Embrace the struggle

by | Feb 7, 2022 | Leadership

In the last few months, I’ve been doing cryptic crosswords again, inspired by a post written by an old mentor of mine, Col Fink, entitled Is that Frustration or fun you feel? 

Col observed how, when we’re grappling with the difficult bits of playing games or sports, we tend to see it as fun, whereas when we find things difficult at work, we berate ourselves for not being able to do it and become frustrated.

To be honest, I get frustrated with myself in both situations! Unlike Col, I’d given up on cryptic crosswords because I kept getting stuck after a couple of clues and felt that I just wasn’t up to the task.

So Col’s post prompted me to begin an experiment with re-engaging with cryptic crosswords. I have to say, having written a book which says alot about mastering your mind, it’s been enlightening.

This is what I’ve learned. I hope there will be a nugget or two here that will help you embrace difficulty rather than viewing struggle as a sign of inadequacy.

1. Set yourself up for success, not failure.

I discovered the Times quick cryptic, which has 56 fewer squares than the normal crossword. The clues aren’t any easier (well, I don’t think they are!) but the fact that it’s more compact makes it feel less overwhelming.

I just had to reframe the unhelpful thought that I wasn’t doing the “proper” crossword into the more positive thought that I was creating the best conditions to learn and succeed.

2. Believe you can.

You may well be aware of the famous quote by Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right”. On a bad day, I’ll look at a crossword and think, “I can’t do this”. This alone seems to create a mental barrier – the crossword seems like a mass of words that I don’t have the key for.

Yet when I say to myself, “You can do this”, it’s as though a veil has been lifted and my mind can see things it couldn’t before.

3. Trust it will come.

I have a crossword on the go for a few days, dipping into it when I’m at the kitchen table. Often, I work at a clue for a while and it just won’t come. Yet I’ve discovered that solutions will pop into my mind when I wake up in the early hours, or out walking. One memorable one was Desperate Dan.

I wrote about why our brain needs time out to figure things out in my book, Unleash Your Leadership : How to worry less and achieve more (page 95 if you have a copy). However, until my crossword experiment, I hadn’t had a really good experience of it.

In summary, there’s a part of the brain called the Default Network that kicks in when the brain isn’t focussed on a task. It’s responsible for those light-bulb moments you have in the shower or out and about, like I have had with my crossword solutions. The authors of The Net and the Butterfly : The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking call it your Genius Lounge. 

Trusting your Genius Lounge makes problem-solving a much lighter experience. Try walking away from your problem, physically as well as mentally, and see what happens.

4. Look at it from a different perspective.

I’ve found this has worked both mentally and physically.

With cryptic crosswords, the solution is often at one end of the clue and the remainder of the clue is the wordplay that will help you solve it. When I get stuck, it’s helped to let go of my thesis of what’s the solution and what’s the wordplay and see what other possibilities there are.  

This morning, when I came into the kitchen, I looked down at the current crossword briefly and saw 3 solutions in quick succession. Probably a combination of my Genius Lounge at work overnight and  seeing the problem from – literally – a different angle.

5. Give it time.

I’m a very impatient person. I want to get to the destination without going through the journey first. Added to this, I have an unhelpful belief that, if I haven’t solved something quickly, there’s something wrong with me.

In the world of the internet, it would be very easy for me to Google a solution as soon as I feel stuck. Instead, I’ve been holding out in the belief that I can do it (see Point 2) and my experience of my Genius Lounge delivering the goods has increased my staying power.

I’ve learned that, even if it takes a few days, I can do it. The one or two solutions I sometimes need to look up are usually pretty obscure which is reassuring!

Embrace the struggle, work with your mind

Crosswords have been the perfect place to experiment with how I embrace difficulty because no one’s judging me, except myself. In the scheme of things, crosswords really don’t matter, nor how long I take to do them. Though it still feels really good to complete one!

Where in your life and work do you give yourself a hard time for not working something out well enough or fast enough? Does it lead you to pushing yourself harder or just giving up? 

Where would you benefit from embracing struggle, helping your mind work for you rather than against you?

A quote from Og Mandino to close : “I will embrace today’s difficult tasks, take off my coat and make dust in the world.”

What do you think? Drop me a line at alison@alisonreid.co.uk.

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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