient state, which you overcome with patience and persistence.
Wiles is no educational theorist, of course, but I find that he offers a resonant and compelling third path. For him, perseverance is neither about personality (as with grit) nor belief (as with mindset). Rather, it’s about emotion.
None of us would think the trip is ruined if we had to spend the night in a hotel and get back on the road in the morning, yet we often allow the prospect of pauses and stops on our career paths for example as utterly damning. "I'm stuck here, I'll never make partner." Or, maybe you're here to enjoy this season, learn, and grow. The growth mindset beckons us to glean what we can from this time as we consider it temporary. But the growth mindset can be so very frustrating when we feel we've learned all we can from an experience and yet we're still stuck.
That's when only our emotional strength can keep us from anxiety and despair in our circumstances. Wiles cites forgetfulness as an emotional characteristic that can keep us working when all we feel is stuck. “I think it’s bad to have too good a memory if you want to be a mathematician,” Wiles said. “You need to forget the way you approached [the problem] the previous time.” Orlin elaborates:
It goes like this. You try one strategy on a problem. It fails. You retreat, dispirited. Later, having forgotten your bitter defeat, you try the same strategy again. Perhaps the process repeats. But eventually—again, thanks to your forgetfulness—you commit a slight error, a tiny deviation from the path you’ve tried several times. And suddenly, you succeed...it’s like a chance mutation in a strand of DNA that yields surprising evolutionary success.
Talk to anyone who has experienced success and you'll hear the same story: "I worked hard, but then I caught a break." They worked, they felt stuck, and then by chance they came upon something that lifted them from their circumstance—a rare mutation in a failed strand. Being stuck or being stopped or having to pause, these things don't mean you're a failure. Glory in the state of being stuck. Learn to view it as a necessary component of your journey. Look around, make observations, enjoy your time here.