The Virtue in Struggle

A reader sent me a transcript from NPR’s Morning Edition. The feature, “Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning,” is a very interesting portrait of the counterintuitive and fundamental differences in each culture’s approach to learning.

She sent it to me because I write about the LPGA frequently and she thought this look at how the Asian cultures approach learning might explain the phenomenal success of the Koreans on the LPGA Tour.

And, in reading it, I agreed with her, but there wasn’t a concrete connection between educational methods and golf success on the LPGA that I’d ever heard of.

Until today…more on that in a minute. 

Here in a nutshell is the principle difference between the two cultures: struggle.

For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.

They presented a number of illuminating vignettes about how struggle is injected into the way children are brought long. In the West, successful children are lauded by their parents because of who they are; smart enough to have figured out the problem. In the East, successful children are lauded by their parents because of the effort and struggle they put forth to realize their success.

All of this matters because the way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual behavior.

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

I highly recommend taking a moment to read the whole piece. What struck me most was my own initial struggle with how this cruelty — no, maybe “harshness” is a better word — affected the poor Asian kids…until you see that struggle is a valued and expected element of learning. That there is satisfaction in having overcome the struggle. These kids weren’t being treated harshly, they were being treated as they expected and, what’s more, they were perfectly capable of dealing with it. Human beings are a pretty resilient lot.

And so, isn’t golf just the perfect test bed for this approach? Can’t you just imagine all the great Asian women players — Se Ri Pak, Yani Tseng, Na Yeon Choi, Ai Miyazato, et. al. — nobly enduring the struggle of learning the game. “Nobly” to the Western mind, matter-of-factly to the Asian mind.

And today I finally found an item that suggests that this way of learning does indeed occur the same way in golf.

I found it in Brian Wacker’s feature at pgatour.com. “Kim’s upward trajectory continues at final stage,” is the whirlwind story of the brief, but meteoric professional career of the next great Korean player, Meen Whee Kim.

As an amateur, Kim was playing at a national level five years after he first picked up a club. He was winning major international titles a year after that.

When he decided that climbing the Korean professional ladders wasn’t a big enough stage, he entered Q-School for the PGA Tour. He won his First Stage site and placed second in the Second Stage to get himself to this week’s finals.

And as with most people who become successful, he had a mentor, K.J. Choi, the 2011 Players Championship winner.

Whatever Choi is telling him, it seems to be working. This 20-year-old kid shot 63 Thursday to tie the Stadium Course record and take a one-shot lead. And this is where the light bulb went off for me:

When it came to how to prepare for this week, Choi’s advice was simple: “He just said it’s very difficult.”

My Western-mind reaction was, “Thanks, K.J. Thanks a lot. Big help.”

But with this newfound knowledge from NPR, K.J.’s advice probably registered in an entirely different way with Kim. Because in its succinctness, it conveyed an important cultural message that Kim would immediately understand. This was going to be a struggle, but you are used to that and it’s nothing you can’t handle.

It seems to be working so far.

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