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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How Your Struggles Can Get You to the Top

Have you ever noticed that when the Olympics are in season, places that offer training for those sports see an uptick in students? Whether it’s gymnastics, skiing, or swimming, the lure of the gold medal fantasy is almost irresistible.

Now, I’m not privy to any statistics, but I’d guess that once people figure out how hard it actually is to achieve proficiency in any of those sports, they’re out of the pool and in their street shoes before you can say, “Michael Phelps.”

As a culture, we love the gold medal, the shiny trophy, the Oscar winner, and the come-from-behind story. We love the victorious ending. And so, when you try something new and struggle with it—instead of immediately excelling—you may think, “What the heck is wrong with me?”

I see it all the time. I frequently work with clients who have recently undergone major job changes. They’ve left jobs they do well, taken promotions, switched companies, relocated, or moved into new roles. Typically, about six weeks in, they call me in a bit of a panic. “I think I made a mistake,” they say. “I shouldn’t have taken this job.”

But when we dig into the issue, what I find they’re really saying is, “I hate not knowing how to do everything,” “I’m uncomfortable having to ask for help,” and even, “I don’t like this learning process; it’s painful and embarrassing!”

What they like is having new opportunities; what they don’t like is going from a state where they knew how to do everything well without thinking about it (a.k.a., “unconscious competency”) to a state where they feel clumsy and uncomfortable because they don’t know how to do everything well (“conscious incompetency”).

I blame this feeling of inadequacy on our obsession with the scoring a perfect 10; we fixate on the end game. But we don’t want—and often aren’t prepared for—the years of dedication, practice, trial, and failure that come with it.

When you confront new situations in the workplace, like taking a new job or getting a new boss in a reorganization, it may not feel comfortable. You’ll probably struggle. It may feel like failure.

But that’s perfectly OK. It’s important to remember that struggle is what gets you to the metaphorical Olympic podium. It’s what helps you build mastery, self-discipline, and competence.

So when you’re struggling with something new, keep these three credos in mind.

1. Struggle is Not About Weakness

It’s easy to think that struggling with something is a sign of weakness; that if you’re not good at math as a child, for example, you must not be very smart.

But take a note from other cultures, which value and celebrate struggle as an opportunity; a chance to push the boundaries of problem solving. In Eastern cultures, for instance, it’s not unusual for the child struggling most with the math problem to go to the front of the room and work through it. In that culture, the struggle to solve a problem is seen as an opportunity to develop.

When you face a big challenge at work, change your approach. Instead of thinking, “This new boss is a mystery to me, I can’t believe I took this job,” reframe: “OK, I’ve got to figure out how we can work well together. He’s very different from my last manager, so this is going to take a bit of digging and conversation.”

Instead of feeling weak for not being an expert from the get-go, embrace the freedom you have to learn something new with a childlike approach.

2. Struggle Fuels Growth

Struggle is what happens in the gap between where you are and where you want to be. While it can be difficult and uncomfortable, this tension is where the real seeds of growth are planted.

In Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow Through Challenge and Adversity, Steven Snyder says great leaders “seek out new learning opportunities by pursuing challenging assignments instead of taking safer and easier routes.” Without the struggle-filled parts of the journey, you see, you miss all the learning opportunities, possibilities, and empowerment that the road to victory brings.

It might not be comfortable to learn something new, but it’s the only way to grow. After all, according to Pinterest, “Great things never come from comfort zones.”

3. Struggle Deepens Your Success

Research indicates that the more you struggle and suffer setbacks while you’re learning something new, the better you’ll be able to recall and apply what you’ve learned in the future. It’s called the “learning paradox," and it’s shown that when students are left to their own devices to define and solve a problem, they perform better than when they’re simply given the solution by their teacher.

In the same way, when you take the time and effort to plow through the muck of your workplace struggles, you’ll come out on the other side with a better resolution than if someone had just given you the answer—and you’ll feel more accomplished in the process. Plus, when you encounter another challenging situation in the future (which you inevitably will), you’ll have an even better idea of how to handle it.

Struggle is an inevitable part of life, both at work and at home. Any time you build something new or face a major change, your challenge will be evident. Stick with it, though, just like those gold medal gymnasts. Make friends with struggle, and it will serve you well.

Photo of mountain courtesy of Shutterstock.