I asked my trainer and owner of Recreate Fitness, Nathan, if he would coach a “cross-fit club” with my 5th grade boys from the I Have a Dream foundation. It’s one of my kids and leadership clubs I’ve been doing. It’s definitely been fun, but also challenging. Some of the games and activities require technique, balance, or strength. And even the most athletic kids, the ones used to winning the races and being chosen first, suddenly find themselves in the unusual position of struggling. They realize it’s hard, and not something they can just do. For kids who aren’t confident or kids who have been taught to expect praise for whatever they attempt, their first response is to get impatient and frustrated. This is a critical moment in our emotional development which has profound lingering effects. When progress isn’t immediate, when gratification or success is deferred, the difference in how we manage that moment is critical to our success in life. The well known marshmallow test shows how kids deal with delayed gratification.

So how are my boys managing this? Well, a few of them get serious and focused. A couple of them just give up after one or two attempts, and wander onto something else. Some internalize their frustration, and get upset with themselves. And others externalize their frustration. They get angry at the activity itself, me, Nathan, or whatever they deem is in their way of success. One of them, Adbul, has really gotten my attention.

The first day, Abdul runs into the gym, jaw drops as he looks around, “Wow,” he says to Nathan, “is this all yours?” He runs from station to station, checking out all the cool things – climbing ropes, rings, medicine balls, kettlebells, box jumps, power wheels, and pull up bars. Nathan gathers them, and starts to explain, “OK, now, we’re going to do the rope climb. Who can…”? and before he finishes, Abdul shouts, “I can do that.” And that’s how the whole first day went. Everything Nathan shows him, he shouts “I can do that,” with a tone somewhere between disdain and bragging. “I can do that.” Until suddenly he couldn’t. In the middle of the relay race, he was ahead, but forgot that he had to bear crawl instead of run, and Nathan made him go back to the starting line. This cost him his lead. It was a major meltdown moment. What did he do? He walked very slowly back to the starting line. Very slowly. If I can’t win, his attitude told us, I won’t play.

Now, I’m a lot like Abdul. In fact, growing up, I was teased a lot for being a poor sport. Probably the teasing didn’t help, but I still can get frustrated when I lose. We all struggle with learning frustration, with our ability to stick at something through failure, mistakes, and delayed gratification. And in our culture of instant messaging, fast food, and the ability to get anything with the touch of a button, opportunities to focus for long stretches of time without immediate rewards are few and far between.

A recent HBR article shows that what really motivates workers is progress. More than bringing your dog to work, free lunches, good pay, or having great co-workers, nothing is more motivating that feeling that you are succeeding at your task and being rewarded for it. Or perhaps it’s the opposite that is truer: nothing is more de-motivating than feeling that no matter what you do, your hard work is not rewarded. And in the workplace and in school, the source of de-motivation can be in the environment: dysfunctional team dynamics, layers of bureaucracy, critical teachers or bosses, or, the opposite, parents, teachers or bosses who over praise, regardless of the actual quality of work, so the feedback becomes meaningless.

We’re just three weeks into this, but last Friday, I noticed a change in the boys, especially in Abdul. Abdul had mastered climbing the knotted rope. But on Friday, hanging next to the knotted rope was the loose rope. They all ran over and tried to climb it, but after a few attempts of pulling themselves up by their arms, they fell exhausted to the mat. Then I stepped up, and started showing them how to climb it by wrapping the rope around one foot, and then stepping on it with the other foot, to create a way to stand as you inch your way up the rope. Abdul came over to me, and said “Can you show me how to do it?” It might seem like a small thing, but it was huge. Something got him past frustration, got him interested in learning, in the hard work of trying to master a complex skill. After a few attempts, he started – very slowly – inching his way up the rope. After a minute or so, he said with a giggle, “But I’m not going anywhere!” This was amazing. He was frustrated, but enjoying himself nonetheless. He had been used to being the fastest one to zoom up the knotted rope, and this was much, much slower, and a lot more difficult. Yet the truth was, he was making progress, and he knew it. But it was a hard won progress. He was being rewarded by his own efforts. I said to him, “Yes, you are getting higher. It just takes longer this way at first.” He made it about three feet off the ground, and then gave up because he was exhausted, not because he couldn’t do it. And that was a big difference. He actually looked happy and somewhat pleased with himself – not because he succeeded at winning, but because he succeeded at learning.

This is the theory of intrinsic rewards –  that the best motivation is the sense of satisfaction we get from doing the task itself. As an adult educator and learning specialist, I think about this a lot. On the one hand, very specific metrics for success are important – they provide immediate and useful feedback. On the other hand, those metrics can too quickly become external motivators which undermine the pleasure of learning and increase frustration. Exams, standards, performance reviews, having your teacher or boss praise you, tying performance to pay, all of these things can thwart the sense of intrinsic rewards. And this creates frustrated, de-motivated, and underperforming people. Looking back at what happened Friday, I tried to piece together some of the factors that positively influenced Abdul. Was there something about this learning event that made a difference for him? What are some of the ingredients in the transition from frustration to learning?

  1. The activity creates the need for learning. We didn’t show the kids how to climb a loose rope, but just let them try it first. In education, a lot of emphasis is put on making the learning relevant. Why do I need to learn this? Telling someone why it’s relevant is good, but having them clamor to be taught because they see right away the value of it is ideal.
  2. The challenges are just hard enough. What I really like about this crossfit club is that the activities require a challenge – a new skill, something tricky, balance, strength, something they haven’t done before. Learning is a matter of adaptation – adapting to a new, stressful and difficult challenge. Optimal learning happens at the sweet spot between stress and ease. If the challenge is made too easy or we’re rewarded too quickly, learning doesn’t happen. But if it is too difficult and too much stress, we can’t learn. The same is true with the body. The overload principle states that for strength and fitness to increase, the body must work against a greater load than it is used to.
  3. While the challenge was really hard, progress and success is visible, immediate, and achievable. It’s good to have to work towards something hard, and to not be able to succeed right away. But just as important, it’s also good to create small steps, so some success can be felt right away. And it’s also really important to end on a high note. Working past the point of enjoyment, where we get tired, and our performance slips leads to increased frustration. Better to stop early then continue to the point where the activity ceases to be enjoyable.
  4. Like a lot of learning, much happens in the breaks. At the end of the 45 minutes, as they are cooling down and drinking water, they start asking questions: how do you do that? What’s that for? Can you show me how you do this? It’s an under-the-radar learning time. We ended the class early enough that they weren’t exhausted, but stimulated and just a little hungry for more. And in the casual atmosphere of the break, learning could happen free of any kind of performance or pressure.
  5. And maybe the most important one: I didn’t take a side in Abdul’s inner battle. I didn’t fight his competitive nature, even if it seemed to make him a poor sport. In fact, I think his competitive nature actually helped him focus and push past his frustration point. When I coach or teach adults who suffer from low self esteem it’s tempting to want to jump in and reassure them, “You’re doing great!” But the truth is, often they are not, and their inner criticism has some validity. It may be harsh and demoralizing to them, but taking sides in that fight doesn’t work. They have to grapple with their moods and tensions. Perhaps that’s the ultimate victory – even more than learning or succeeding – overcoming the inner obstacles to becoming a learner.