I used to think I could never learn another language. I studied Spanish in school, and it was always a struggle. I almost gave up.
Then, in my second year of college, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Mexico, and everything changed. For seven months, I renounced English and spent all of my time listening, speaking, and thinking in Spanish. I left home barely able to carry on a conversation; I came back with a confident command of the language.
I learned so much during my time studying abroad, and not just about Spanish. I discovered the amazing wealth of Mexican history and culture, and what it means for me to be an American living abroad. My whole perspective on the world shifted.
Most of all, I discovered myself. In this total-immersion experience, I encountered parts of my mind I had never noticed before. I learned how to learn, how to open myself to new ideas, experiences, and skills in a way that serves me well to this day.
I noticed that, for weeks, I would be plodding along at a certain level of language ability. It seemed like I wasn’t making any progress at all, and I felt very discouraged. But then, all of a sudden, I would “level up”. One day, I would wake up and find myself speaking Spanish with much greater ease and confidence. It was like magic!
Eventually, I learned that this was a natural part of the growth trajectory. It turns out that growth is not linear. Progress comes in bursts, after long periods of apparently fruitless effort.
I’ve recently begun studying web development. This process has been reminding me a lot of my experience studying another language. Most of the time it’s fun – challenging, but fun and mind-expanding. But then there are those days I spend banging my head up against a particularly challenging riddle. To go for a few minutes, or even a few hours without progress is frustrating. But days? I’m often tempted to give up, to tell myself that “I’m no good at coding” and retreat into activities that I find more comfortable.
In times like these, I try to remember the lessons that Mexico taught me. It would have been easy for me to give up on ever learning Spanish. I could have told myself, “I’m just no good at languages” and let that be my excuse for sticking to things that came more easily. I’m so thankful I didn’t, because otherwise I might still not know that the limits of my growth have more to do with my willingness to endure frustration and keep going.
The secret to growth isn’t about doing hard things; it’s about continuing to do the impossible things until – suddenly! – they are no longer impossible. It’s about having faith that, if I choose to persevere, doors will open in ways that I can’t even imagine yet.
Have you experienced this kind of unexpected growth? When have you been surprised by success after a long struggle?