The Importance of Desirable Difficulties

The Importance of Desirable Difficulties

Quinn McDowell 5 min read

Warm Up

The process of learning something new is not easy. Research shows that we learn and retain new skills at a deeper level when the learning journey includes the right amount of difficulty, or as psychologist Robert Bjork put it, “desirable difficulties”—the inevitable challenges that produce growth for anyone trying to learn something new.

Indeed, the uncomfortable struggles of skill acquisition are an inescapable part of the learning process for anyone trying to grow.

But why should the concept of “desirable difficulties” matter to leaders?

It matters because leadership is largely based on our ability to continuously improve. The only way we can improve is by going through the learning process over and over again. The best leaders are constantly seeking to acquire new ideas and skills that will allow them to become more effective—while guiding their teams to do the same—a process that necessarily demands a willingness to embrace discomfort.

To reach our potential as leaders, we must help guide our teams to engage in the learning process by embracing “desirable difficulties.”


Learning something new can be a frustrating and difficult process. It requires perseverance, a clear and compelling finish line, and the right amount of support along the way. The best leaders are constantly trying to move their teams along this path which leads to an increase in growth, competence, and confidence.

There are three specific strategies that every leader can leverage to help their teams in this process. When leaders can facilitate small wins, encourage deep practice, and make difficulties desirable their team will rapidly ascend the learning curve.

Facilitate Small Wins

Frustration is an inevitable part of learning something new. Most of us have experienced the feeling of frustration that accompanies working hard but failing to see any immediate tangible results. This feeling could apply to anything—whether you are learning a new technique on the practice field, mastering a new subject in the classroom, or trying to create a new habit in your personal life. Whatever the scenario, it gets discouraging when you fail to see any substantial progress from your efforts.

The key to keeping morale high and momentum moving forward is to simply win small. Small wins are nothing more than accomplishing a smaller piece of the bigger puzzle. Breaking a large task into smaller chunks takes a big goal and makes it feel more manageable. The best coaches know this intuitively. They understand that winning a championship at the end of the season is only possible if you get a “win” each day at practice.

One author coined this the “progress principle”:

“So, the most important implication of the progress principle is this: By supporting people and their daily progress in meaningful work, managers improve not only the inner work lives of their employees but also the organization’s long-term performance.”

The most valuable kind of progress always starts as a chain reaction. Leaders that prioritize small wins create significant momentum by giving their followers the crucial confidence they need to persevere through the tough times.

Encourage Deep Practice

The science of concentration has exploded in recent years as people search for an escape from a increasingly distracted world. Much of the battle in learning a new skill is based on the inevitability of distractions. Progress is made more quickly when we are able to block out distractions and practice what author Cal Newport calls “deep work”:

“Deep work is an activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Deep work is difficult, but deep work is a necessary ingredient to master a new skill. In contrast to deep work, many of us perform “shallow work” when we fail to exercise the discipline it takes to set aside a time and space to allow our minds to dive deep into our topic. Shallow work is, “non-cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted.”

Deep work is the opposite. Deep work puts you on the express lane towards achieving your goals. Leaders should always encourage their teams to practice working deeply.

Make Difficulties Desirable

Desirable difficulties was a term coined in the 1990’s by psychologists who wanted to promote the types of learning strategies they thought were most effective. They understood what biologists have known for hundreds of years: struggle is a necessary biological prerequisite to acquiring a new skill. It takes enormous amounts of time and energy to install the neural circuitry that is necessary to foster skill development and retention—scientifically speaking, this process is called “myelination.”

For leaders (and anyone trying to learn a new skill), the key is to make the learning process difficult but desirable at the same time. The way to do this is to push your limits to the edge of your capabilities, immediately outside your comfort zone. If things are too easy you won't improve, but if things are too hard then you could get discouraged and lack the motivation to persevere. Making difficulties “desirable” means that the process of learning is arduous and difficult, but desirable because you are making enough progress to see the light at the end of the tunnel.


As a leader, how are you encouraging your team—or a specific team member—along its learning curve in the following ways:

Facilitating Small Wins

Encouraging Deep Practice

Making Difficulties Desirable

Write down one practical application that you can implement that falls under each of these strategies.