Charlie Brown: Or why being bad at something can be good for you

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Lev Vygostsky introduced a now common term in Child Development courses called the “zone of proximal development,” often shortened to ZPD. This theory states that children learn best when a task is within their ZPD, meaning that it is something they can do either by themselves or with some outside guidance. Tasks that they cannot do without direct interference would fall outside this zone.

The outside guidance is referred to as “scaffolding.”

A common example might be the process of assisting the average five-year old in learning to tie her shoes. At first, she requires significant assistance, as well as multiple observations and repeated instruction. She might watch her peers, cry in frustration at first when she cannot complete the task herself, and forget how to tie her shoes a few times even after she has done so by herself. However, this isn’t outside of her ZPD, because it’s not an impossible task. The instruction and lessons are scaffolding.

Lev Vygotsky (Wikipedia)
Lev Vygotsky (Wikipedia)

Her ability to tie her shoes by herself after or within the context of this scaffolding showcases her ZPD. On the other hand, if you asked her to multiply six by eight when she has barely mastered basic addition and subtraction, or to read Shakespeare when she is not yet reading books by Beverly Cleary, that task would be well outside her ZPD, because she could not do it anytime soon without outside intervention.

Imagine that you gave this child no challenges, told her to be ashamed of anything she did wrong, and did not provide any such scaffolding. How might her development process be affected? It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to predict that she would fall behind greatly in her cognitive skills.

Adults are not so different, but we lack some key advantages of childhood:

(1) We are not physically as able to soak up information.

The rate at which the human brain is growing, changing and rapidly developing in childhood is astounding. And while we never stop learning (contrary to some ageist and unfounded beliefs), our ability to retain and build upon new ideas does weaken over time. Children, on the other hand, must learn constantly by necessity. Furthermore, their curiosity promotes a tendency to repeat a task ad nauseam — often to the chagrin of their exhausted parents — which strengthens neuropathways and endorses growth.

(2) We see asking for help as a sign of weakness.

A healthy young child will usually ask for help whenever he is stuck. A little boy racing his friends will stop and ask the nearest adult to help him tie a jacket around his waist if that’s what it takes to continue running. It’s a simple principle really: if you need help to continue playing the game, then ask! It’s better to keep yourself in the race. Adults often find this difficult to do without getting defensive or feeling inadequate, whether it’s at work or in our families.

(3) We do not (seemingly) have as much to learn.

Childhood is full of firsts, from ABC’s to the basics of math and science, social norms and people skills to practical tasks and developing fine motor skills. But adulthood presents a whole new array of more subtle tasks to be “mastered.” We simply have to tune in to the fine details.

(4) We do not have as many natural “teachers” in our midst.

Scaffolding is harder to come by as an adult. Many times, you have to seek out mentors as an adult. With the exception of college, internships, and required training in the workplace, most people have to actively pursue professional and personal growth. Unless you are asking for feedback or stopping the more advanced colleague and prying for tips, you are likely stuck trying to defend your own methods and behavior at work.

From a personal standpoint, I can say that taking on jobs best suited for extraverts when I am one of the most introverted (read: socially anxious to the point of abject terror) personalities out there has forced me to find people I can trust in any job, so I can be myself around a few lucky/unlucky trusted coworkers. It has forced me to make actual friends. It pushes me to think outside of myself and my comfort zone, and instead direct my focus on the person to whom I’m speaking … which is really where most social interaction ought to be, especially in a professional setting.

I have also taken on jobs not well suited to my personality or skillset, but well within my ZPD, if you will. While I can be organized to the point of perfectionism, I am easily frustrated by what I often see as pointless data gathering, yet I have held multiple jobs that required me to produce tedious reports or enter “meaningless” data for either funding or liability purposes. As someone who sees the Big Picture, this has forced me to ask for help in not only doing these tasks properly, but seeing the greater good to apparently menial errands. Not only that, it’s built up a bit of an appetite in me for challenge, which in turn breeds a decent work ethic.

Lastly, it is important to at least find something that interests you or fulfills a certain sense of purpose. With this piece in place, you can rediscover and maintain that curiosity that childhood possesses so naturally. In taking on jobs that have both interested me and required great effort on my part — as well as some guidance from others — I find that my “adult ZPD” has expanded to include some overlooked life skills, such as: a higher tolerance of failure in myself and others, a willingness to take risks and ask for assistance, an increased social consciousness, and a more accurate self-awareness.

These subtle skills, which I would argue are still in the earliest stages of development, are gifts received only due to taking on tasks that required good old-fashioned scaffolding. Or, ya know, advice.

As it turns out, Charlie Browning your way through life ain’t such a bad way to go after all. Eventually, the kite will fly and your dog will write a bestseller. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea.