Aeschylus, the renowned playwright of ancient Greece, is remembered as the father of tragedy. His works often visited themes such as disaster, downfall, and divine justice, which provided ample opportunity to connect suffering to learning:
“Suffering brings experience.”
“Wisdom comes through suffering.”
“The reward of suffering is experience.”
“Only through suffering do we learn.”
“Nothing forces us to know what we do not want to know except pain.”
Aeschylus was not the only philosopher to opine about how excruciating experience and knowledge can be to come by:
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” — Confucius
“Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Don’t feel entitled to anything you didn’t sweat and struggle for.” — Marian Wright Edelman
“Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.” — Napoleon Hill
Learning–by which I mean the deliberate acquisition of new skills, strategies, or knowledge–often involves struggle. Once you’ve plucked the low-hanging fruit, you have to stretch and strain for the less convenient morsels. Obviously, expert coaching can expedite learning but nothing replaces the personal pain of deliberate sustained practice.
Sometimes, the pain of learning is physical, as many athletes and performers can attest. The burn in muscles after an intense workout, the callouses on a musician’s fingers, the brutality visited upon a dancer’s toes… all speak to the suffering endured in order to attain peak performance when it counts.
But learning involves emotional and intellectual pain as well, even when the struggle isn’t visible or tangible. Overcoming obstacles and resisting distractions can be incredibly challenging. Expanding your understanding until you can comprehend what was formerly incomprehensible can be exhausting. Just fighting through doubt, fear, and (often worst of all) boredom to reach a new level of insight and experience–and then begin anew for the next level–requires formidable perseverance and resilience.
When you set lofty learning goals such as superior grades, elite test scores, or multilingual fluency, ask yourself how much you are willing to suffer to attain them. Nothing worth having comes easy, particularly those rewards that accrue only to the most dedicated and tenacious learners. That in itself often makes the suffering worthwhile. So if you want it, grit your teeth and go get it. As they say, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”