I spent quite a bit of time a few weeks ago with a retired colonel in the U.S. Army.  He had served over twenty years in some of our country’s most elite forces, including as an officer in the Special Forces in Viet Nam and as a leadership lecturer at West Point.  He was in town to speak about leadership to a group of which I’m a member.

Over dinner the night before his talk, I asked him his opinion on the role of hardship and conflict in developing leadership skills.  “It’s crucial,” was his simple response.

It’s crucial.

I agree with his assessment wholeheartedly.  I’ve certainly never been in combat, or endured anything close to the level of training required to become a member of a combat unit.  But, I know that in my experience, personal growth has only followed a period of struggle.  The first time I led a team, I spent countless hours planning and studying to be sure I was up to the task.  When I took on a project outside my comfort zone, I grappled with feelings of self-doubt and fear.  And, every promotion I’ve had in my career has been accompanied by sleepless nights wondering if I was up to the task.  But, when I emerged on the other side and had faced those fears and doubts successfully, I always felt a little stronger and better equipped to meet the next challenge.

I believe one of the biggest misconceptions being circulated today is that if you are in the right place, doing the right thing, everything will be easy.  If you find your passion, your work will be joyous and fulfilling.  If you find the right boss, your days will fly by.  And certainly, if you find the right partner, your personal life will be blissful.

This thinking misses the mark.  Sure, we all want those times of ease.  Times when it feels like everything is falling into place.  But spending our entire lives in that space means we are failing to reach our full potential.  We are refusing to become our best.

So, if struggle is valuable, how can you be sure that you make the most of your own challenging times?

Don’t Fight Reality

First, you must know and accept that whatever is happening can be used for your own good.  If you’ve lost a job or suffered some other significant career setback, this can be really difficult.  It sounds trite, even callous perhaps, when others tell you these situations work out for your own good.  Or that there is a purpose to the things that happen in our lives.  But I believe it is true.

Even if you can’t buy in to that particular philosophy, at least accept that reality is what it is – at least for now.  Railing against what is will leave you exhausted and unable to take the actions you need to take to learn and grow.  And running from a struggle can leave you stuck in complacency and boredom.

Mind Your Mind

Times of hardship offer a great opportunity to see your own story.  They put all your mental mess on display if you’re willing to pay attention.  When you are out of your comfort zone, when you’re hurting, when you’re off center, the chances are that everything bad thing you have to say about yourself will find its way to the surface.

“Of course I lost my job.  I was never really qualified for it anyway.”

“I can’t believe I took on this project.  I am awful at delegating.  We’ll never get it done.”

These thoughts are probably running in the background more often than you know, but hardship has a way of shining a light on them.  A way of calling them to center stage.  Once they’re out front, you have several choices for dealing with them.  You can get stuck, believing they are true and that you’re not capable of meeting the challenge you’re facing.  That choice generally leads to inaction, confusion and overwhelm.  You can ignore them and push forward.  That’s a better option because at least you’re moving.  But, you’re missing an opportunity to make real and lasting improvement in your life.  Your third, and best, option is to take note of all those thoughts and find a way to constructively deal with them.

Write a New Story

When we are struggling, or when we are facing fear or self-doubt, we have a way of stringing together in our minds all the bad things that have happened in our lives.  All the mistakes we’ve made get magnified.  This reaction is great for self-protection, but it isn’t a recipe for growth.

To grow, it’s our job to consciously write a new story to focus on.  Spend some time thinking back about all the problems you’ve successfully tackled in your life.  The time you took a promotion that was outside your area of expertise, but quickly became the best leader that team had ever had or the time you found a resolution everyone else had been missing for months.  The time you developed a program that saved the company thousands of dollars.  This string of successes becomes the backbone for your new story.

You’re not the person who makes mistake after mistake, but also the person who always finds a way to get it done.

You’re not the person who has no idea what she’s doing.  You’re the person who can learn anything.

Give your mind something positive to focus on and it will drive you through hardship.

Celebrate the Lessons

Every struggle in your life teaches you something.  It may not be obvious in the moment, or even for years to come.  But, the lesson is there.  Look for the lesson in what you’re going through.  Stay open to seeing it.  And once you think you’ve identified it, use it as fuel for growth.

Challenges and struggle are unavoidable in life.  What you get out of these trying times, however, is up to you.  What are some strategies you use to effectively learn from your challenges?