Successful People’s Struggles Can Motivate You

What do Galileo, Newton, and Einstein have in common? No, not that they were brilliant scientists with ridiculously long lists of achievements. If you are a struggling physics student, this fact will probably discourage you further. However, research has shown that if you focus on another commonality among them—that they have struggled to make important discoveries—you will soon realise that even geniuses work hard and will eventually understand their previously impenetrable theories. So, start reading biographies and learn how your heroes have struggled.

We naturally associate successful people with their accomplishments, but this is not a particularly constructive way of thinking if you are trying to find motivation to learn something you find boring or difficult. Researchers have found that a better way would be to learn about the struggles these individuals had faced before they became successful.

In a study, students in a physics class were presented with either information on the lifetime achievements of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, or information on how these scientists have struggled to develop their theories. It was found that learning about these scientists’ struggles had helped students in four ways: (1) see scientists more positively, (2) higher levels of interest in the lessons, (3) retain more of the course material a week later, (4) better understand and relate different concepts.

It appears that by revealing these scientists’ personal and social struggles, students would be able to appreciate the historical context in which the knowledge they are learning were created. Crucially, such background information connects students to these scientists and helps create meaning during learning. Consequently, scientists will no longer be seen as ‘perfectly rational, emotionless, gifted, and antisocial’ beings. Rather, students will realise that scientists are ordinary people who have to work hard and persevere to make discoveries and formulate new theories.

Also, presenting stories of how these scientists had struggled has not only helped students develop more interest in physics, but also help them retain more information and use their newly acquired knowledge to solve complex problems subsequently. This is in line with past research, which suggested that we learn best when information is presented in stories. Also, by organising knowledge around people (scientists in this instance), the feelings of closeness to scientists could have inspired students to emulate these scientists’ positive qualities and performance.

Other research has also found that revealing the identity, personality, and attitudes of an author can increase readers’ interest in reading a book. This tells us that we can perhaps boost our interest in a topic by simply learning more about the lives of the people whose work we are interested in. Better still, see how they have struggled and persevered before reaching the top.

Next time, stop reminding yourself of how much your hero has accomplished. Focus on the hard work they’ve put in, and you’ll be motivated to work as hard or even harder.

What do you think? Share your comments.

Hong, H. Y., & Lin, X. D. (2012). How learning about scientists’ struggles influences students’ interest and learning in physics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 469–484. doi:10.1037/a0026224

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