Writer and poet Maya Angelou, who faced many challenges in her life, said, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” That is a powerful statement and guide for treating adversity as a gift, an opportunity to emerge stronger than before. So often, we view challenge as something to be avoided, an experience that requires us to backtrack or blocks our ability to move forward.
Recently, a CEO said to me in our coaching session, “Why does this have to be this hard? I feel like I have been a good enough human to deserve an easier path without so much pain and difficulty.” I said, “You are absolutely right about everything you just said. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.” This CEO has founded a technology and cryptocurrency company. With the volatility in the marketplace, he has navigated through several “hundred-year floods” in the last six months.
I went on to share with him the principles of challenge that I’m sharing with you. Here are some new ways to think about challenge in your own life:
• Challenge can’t (and shouldn’t) be entirely avoided by careful planning. Many believe that, with careful preparation and planning, they can strategically engineer challenge out of their lives, they will avoid adversity, and the path will be made clear. Sounds good, right? Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t how it works. Without challenge, we miss out on instrumental experiences that are some of our greatest teachers in this life.
• Challenge happens (even) to good people. The irony is that many good people point to challenge as crucial moments that softened their sharp edges and made them into the good person they are today. Stuff happens. Bad things happen, even to good people. The key is to learn how to find the opportunities for growth within those challenges. A life without obstacles is like a potter without a wheel to form the clay. The challenge is the potter, forming us on the wheel, and we are the clay. The obstacles do not detract from our development, they are essential elements in our formation, our learning and growth.
• When challenges arise, it doesn’t mean you are on the wrong path. A common misconception is that the detours, roadblocks, and potholes placed in your path only show up when you are off course. Life isn’t a golf course, a perfectly manicured lawn that only gets bumpy when you’re off the fairway. Challenges arise without reason. You may be doing exactly what you were meant to do even when a loss occurs or a storm arrives. Do not think of challenge as a punishment or a signal that you’re going the wrong way.
• The more important the work, often, the greater the challenge. Do you want to do big things in this world? Even when your heart is big and your intentions are pure, challenge will still be a constant companion. Challenge both readies us for what is to come and is a test, a life checkpoint to see if we’re ready to be granted the next level of responsibility, the new relationship, or the expanded influence we desire. Following our life purpose and calling will inevitably bring challenge as the crucible to see if we’re ready to lead the change we envision.
• Think of challenge as an invitation. Ask yourself: “Is this worth it? Do I want to keep going in this direction?” Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, described rejection letters from editors of her early writing as an invitation that asked her, “Well, Liz, do you want to keep creating things?” Gilbert says her answer was always yes, and she went on to write many books, including the runaway bestseller Eat, Pray, Love.
• Challenge means it’s this or something better. When you don’t give up, when you are unwavering in the face of difficulties, you will find opportunities to elevate your life. The way may not appear right away. It’s through determination that you prove your mettle and possibly open the door to something even better than you had imagined.
• Resilience doesn’t prevent challenge; it gives you a toolkit to navigate the inevitable obstacles and setbacks. Resilience won’t inoculate you against challenge. Resilience gives you the tools to have the confidence to show up amid challenge and effectively address the issues at hand, rather than ignoring them or giving up, generating more strength and wisdom.
• Challenges are rarely unilaterally positive or negative. A new baby is a joyous occasion to celebrate a new life and comes with lost sleep and strain as all family members adjust to a new structure and routine. Similarly, a tragic loss may be deeply upsetting and unbalancing, but with time, many people can find goodness, even gratitude, that emerges from the tragedy, such as bringing them closer to friends and family, and a deeper appreciation for what it means to be alive.
• Challenge is not something shameful. There is no reason to feel guilty or victimized when challenge emerges in your life. It is easy tempting to believe that you have done something wrong to bring the challenge on yourelf. Blaming ourselves is never productive. Many people think they need a perfect track record, experiences unblemished by challenge, to be worthy. However, challenge doesn’t detract from our worth and value. Challenge provides the moments in which we learn just how much we are worth.
• Challenge is the comma, not the period at the end of the sentence. When challenge shows up in our lives, so often, we think challenge is the last word on our dreams and desires. We say to ourselves, “Uh-oh, here comes challenge, I guess I’m not gonna get that promotion.” Challenge itself is never the final word. Instead of seeing challenge as the final say, the period at the end of the sentence, view challenge as the comma in the middle of the sentence, asking us how we’d like to write the rest of our story.