In Defense Of Challenge

How tackling hard things benefits us all, by Tricia Chan

tricia chan french broad river academy girls program director

Tricia Chan is the program director for girls at the French Broad River Academy, an independent middle school in Asheville. She has more than 15 years of experience working in education and curriculum design, and integrating nontraditional instruction with student development and transformational field experiences.

This article was originally featured in Mountain Xpress on March 24, 2024.

It’s spring in the mountains, an especially exciting moment for those of us who enjoy spending as much time as possible outdoors. As the girls program director at the French Broad River Academy in Asheville, the season presents a rich, new opportunity for learning for both me and my students. As the weather warms, we haul our boats out of storage and head for the river, eager to refine our rusty paddling skills and challenge ourselves to learn new ones.

It’s not always easy to leave the warmth of a cozy classroom on a drizzly March morning to load up dozens of boats, paddles and personal flotation devices for a day on the water. The trails and riverbanks are often muddy and slippery, and the rapids are cold. The challenges are worth it, though, because the lessons of hard work, practice and determination that my students learn as they navigate the river return with them to the classroom. They are better prepared to tackle that math problem they’ve been struggling with, to stand up in front of an audience for a presentation or to play a musical instrument or to have a tough conversation with a friend.

french broad river academy in defense of challenge caneoing

One of my greatest hopes as an educator is that this mindset of challenge and growth spreads into all areas of my students’ lives — since one of the most important things we can do to be healthy and happy is to regularly do things that are hard for us.

Building our “challenge muscle”

Sometimes we get mixed up in what “success” actually means. Are we being truly successful if we remove all obstacles and find the easiest way forward in our pursuits? On the contrary: Success is more about navigating obstacles well and being good at learning and improving. In the same way that a paddler learns to catch small eddies, navigate a strong current or hit a wave head-on, so is dealing with life’s challenges, and it’s a skill that is more important now than ever. Being good at challenges is something we must work at — we have to be willing to participate in regular, appropriate doses of doing hard things in order to build our “challenge muscle.”

As advancements in technology continue to make life more convenient and comfortable, I believe that we unwittingly weaken those important learning moments that come from discomfort in our daily lives. Why should I intentionally place myself in a position of discomfort or difficulty if a more comfortable, easier option exists? Some challenges can be harmful, yes, but some challenges lead to growth.

I love the topic of “the right kind of challenge.” It’s my entire job as an educator and why I believe in the transformative nature of the experiential education models that I use daily. We know that engaging in regular, small experiences of challenge — both physically and cognitively — leads to many benefits for our body and mind. Much like building physical muscle and fitness, our brains also need to stretch and exercise to stimulate growth.

When my students are on the river and encounter a rapid, they have to work through so many important moments to paddle through it successfully. They have to be able to look at the rapid with a critical eye to find the best route, to talk and work with their canoe partner to communicate the plan, to push through some nerves to paddle strongly and to make decisions in the moment in case things don’t go according to plan. Evaluation and assessment, communication, conflict management, resilience and judgment: These are the skills we build bit by bit when we regularly do hard things.

Embracing discomfort

As I think about building a better community and educating students for the future, I believe the health of our world and the happiness of our lives depend on all of us building strong “challenge muscles.” Being able and willing to do hard things leads to so many good things. It means that our brains start to get the message that “I can do hard things.” It means that we can be more willing to do things for others, like service and acts of kindness. It means that we can be more compassionate toward others who are also experiencing hard things. And it means that when we encounter failure — a very unavoidable part of life — we know how to pick ourselves up, ask for help and try again.

So here’s my challenge: Let’s find ways to regularly challenge ourselves in good ways and let’s encourage others around us to do the same. In so many ways, we can embrace discomfort to our benefit. In these moments, let’s learn to be solution-oriented and positive, to support others and to discover just how amazing and capable we can be.