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On our drive out to Utah, Bonnie read aloud to me some of the time. The book we read was Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. It’s a thought-provoking book that explores why people or groups often succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. In particular, he looks at how things that at first glance are disadvantages can become tremendous strengths.
There is a web of related concepts from the book that I’ve been thinking about. For instance, he introduces the idea of “near misses” and “remote misses.” (Much of this next section is me paraphrasing and summarizing from Ch. 5) This terminology comes from the work of J. T. MacCurdy, who studied the psychological effects of the London bombings during WWII. In particular, MacCurdy was trying to figure out why the bombings didn’t cause mass panic and hysteria, but were instead met with an indomitable resolve among the British.
He theorized that when a bomb falls, it divides people into three groups: casualties, near misses, and remote misses.
Casualties got hit. They don’t really affect morale because morale “depends on the reaction of the survivors.”
Near misses feel the blast, they see the devastation, they might even be injured. For them the blast is a deeply traumatic event. Their morale is very low.
Remote misses have the opposite experience. For them, the bomb hits some distance away, so they hear sirens and maybe even hear some explosions, but they aren’t really confronted first-hand with the devastation. After experiencing several remote misses, they get a feeling of invincibility. On some level, after a person emerges unscathed from the experience of their worst fear, nothing else seems so bad.
Gladwell ties all of this discussion into the idea of “desirable difficulty.” Essentially, not all difficulties are bad. They can act to make us stronger, better people as we overcome or compensate for them.
To use an example from my own life, I was cast in one of the lead roles of the high school version of Les Miserables when I was 18. It was the summer after my senior year, and I had never done a stage show in my life. I had never even taken an acting class. The director would say things like “take a few steps upstage” (an incredibly simple stage direction) and I would frantically look over at my friend who would point to where she wanted me to go. I just had no idea what I was doing. However, by the end of that experience, I had gotten a nice crash course in basic stagecraft that was incredibly useful to me during my degree in vocal performance. The experience was very hard at the beginning but it offered me to opportunity to experience tremendous growth.
The ideas that Gladwell discusses remind me of some of the psychology and physiology classes that I’ve taken. There’s a concept that comes up called “eustress.” Basically, it means stress that is good or beneficial, as opposed to “distress,” which encompasses all of the negative effects of stress.
The source of the stress can be anything, it’s the response to the stress that matters. Do you perceive the stress as something positive or something negative? A difficult challenge, or a dangerous threat? Deadlines are a good example of a stressor that can cause either eustress or distress. For me, a looming deadline is usually a huge boon to productivity, but there have been a few times where I’ve been totally overwhelmed, and that deadline has caused paralyzing worry and fear.
I use these ideas when I’m teaching voice a lot. I think Gladwell touched on this in his book, but that’s not where I first encountered it. Basically, if you imagine your mental state as a continuum with boredom at one end and feeling overwhelmed at the other end, then you want to try to keep students in the middle so they’re challenged but not overwhelmed. If you can keep your students in that zone, they’ll enjoy themselves and learn a lot too. If you go too far to either end, then both learning and enjoyment take a nose-dive.
Returning to Gladwell’s book, he has a long section about children who have lost their parents-fairly pertinent reading for Bonnie and me right now. He cites a variety of studies which suggest that a strikingly disproportionate number of extremely successful people lost one or both parents in their youth and childhood. In that same vein though, a striking number of convicts also lost one or both parents early on in their lives.
So after reading and thinking about all of this, I am left with several unanswered questions. If my kids lose their mother, what do I do to help them emerge from that difficultly as stronger, better individuals? I don’t think you can reasonably call the death of a parent a desirable difficulty, but there must be some way for something good to come out of all of this. I like the analogy of the near misses and remote misses, but this is different. It’s like trying to turn a casualty into a remote miss. How do you do that? How do you pull your kids out of the path of an incoming bomb? How do you patch them up once they’ve been hit? These are the questions that actually matter, and I have no idea how to answer them.