Think back to times in your life when you learned the most about yourself, others, or an area of study.  Most likely, there was someone, or many people if you were lucky, who supported you and encouraged you on the path of learning and helped you learn how to struggle.  There may have been times when you wanted to give up, but someone was there to help you build resilience and help you realize that there were unimaginable possibilities in your life if you would ______. I’ll let you fill in the blank.

I’ve had the honor of speaking with SUNY Plattsburgh students recently about the alchemy of personal characteristics and life-approaches that could turn into gold in the future.  The discussion often starts with saying each student’s future is unknown, but doing the right things now will place her/him at the doorstep of opportunities that cannot yet be imagined.  I often challenge students’ thinking in the conversation by saying that there is no way of knowing the true self without moving beyond comfort zones and struggling beyond perceived limits of discipline, determination, and inner-drive.  The right friends and mentors are crucial to this process too.

Another powerful statement I use with students is, “It would be fascinating to see who you could become if (add something about discipline, determination and/or inner drive here).”  This statement about an “unknown self,” is followed by emphasizing the importance of accepting and appreciating the “current self.”  This allows for growth without creating anxiety about the current self; greater anxiety is felt by students who tightly embrace an idealized self that is far from the real self.

The mixing of concepts such as an “unknown future self” and “appreciating the current self” is the alchemy; a combination of characteristics/approaches that lead to unimaginable possibilities.  There are other powerful, life-changing combinations of characteristics and approaches you can consider introducing to your students that will help build resilience and opportunities such as:

  • Passionate curiosity as related to deep learning without dependence on a professor to feel passionate about a subject
  • Strength/Ego/Confidence balanced by humility
  • Being “comfortable” vs. learning how to struggle well
  • Maintaining dignity when faced with hurtful comments from others
  • Creating a safe psychological space in which to have difficult conversations – critical to do at any institution of higher learning
  • Caring and the importance of letting/helping others struggle (detailed in a story below)
  • Any “ism” and truly appreciating others’ lived experiences
  • Self-discipline to focus without electronic distraction
  • “The way it has always been done” and creativity
  • Time management and creating your own deadlines that are before actual deadlines

These select characteristic and approaches (you can add many more to this list) are rarely found in a syllabus; yet, they may be the most important things your students will learn in order to be successful.  While knowledge and skills for a profession are paramount, the most important, powerful, and engaging approach you can have as a professor is caring beyond what is on the syllabus and helping students acquire personal characteristics for success.  If our students are to develop resilience so they can end up on the doorstep of opportunity, then we must care deeply enough to support how they learn to struggle.

Bonus:  Here is a powerful story I often share with students about the importance of struggling.  For students in a helping profession, it is particularly powerful because they must learn how and when to let others struggle rather than rescuing them.  The story is a variation of an old story with an unknown author. My rewrite of the story uses gender-neutral language.


A child and a grandparent would often explore the woods behind the child’s house when the grandparent came to visit.  One day, they found a chrysalis (cocoon) hanging on a branch in a tree and the grandparent told the grandchild, Casey, about caterpillars and butterflies.    

Early the next morning, following a very windy night, Casey went out into the woods and the branch that held the cocoon was on the ground.  Casey was concerned and decided to help.   Casey ran back to the house quickly to get scissors and walked back to the fallen branch.  The cocoon was cut open carefully and a sort-of-butterfly emerged.

As the butterfly came out, Casey was surprised. It had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. Casey continued to watch the butterfly expecting, at any moment, that the wings would dry out, enlarge and expand to support the swollen body. Casey knew in time the body would shrink and the butterfly’s wings would expand.  Neither happened and the sort-of-butterfly stopped moving.

Casey quickly went back to the house where the grandparent had just sat down for a cup of coffee.  Seeing how upset Casey was, the grandparent placed Casey in the safe space a grandparent’s lap could provide.  The upset child told about finding the cocoon on the ground and about being worried that something would step on it.  Amid tears, the explanation included the scissors and helping the butterfly so it would not get hurt, only to end with the sort-of-butterfly’s stillness.

At that point, the grandparent hugged Casey and said not everything was told during the previous day’s walk about how butterflies come to be.  Casey was told that given what was known from the previous day, the right thing was done, but there was something else that was important to know.  The grandparent explained that butterflies were SUPPOSED to struggle. In fact, a butterfly’s struggle to push its way out of the cocoon pushes the fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly.

Casey thought for a moment and told the grandparent if another cocoon were ever found on the ground, instead of cutting it open, it would be hung back in the tree because it couldn’t do that by itself.  The proud grandparent talked about caring for others, helping them do things they could not do themselves and the importance of struggling to gain strength.

EHHS Shared Values Highlighted:

Helping Students Achieve Goals

  • Reaching out to struggling students
  • Challenge students to create connections, follow passions, and think critically
  • Empower students to realize goals


Tree Image (n.d.). Retrieved January 31, 2016 from:

Butterfly Image (June 17, 2014). Retrieved January 31, 2016 from: