Close your eyes for a second and imagine the good life.

Were you fishing? Lounging on the beach? Sipping a glass of wine while chatting with friends? Whatever your version of the good life, the first image that popped into your mind probably had nothing to do with demanding clients, unpaid invoices, cranky staff, or flaky suppliers.

In short, given the stresses of owning a business, your day dream probably was about as far away from the daily difficulties of keeping your company running as you can get.

But maybe that's a mistake, suggests writer Ian Leslie in Intelligent Life. We usually view difficulties as something to be minimized in order to attain happiness and satisfaction, but Leslie rounds up examples from a wide spectrum of fields to show that difficulties actually bring meaning and satisfaction into our lives.

His article doesn't directly address the hardships inherent in entrepreneurship, but it's worth a read for founders and small-business owners nonetheless. He lays out the case that difficulties (within reason; no one is singing the praises of real suffering here) are good for learning, creativity, and even happiness:

Our brains respond better to difficulty than we imagine. In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level. Robert Bjork, of the University of California, coined the phrase "desirable difficulties" to describe the counter-intuitive notion that learning should be made harder by, for instance, spacing sessions further apart so that students have to make more effort to recall what they learnt last time. Psychologists at Princeton found that students remembered reading material better when it was printed in an ugly font.

Scientists from the University of Amsterdam recently carried out a series of experiments to investigate how obstacles affect our thought processes. In one experiment, people were set anagram puzzles to solve, while, as an obstacle to concentration, a series of random numbers were read out. Compared with those in a control group who performed the same task without this distraction, these subjects displayed greater cognitive agility: they were more likely to take leaps of association and make unusual connections. The researchers also found that when people are forced to cope with unexpected obstacles they react by increasing their "perceptual scope"--taking a mental step back to see the bigger picture. When you find your journey to work blocked by a construction site, you have to map the city in your mind.

As a poet, Ted Hughes had an acute sensitivity to the way in which constraints on self-expression, like the disciplines of meter and rhyme, spur creative thought. What applies to poets and musicians also applies to our daily lives. We tend to equate happiness with freedom, but, as the psychotherapist and writer Adam Phillips has observed, without obstacles to our desires it's harder to know what we want, or where we're heading. He tells the story of a patient, a first-time mother who complained that her young son was always clinging to her, wrapping himself around her legs wherever she went. She never had a moment to herself, she said, because her son was "always in the way". When Phillips asked her where she would go if he wasn't in the way, she replied cheerfully, "Oh, I wouldn't know where I was!"

Could your business, with all its annoyances, be the metaphorical equivalent of that clingy child? No one can blame you for the occasional reverie in which you imagine yourself ensconced in a cushy corporate nine-to-five, but Leslie reminds business owners that despite their grumbling, the difficulties of business ownership give structure to our lives, sharpen our enjoyment, improve our minds and generally boost satisfaction.

"We need to remind ourselves how useful the right obstacles can be. Sometimes, the best route to fulfillment is the path of more resistance," he concludes. Read the complete article here.

Do you sometimes forget why you chose the difficult path over the easy one? 


Published on: Nov 6, 2012
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