Difficulty is a Mindset

It’s a pretty well known and well repeated experiment.

One version of it has two groups of asian american women take a math test. In one group, they are reminded that asians perform better on these tests and are asked to take it. In the other group, they are told that women usually do worse on math test, but to view this as a challenge and take the test anyways. The results are pretty shocking. The first group performed twice as well as the second group. I’m not exaggerating here:

They doubled their performance.

Note: You can read more about this series of experiments documenting the “stereotype threat” on wikipedia.

So what the hell is going on here?

When I was a child, I never thought of myself as “smart”. I wasn’t a fast learner and I definitely wasn’t a fast thinker. I remember we had these math quizzes in school where you are supposed to solve as many addition or multiplication problems as possible. I was never even close to being the fastest. When I started middle school, I was ecstatic when my teacher told my parents that I might be placed into an accelerated math class (it didn’t happen).

But something interesting started happening around the beginning of high school. Somewhere along the way, people just assumed that I was smart because I was asian. And it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I just learned to do things because everyone told me this was just the way things are.

I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in engineering classes in college. Some people are just so adamant that the class they are taking in engineering is really difficult. And when I studied with these people, things just magically became more complicated. It wasn’t like they were dumb or anything, but they seem so wound up that they couldn’t think straight. In their minds, there wasn’t a possibility that the problem they are working on could be anything but hard, and so it became so. Things become a lot more difficult if every step of the way you believe the topic is beyond your ability to solve: you’re constantly looking for evidence to support this belief and give up.

Here’s a thought experiment for you:

An online coding bootcamp, The Firehose Project, is supposed to be a 12 week course. What would happen if the entire coursework was marketed as a 6 week course, and all the students and mentors you met told you that it was a 6 week course, and also that, by being admitted into the firehose project, you had been rigorously selected as a bright and high potential developer? I bet suddenly (and magically), what would have taken you 12 weeks to complete is now accomplished by you in half the time.

But what does difficult mean anyway?

A useful way to view difficulty is “one’s personal tolerance for uncomfortableness”.

When we encounter a problem, we either look at it and give up, or we try to break the problem into simpler components. We keep breaking the parts down into even simpler parts until we can solve all the pieces and then put the pieces back into a solution. That takes a lot of work and work is generally uncomfortable for us (we’d rather not be doing work).

Some people have a high tolerance for uncomfortableness and they are able to do a lot of work before they give up. Your tolerance is something entirely within your control. You have to ability to determine where you set the thresholds for “easy”, “medium” and “hard”.

Note: this is one of the reasons why meditation can be so dang effective at increasing performance because it provides tools to work through these uncomfortable mental states.


I’m not writing this because I have some naive belief that “intelligence is illusory, if you just suddenly decide to, all the solutions will magically appear in front of you”. Nor do I think that you can just consciously decide one day to change where you set your tolerance thresholds.

I think that if you have respect for how strongly this phenomenon can influence performance, that if you stop identifying with the beliefs, and learn to productively work through these mental states, you will definitely become “smarter”. The mind is a muscle and through sustained attention and intention, you can gradually change these perceptions.

To conclude, I leave you with this amazing motivational clip: