Win Now or Win Later?
The Power of Desirable Difficulties
Would you prefer to win now or win later?
The natural answer would be to go with the bird in hand, correct?
But what if that performance indicated you would do worse later?
This is what Robert Bjork proposes in David Epstein’s book Range.
The cusp of the argument is that when we win right away, i.e., ace the test or solve the case, the context in which we do this is more important than the win itself.
A great example of this occurs in vet school. The curriculum is structured in such a way as to break down the content into arenas. Things like anatomy, virology and surgery become their own unique courses to conquer. The goal of which is to help the student "master" the content by end of year exams.
This often has the desired effects. Every year tens of thousands of vet students pass their exams, finals, and/or boards.
They've proven they are "smarter" than they were at the start of the year.
But often they have been set up for failure.
The knowledge they have so diligently committed to memory is lost.
It has been "indexed" in their brain or siloed in such a way that it is readily available in the moment. But what has been lost in this short-term win is something known as, "Deep Learning."
Deep learning is how new connections are made. It is the antithesis of indexing in that it requires new and ever broadening connections.
Another vet school example comes from my own experience. The most failed class in our school was Large Animal Surgery. This was a third-year course feared by everyone.
The professors who ran the course expected students to not only know how to accomplish described surgical corrections BUT also make the diagnosis, create the surgical plan from radiographs, and address complications. It was the first course in our studies that asked us to BE the doctor rather than SOLVE the problem. They wanted us to learn deeply and apply everything we had learned in the prior two and a half years.
It was for this reason that it was the most disliked by many of my classmates.
But that was a sentiment in the moment.
And it was a poor one when I look back at the development it fostered within me.
While it may have been frustrating now, that frustration became a welcome difficulty as my career wound on. As I became more seasoned, I realized the importance of this wholistic approach. The necessary nature of the connections it forced and the desirable difficulty it brought.
"The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year." - John Foster Dulles
And that course made sure I didn't have the same challenges in my career as I had in my 3rd year of vet school.
It showed me that sometimes that short term challenge or failure is worth it. In the end you may come out with more competency than someone who succeeded right away.