Her resistance was palpable, her frustration evident, and she began to balk and resist. She sighed and let out a yawn, had a disinterested look on her face, disregarded the music teacher’s instructions and played a scale as a distraction. The notes she should be counting – instead of playing by ear – seemed to transform into obstacles hindering her musical development. When I inquired about her frustration after the lesson, she simply shrugged and said, “It’s all stupid!”

Learning hurts. It’s not always fun. Learning and growth are intertwined with challenges and obstacles, requiring both the courage to fail and the strength to persevere when the notes are off-beat. Hopefully, as she matures, she will come to realise that these moments of discomfort and frustration present opportunities to expand her boundaries.

The mirror held up to me during guitar lessons is that I have also experienced similar reactions when faced with new challenges (in fact, sometimes I still do). Getting angry, feeling frustrated, avoiding difficult conversations, or opting for the familiar path over the unknown – all driven by the fear of failure. As an academic, encountering failure is common: articles are rejected for publication, grant applications are denied or student evaluations are negative. I used to react with frustration to these setbacks. However, over time, I learned to transform these challenging moments into opportunities for growth. Embracing discomfort has made me stronger and better equipped to handle future obstacles.  Rather than dwelling on setbacks, I now focus on what I can do differently or better next time.

During the same guitar lesson, I realised that I see students in the lecture hall grappling with new concepts or methods as well. Their primary concern often revolves around whether these topics will be included on upcoming tests. It is my responsibility as a lecturer to reassure and support them by communicating clearly, setting explicit expectations and goals and providing positive feedback. This approach hopefully encourages students to push through discomfort.

After weeks of struggling to count the notes, my daughter’s enjoyment of her music lessons has thankfully returned.  What’s even more remarkable, however, was her realisation: “Mum, at first, I found it really difficult, but now I can do it.” This experience reminds me that every challenge encountered on the path of learning and growth brings us closer to achieving our goals, both in music and in life itself.


Hanan El Marroun is a professor of Biological Psychology.

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