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Why Obstacles Matter

On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I accompanied a group of donors to visit a few of the entrepreneurs served by HOPE International’s wonderful partner, Esperanza. One of the women we met wasn’t a typical success story. She sold clean water to her community. But, to be frank, she was getting badly beat by her competitors.

And that was not a challenge we should try to solve for her.

Interestingly, her competitors charged more than she did for pure water, but they were delivering the water door-to-door, a service she wasn’t able to start. As a result, her profits and her customers were disappearing. She described the difficulty of the business environment in her neighborhood and recounted the many barriers holding her back from achieving her dreams.

While we were with her, I noticed a few of our guests holding whispered side conversations. I sensed I knew what they were discussing. When we got back on the bus, they confirmed my assumptions. They shared that they were interested in buying her a truck to deliver her water to her customers. A $10,000 truck could change her business prospects forever, they shared.

As we drove away from the community, another member of our group spoke up. He suggested that the struggle and challenges she was facing were really important. She needed, he said, to figure out how to overcome those challenges without us solving them for her.

If we simply removed that barrier for her, another one would certainly take its place. Perhaps the water system would need repairs or intermittent electricity would demand a bigger generator. Removing today’s obstacle would do more harm than good.

“Obstacles can be positively formative, not problems to be avoided.”

Finding a way around those obstacles would define and shape her character. With the support of the Esperanza team, she would need to create a plan, lean on her community, and work really hard to accomplish her goals. In these sorts of situations, it’s actually much harder not to buy the truck. But that’s what she needed more.

My wife, Alli, has taught first grade for many years in one of Denver’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. Interestingly, the importance of obstacles has prevailed in academic research on how at-risk students can thrive. In “How Children Succeed,” journalist Paul Tough chronicles why kids need to be allowed to fail.

“Most parents are more worried than they need to be about their children’s grades, test scores and IQ,” wrote Tough. “And what we don’t think about enough is how to help our children build their character… In the classroom and outside of it, American parents need to encourage children to take chances, to challenge themselves, to risk failure. Paradoxically enough, giving our kids room to fail may be one of the best ways we can help them succeed.”

After extensive research on how kids thrive, Tough concludes that it’s not test scores or IQ that determines whether or not children succeed. It’s character. More specifically, it’s grit. It’s when kids see obstacles not as defeating or immovable, but as challenges they can overcome. When kids develop grit, they develop the buoyancy and work ethic they need to thrive in school, work, and life.

In her classroom, Alli often opens up lessons with her low-income first graders by saying something like this:

“I’m about to give you guys a math problem that makes many third-graders cry.”

The kids inch forward in their seats. She’ll then give the kids a chance to opt-out if they’re scared. They don’t. They know they can handle it. Because Alli’s taught them her classroom is a safe place for failure. That together they can work to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. When that happens in her classroom and in the Dominican Republic and in our own lives, obstacles become positively formative, not problems to be avoided.

This article was originally posted at Smogasblurb.

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