Eating bitterness

The valuable practice of being willing to struggle
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I’m reading David Robson’s The Intelligence Trap, a long reflection on how apparently very smart people are prone to making really poor decisions. It catalogues the many cognitive biases and social pressures that allow us to convince ourselves we’re right, when we’re wrong.

The chapter I’m on today shares the Mandarin concept of chiku, or eating bitterness. It’s the practice of being willing to struggle when learning. We often learn more effectively when we are failing and struggling, even though we think we learn more when we’re succeeding. I wrote about this recently over at the Creative Facilitation website reviewing the book Range. Robson frames this practice as a way of avoiding the glib errors of the intelligence trap.

I was doing a training workshop yesterday and several of the exercises were about embracing this kind of struggle – doing difficult things and being willing to fail interestingly lots of times. I encouraged people to be unattached to success and see what they could learn. It was less comfortable (including for me) but much more engaging. Next time I’ll frame that kind of work as eating bitterness.

Robson also warns us to “beware of fluent material” when learning. This immediately calls to mind so many books which break challenging issues down to three or seven core ideas. This immediately sounds appealing but I think cheats us of the useful struggle to really understand complex issues. The books sell well, but I suspect they don’t really help that much.

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