Desirable Difficulty?

I love Malcolm Gladwell’s books. His most recent offering is David and Goliath and it doesn’t disappoint. (It is the first of his books I’ve actually read – I enjoyed the rest on CD while taking our annual road trip to Seattle.) The whole novel shows how challenges can open the door to different kinds of advantages – desirable difficulty Gladwell calls it.

One story in particular hit me and it almost single-handedly motivated me to start blogging again – it’s too good not to share. It’s the story of Jay Freireich. His childhood was profoundly unhappy and he seems to have blocked most memory of it. His father likely committed suicide and his mother worked endlessly to help them get by. He grew up never experiencing compassion, which means Dr. Freireich never knew how to show compassion. Yup, doctor. You can imagine how well a compassionless doctor went over. He was fired seven times and he made people crazy, but his lack of compassion enabled him to do what nobody else could do. His lack of compassion that, surprisingly, led to the saving of many lives – desirable difficulty.

When Freireich began working in the children’s leukemia ward of the National Cancer Institute, it was a terrible place. The death rate was 100%. The place was awash in blood – literally. It was awful. But Freireich’s intensity to see children healed meant he was willing to do the unthinkable – experiment on the children. Since they were dying quickly anyways, he wanted to try something that would stop the bleeding – harvesting platelets and the technology necessary to do so – and chemo cocktails. The latter are standard practice today, but the prospect of bringing children to the brink of death multiple times per year was considered inhumane. He would shove massive needles into children’s legs to find out how their bone marrow was doing. The guy was considered a monster by many in the field.

Jay Freireich was inhumane enough on the front end to save thousands of lives. Because of his painful childhood, he was able to do hard things for the ultimate welfare of others – things that ruined other doctors because of their compassionate hearts.

Gladwell concludes by asking a provocative rhetorical question. After affirming that Freireich’s childhood was awful and that we wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, he asks if we need people who have gone through these trials as a society. He answers in the affirmative. While many are crushed by their trial, others respond in such a way as to have tremendous impact on our society.

This is a thought I haven’t been able to shake after reading this a couple months ago. On an individual level, this is tragic. On a broader level, is this one of the ways God uses evil for His glory and even, in some instances, for the good of others? Freireich’s situation was terrible. He wasn’t a pleasant man. And he saved the lives of thousands. It might be that some meaningless evil isn’t so meaningless after all. God’s working something glorious in that darkness.

I don’t know how it’s possible, but this idea of “desirable difficulty” is uncomfortably comforting.

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