Getting an education means reading difficult material along the way. When not expecting this, the initial reaction is fear, plus the thought, “I should be able to understand all of this right now.” That is a natural reaction and one we will likely often experience at first. After all, new material is a form of culture shock: new terms, symbols, and concepts. “Others seem to know it or be getting it easily, so I must be deficient.” That assumption will not help if the emphasis on deficiency falls on the pronoun I as in “I am deficient.” It’s vital to separate the person from the content to learn.
When my wife and I took a Mortimer Adler based reading course, we were surprised that the emphasis was not on the material’s degree of difficulty so much as on a sense of reward, even if only ten percent comprehension occurred at first. Think of that—ten percent. The point was to encourage reading things more challenging than the present level of what we tackled.
Roadblocks promote strategies. The question is, “Do I need to get through?” If so, reading becomes a game of strategies to see what a text is and how it might be absorbed in greater and more meaningful quantities. I learned to play chess against a cousin who beat me the first 39 times we played. That meant catching on to what I was doing that let his pieces cut mine down, and learning what he was doing to defend or attack.
One thing that helped me with difficult reading was not getting bogged down in details so much that the overall concept never occurred to me. It’s amazing how a calculated type of scanning can give a global view of a text. This becomes a focal point for details to organize themselves around. With difficult material, details play a huge role, but without freedom to scan for the concept first, the details crowd out the picture in progress.
Think of those puzzle boxes that have a picture on the box and 500 pieces inside that fit together to make that picture. We’re often not that lucky to get such a picture with a text, but when reading, if even a stick figure or a very general image appears, that helps a lot until details begin fleshing out a fuller image of the concept.
An old mentor loved to say, “What you take, takes you.” The mind has an amazing capacity to surprise us with knowledge that comes together for the one who wrestles through the frustration and feelings that nothing is happening, or at least not happening fast enough. What you give yourself to long enough will give itself to you—probably in a serendipity moment.