David 'Mas' Masumoto

David Mas Masumoto: The value of struggle


While growing up, I wasn’t the brightest student and had some language and speech issues (for example, I thought the letters R and W were the same and could be used interchangeably). In school, my parents encouraged me to toil. They supported me yet never helped with homework and certainly not with class projects. Education was about hard work, exertion and trials. If I didn’t understand something, they quietly reassured me that struggle was good.

Likewise, when working on the farm, they expected me to make mistakes. Dad always gave me jobs I was not expected to do quickly or easily. I had to learn the hard way. Pain and effort went hand in hand with success. Since I could not control nature and the weather, the best I could do was learn from my gaffes. (Numerous examples of my blunders included: sloppy pruning, skipping small weeds that quickly became giant weeds, poorly furrowed irrigation rows, and picking fruit a day or two too late.)

Struggle was expected and encouraged. Errors were mostly tolerated. I was never supposed to do it right the first time. I was allowed to learn from misfortune.

I believe this came from a blend of rural agrarian traditions, Asian upbringing and an immigrant “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” maxim. Struggle was valued.

How much of this was myth? I now question if life was that simple: You work hard, accept defeat and then grow. Our modern world doesn’t seem to accept struggle – we want to simply win.

I can see this in sports. We celebrate victories and winners and cast aside losers. We reward home runs, baskets, touchdowns, kills and goals. First place is remembered, not second or third. Effort seems to be lost, even workouts are about quick success and not patience.

One study examined American vs. Japanese classrooms. In Japan, problems were presented, and if a student didn’t solve them, they were allowed to make numerous attempts, sometimes in agonizing ways. Meanwhile, the typical American student tried, and if they didn’t get the solution rather quickly, they gave up.

I’m confused about failure. Part of me wants to believe in a hard work ethic: Effort will be rewarded. It’s not about winning or losing but how you play the game (is that even said anymore?).

Yet at the same time, we have a perception that people who are smart don’t struggle. Confusion is seen as an indication of weakness and a lack of emotional strength. Those on the bottom are labeled as a combination of lazy and inadequate. Success is not equated with endurance and tenacity.

Or is it? I was intrigued by the idea that the work of coding in computer science is failure after failure before eventual success. Coders are used to failing – “debugging” is computer science speak for misses, followed by figuring out why.

Consider the new Common Core standards in education that value thinking and problem solving. Students are encouraged to research, analyze and reason. Are we instilling a new attitude: Struggle is natural and predictable because individuals learn differently?

It’s sometimes called the modern learning paradox. The more you struggle while trying to grasp new information, the more you will understand and be able to recall later.

In another study, students were given an impossible math problem. Many Americans gave up in 30 seconds, discerning they “haven’t had this” before. But youths who had been exposed to struggle worked for an hour. When informed it was an impossible problem to solve, they didn’t blame themselves but questioned why the teacher gave them such a problem. They did not internalize the defeat but properly responded with an awareness of the context; it was not a case of being ignorant, they realized they were not supposed to have the answer.

Perhaps this is also where the intersection of the arts and education can combine to promote innovation. Process and practice matter, more like an artist than today’s athlete. You work not to win but to simply get better. Creativity is born from contemplation and inspiration – you struggle in thought, challenge yourself to examine things from unique and novel perspectives, then reach new conclusions with emboldened ideas.

Individual setbacks can be depressing. But it’s the journey that matters, not the end.

Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people.