The Patient, Frustrated Craftsperson

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I suspect that this is the reason we often feel bad about frustration: that early in our lives we were set tasks that were too frustrating. And so we learnt that frustration lead to disappointment and didn’t achieve anything.

Frustration tends to get a bad press — understandably from my point of view. I’d much prefer that my life go along easily. I’d like my flow to not be interrupted, and my expectations to be confirmed. But…

Frustration: Positive and Negative

Learning something is about frustration and dealing with this frustration by acquiring greater skill. A musician will attempt pieces that are beyond their current ability, making difficulty (frustration) for themselves in order to play better. Likewise in various sports or other domains of activity.

For frustration to be useful to learning there needs to be enough (not too much) of it. The skill of an educator is to have tasks that are frustrating enough, not too much. People who are frustrated too much can learn things like helplessness, despair, that other people are unpleasant, that the world is not nice and so on.

I suspect that this is the reason we often feel bad about frustration: that early in our lives we were set tasks that were too frustrating. And so we learnt that frustration lead to disappointment and didn’t achieve anything.

Patience and Craft

Patience often gets a good press. The reason seems to have a moralistic tinge to it — keeping on with something that we find difficult or unpleasant is regarded as good, or waiting in discomfort or pain for something is good. Patience seems to be something more than doing the same thing repeatedly or just waiting. If we do something over and over again because it gives us pleasure, this isn’t patience. If we have a good time while waiting for something to occur, this isn’t patience.

Patience it seems to me has a tinge of despite, or ‘in spite of’.

Learning a craft can take many years and involve the overcoming of numerous difficulties. Looked at one way, learning a craft is the story of overcoming frustration with expanded skill. This means that the craftsperson is often seen as patient.

I think this is right in one way and not quite right in another. A craftsperson doesn’t always enjoy the repetition involved in developing skill; it can feel difficult and unpleasant. In this way it is entirely appropriate to see a craftsperson as patient. Where it isn’t quite right in my view is in the way difficulties are sometimes handled. Difficulties aren’t necessarily responded to by the application of a known routine (which is what patience alone would require). Difficulties interrupt the routine — they may signal that the routine is inadequate.

A difficulty can be responded to with curiosity. The craftsperson can become interested in the difficulty — whether they are doing something badly, what the difficulty really is — and they may seek out others’ experience and advice. This means a suspension of their prior goal — to get this thing finished — a change in their agenda, from achievement to understanding.

Curiosity is different to patience I think. Curiosity is fulfilling in the present, while patience seems to me to require an orientation to the future.

Frustration and Worthwhile Problems

It is possible to have different attitudes to difficulties and frustrations: we may apply patience or we may be curious, or we may get fed up and give up. It seems to me that all these responses have their place. When we have created a difficulty for ourselves or when it is part of some kind of curriculum, patience may well be the right response. When we come across an unexpected difficulty, curiosity may well be appropriate. If the difficulty seems too great to be overcome or require too many resources for overcoming it to be a worthwhile investment, then giving up may be entirely sensible.

I think our response to a problem or difficulty or frustration should consider the worth of the problem.

Some problems may be worth devoting our lives to — even if we don’t know whether they can be resolved. Finding a way to live peacefully with others, finding a way to provide enough electricity to power our lifestyles, or finding a way to adequately feed our planet’s inhabitants are all problems that I think could be worth devoting our lives to. These problems are worthwhile because they are part of a bigger concern or because of their possible results.

Some problems may be trivial. Should I take the bus or ride my bike to work — it’s only a few minutes’ difference.

Other problems are interesting or intriguing; they hook our curiosity. How does that author create a world for their characters while this other one doesn’t? If genes determine appearance, why don’t identical twins look identical when they die? How can one group in a similar environment be so much more violent than another group? These are all question that I think are usefully intriguing, due to my concerns and values.

Crafting a Response to Frustration

How we respond to a frustration will depend on our concerns and values. If we wish to develop perseverance then it may not matter that we have little prospect of successfully solving the problem. Usually we will take stock of our commitment to our craft and how this problem fits within it — whether it is part of developing a foundational skill or just an interesting triviality. We can also assess the problem itself and whether it is interesting and worthwhile.

I’d like to know your experience with frustration. Has frustration been important to you? Has it been pleasant or unpleasant for you? I’d love to here your experience in the comments to this post.

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