One Sunday morning my wife and I were eating breakfast at a restaurant. A little girl with a Binky in her mouth was trying to open the restaurant door to enter with her family. This particular restaurant is crowded on Sunday mornings and frequently there is a line of customers both trying to exit and enter simultaneously creating a logjam at the doorway. The little girl was determined to open the heavy door all by herself but continuously failed.
Customers on both sides of the door of the restaurant were patient as she tried and tried. Finally a woman on the inside inconspicuously gave the door a nudge allowing the girl to pull the door successfully open from the outside. She entered the restaurant with a smile on her face receiving a small round of applause from those witnessing her efforts. She sported a look that said, “I knew I could do it.” As she walked by our table my wife looked at me and said, “Ah, an example of help me do this all by myself.” Help me do this all by myself – an interesting concept. We can all use help from time to time.
Help Me Do This All By Myself
My wife is a teacher. She has four degrees – two Bachelors, a Masters, and a Ph.D in the areas of English and Education plus Montessori certification. She has taught first through eighth grade and college students. She has taught in public and private schools. She now manages a tutoring center. Over the years she has been exposed to many ideas and philosophies in education and has shared theories on intelligence and educational methods with me. While working on her Masters in the early 90’s she mentioned an interesting concept to me that I find most fascinating to this day. It’s called the Zone of Proximal Development.
I like taking ideas from one discipline, tweak them, and apply them to others areas including this endeavor we call life. And, I have done that with the Zone of Proximal Development in my attempts to understand why some people succeed and others do not. Why talented people sometimes fail and less talented people succeed is most perplexing to me. Why should that be the case? The Zone of Proximal Development explains that phenomenon.
Based on my interpretation and perhaps incomplete and amateur understanding of the concept, the Zone of Proximal Development explains the reason why a relatively high percentage of CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies do not have college degrees, why many A students find themselves working for C students, and even why a C student can become President of the United States.
Zone of Proximal Development
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the brainchild of Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet developmental psychologist who lived from 1896-1934. He was a contemporary of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Eric Erikson (1902-1994). Like Piaget and Erikson, Vygotsky’s work focused on learning and child development, but Vygotsky’s work was unknown to the Western world hidden behind the Iron Curtain until the Berlin Wall came down. Knowledge of his work became known and discussed in academic centers in the United States around 1990. Vygotsky died early at age 38 and much of his work was never completed.
Simply put the Zone of Proximal Development is the difference between what a child can do on his/her own and what he/she can do with the help of an adult or capable peer. As I see it the Zone of Proximal Development is about tapping into the intelligence and skills of those around you. A small number of individuals do that better than most. And, they are the ones who succeed most.
Vygotsky thought it was best to measure intelligence by determining what a student can solve independently and what they can solve with the assistance of an adult. In contrast, Piaget’s theories dealt with children as lone learners. Why is that important? There can be great difference between two individuals who have identical independent knowledge and skills, yet very differing capabilities when they work with a team of people or in the presence of others.
In Raise Your IQ: How Dancing Improves Intelligence we quoted Piaget who said, Intelligence is what we use when we don’t already know what to do. But, we can go beyond our own intelligence and use the intelligence of those around us, too. We have access to the intelligence and skills of others though we rarely think of it in those terms. When you read this blog you are tapping into some of my knowledge and do not have to reinvent the wheel by doing your own research, for example.
Piaget felt we have to develop in order to learn while Vygotsky felt we develop because we learn. And, the more we learn even when helped by others the more we develop.
Below is a brief video of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Also follow this link to learn more about Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development.
What follows is largely my interpretation and application of the Zone of Proximal Development to adults both in their personal lives and careers.
The Zone of Proximal Development is fascinating because a bulk of our education system is focused on determining what a person can do independently through IQ tests and other standardized tests. Yet, we do not function in the real world by ourselves. Most of our jobs do not require us to function in a vacuum all to our lonesome.
Each of us have the potential to develop Zones of Proximal Development larger than we currently have and the Internet is making that even easier. Nearly everything that is known and ever known is now accessible through the Internet. There isn’t virtually anything you cannot learn today – with the help of the Internet (an inanimate capable peer). And, through social media and networks you can even identify individuals who can help you. Knowledge and human resources are all around us. You just have to be resourceful to find them and then use them.
But, we don’t need the Internet to expand our Zones of Proximal Development. Genius and talent are all around us. Some just do a better job realizing and taking advantage of such resources and ultimately end up living successful lives even though they themselves may not have much talent and just average knowledge. They use what skill and knowledge they have plus the skill and knowledge of those around them.
Below is my application of the Zone of Proximal Development applied to adults. The Zones of Proximal Development depicted below show an “A” Student with large individual knowledge compared to the “C” Student (blue circles) but smaller Zone of Proximal Development (larger white circle). As a result the “C” student is able to accomplish more when operating in the his/her Zone of Proximal Development than the “A” student operating in his/her Zone of Proximal Development. The Zone of Proximal Developement illustrates what an adult can do when surrounded by others who have skills and knowledge the adult in question may not possess.
ZPD in Action
Some people are extraordinary, can solve many problems, and accomplish much when surrounded by other capable people. For as gifted as they were Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Walt Disney, and Steve Jobs achieved what they achieved because they had exceedingly large Zones of Proximal Development. Same is true for someone still living like Elon Musk (Tesla). Certainly there are others out there with similar levels of intelligence who have accomplished so much less because of poorly developed Zones of Proximal Development. Such individuals are not quite adept in tapping into the collective skill and genius that surrounds them. They rely too much on their own ability to succeed and live life. And, we each have limits. But, a room full of talented and motivated individuals knows no boundary.
People who attend Ivy League schools are not necessarily more intelligent than some who do not, nor do they necessarily get a better education. What they do get, though, is a network of peers and alumni who are intelligent, resourceful, and many times well-connected thus giving them the potential to develop large Zones of Proximal Development – if they are savvy enough do it. That is the main advantage of an Ivy League education – the potential to build a large Zone of Proximal Development.
My observation of such individuals with large Zones of Proximal Development is that they are visionaries and see what the future can be. They are adept at asking questions that get to the core of issues. They tend to see things simply and don’t lose the forest for the trees. They see the big picture and they see it clearly. They have common sense in abundance. Even with little knowledge of a topic they still know the most pertinent questions to ask. I believe you can better tell how intelligent someone is by the questions they ask rather than the answers they give.
Those with large Zones of Proximal Development know the questions that need to be most answered. And, they inspire others to help them find the answers to such questions to solve problems. Such individuals may not perform well academically in school. But, they know how to get things done. And, they are good at building teams and organizations including companies. They get others to do the grunt work for them as they develop and expand the vision. They are skilled at helping others do what they do best which in turn helps them get what they want.
They are leaders!
Even successful criminals can have large Zones of Proximal Development (Pablo Escobar and Al Capone for instance who basically operated large corporations). One cannot be a successful politician without having a large Zone of Proximal Development, either. When you vote for a politician you really are voting for more than the individual person. You are voting for those with whom they surround themselves. And, who they surround themselves gives you insight into the person. You want someone who is smart enough to surround themselves with a very capable and experienced team of advisors and staff.
In short, many successful people have larger Zones of Proximal Development than other individuals who may be more intelligent but with more narrowed Zones of Proximal Development.
Stunted Zones of Proximal Development
Why do some have stunted Zones of Proximal Developement? I’m not sure Vygotsky ever answered that question, but I’ll give you my opinion.
One observation that Maria Montessori made while studying young children is that they naturally gravitate towards trying something beyond their level of skill. That’s fascinating. It makes perfect sense. We have to go beyond what we already know and can do to learn something new. But, we seem to do that less as we age.
If you put a child in a pumpkin patch the child invariably tries to lift the heaviest pumpkin he or she can find even if it is too heavy for them. They try just like the little girl who tried to open a door too heavy for her to get into the restaurant. Young kids challenge themselves. Yet, somewhere during the aging process we quit trying and stop challenging ourselves as we begin to fear failure. We don’t have that fear when younger. When we are young everything seems possible. Maybe that’s one reason why the Bible tells us to be like children.
So a fear of failure – whatever its cause – is one reason for having a limited Zone of Proximal Development.
Pride is another reason. It’s not easy to admit that you might need help. It can be embarrassing and be a blow to our self-esteems. When I was a first year medical resident I had no shame when a patient was crashing in the ICU asking the nursing staff, “What do we (you) normally do in this situation?” Whatever the situation they certainly had seen it more times than I had at that stage of training.
What are your choices in that situation? Either look up what to do (a way to learn) – not practical when a patient is crashing on you. Fake your way through it. Or, tap into the intelligence and experience of those around you (a way to learn). Asking for help seems to be the most logical option in those circumstances and best for the patient.
Nurses like working with resident physicians who know they do not know it all. They actually trust you more when you admit you need help and ask for their help – their expertise, rather than pretend you know what to do. But, by your second year you better know what to do. Until then you need their help. And, most people like to help when asked. In fact, they many times feel flattered that you asked. It makes them feel good you thought enough of them to ask for their assistance. So don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Asking for help is simply another way to learn.
Stubbornness is a third reason for a blunted Zone of Proximal Development and is somewhat related to pride. Some people are bound and determined that they are going to do nearly everything themselves. They have a hard time delegating tasks. Things have to be done their way and they conclude the only way to do that is to it themselves. If these individuals are in management they tend to micro-manage their employees. Micro-management is a form of distrust – in my opinion. It says “I don’t trust you to use your better judgment and skill to perform this task.”
Stubborn people rely too much on themselves which limits the degree to which they can achieve and enjoy success.
Denying you need help is a fourth reason. Dealing with people who don’t realize they need help is challenging and frustrating. You cannot help someone who doesn’t think they need help. Some people live lives that are a total mess and yet the reason or answer seems so obvious to everybody who knows them but to that particular individual.
It’s hard to know how hard and to what extreme you go to convince someone that they need help because they might close the door on you whether it be a child, friend, relative, co-worker, or someone you just feel you can help. Not much is going to happen until they conclude they need help. But, waiting for that day to happen can be painful especially if it is a loved one.
All of us at times are our own worst enemies. But, some take it to a whole different level. These are the people who constantly sabotage themselves yet deny needing help. Those negative traits overshadow and overcome any positive qualities and talents they may have.
Don’t be that person who fails to recognize he or she needs help. If others are offering help or are suggesting you might need it, then at least consider that they may be right and be happy that they are thinking about you – rather than be offended.
A fifth reason is that we do not simply think of asking for help because we are too content with our world the way it is. There is nothing wrong with being content. But, I think we are supposed to be content as we keeping growing, learning, and developing until we die. We should always be striving to better our circumstances and ourselves.
When we are too content we are somewhat saying “this is as good as I want things.” Perhaps that is because we don’t feel we deserve a bigger world or bigger Zone. Or, perhaps it never occurs to us that our world could be bigger and better by better tapping into all our resources including the skills, intelligence, and camaraderie of those around us.
But, if you focus on continuous self-improvement you will naturally expand your Zone of Proximal Development.
Get the Most From Life: Expand Your Zone
If you want to be successful and get more from life build a bigger Zone of Proximal Development. That means asking for help. Doing so is only limited by your desire.
Our brains are not static. They are plastic which means we retain the ability to develop new neural connections throughout life. We can continue to learn and continuously stretch our minds. The same is true with our Zones of Proximal Development. Your Zone does not have to be fixed. It can be stretched. It can ever expand just like the universe. Realizing that is pretty cool. Don’t you think?
Keep learning. Ask for help….
And, expand your Zone!