Desirable Difficulties

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

I once had a conversation with daughter of a patient of mine. I had just complimented her on how well she was handling her father’s (terminal) illness. Since we had met I had noticed how matter-of-fact she was about her father and his needs. The daughter was a model client and very easy to please. She understood home care and Hospice and all of the challenges that go with having multiple caregivers in her home.

Then the daughter shared with me where her strength came from.

She told me that she had a “bad time” with her son last year. She said that after what she lived through last year this was “nothing”.

At first I couldn’t believe what she was saying. What could be worse than watching your parent slowly die?

And then I understood.

As a parent, there is absolutely nothing more painful than watching your child suffer. I have no idea what happened to her son and I assume he is ok now.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

In one of my favorite books, “David and Goliath” by Malcom Gladwell, a condition called desirable difficulties is explored. Desirable difficulties is a theory  that explains how the underdog can overcome and even excel. Gladwell cites a study from The City University of London that states in the past 20-30 years, the most famous inventors and innovators have at one point, been diagnosed with a learning disability.

Gladwell further explains that there are two possible reasons for this fact.

  1. They excelled in spite of their disability OR
  2. They succeeded because of their disability

A couple of years ago I was on my way to a holiday dinner for the company I worked for. I was late because I was on the phone dealing with a serious issue at one of my kids’ schools. My son was in trouble for something (I really don’t remember what the issue was) and he was suspended as a result. I apologized when I got inside the restaurant and explained briefly what was going on. In response my boss said he had been kicked out of several high schools.  Clearly my boss had succeeded in his career, either in spite of, or because of his challenges. He was a very successful business man and it really put things in perspective for me.

When I started nursing school I was in the middle of getting divorced. It was a process that went on for many years. Understandably it caused me a lot stress. Being a single mother while I was struggling to do well in nursing school-at the same time I was going through a divorce-made me feel like I was fighting in a war every day. I had no local support network and very limited financial resources.

I was not a star student. My grades were always just “good enough”. I studied like crazy but could never seem to get really comfortable with the material. I never failed a class, but I never passed by much.

In additional to learning in class, we also had clinicals and return “demos”. This meant that I had to demonstrate a skill that we had learned in front of my professor and receive a grade. As a group, my class had to decide together which student would be tested first. I always volunteered to go first.

My first semester nursing professor, Professor Soto, didn’t like me at all and did not mind making that obvious. I was sometimes 5 or 10 minutes late for our 8am class. I think she felt disrespected but refused to listen to me when I tried to explain that I live over an hour away and my son’s nursery school won’t take early drop offs earlier than 6:30am. Please note that in order to get my son to school by 6:30 am it required waking him up disgustingly early while getting myself and my slightly older daughter ready for school and leaving the house by 6:15.

She didn’t care.

But neither did I.

I wasn’t scared of the Professor. And I ALWAYS went first during our demonstrations. Sometimes I did well and sometimes I tried to spike an IV bag with the wrong end of the tubing. But I was not afraid of Professor Soto.

Did my client’s daughters’ experience with her son make her stronger? Do people with some learning disabilities have an advantage in business? Did my divorce help me through nursing school?


I would never wish difficulties on someone, even if they have desirable results. But I have to admit-I am very proud of the person I have become-as a direct result of my challenges.

Lessons I’ve Learned:

  1. You never know what people are going through.
  2. Crappy experiences can give you the tools to deal with future crappy experiences. 
  3. You’re stronger than you think you are.