In the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate the immense value of being present to challenges and stepping up when challenged. I am acutely aware that challenge whether self-imposed or through external forces leads me to be and act in ways I previously thought impossible. I have a polar love-hate relationship with being challenged.

As a child, I was fiercely independent to the brink of sheer stubbornness. What is it about being told you “can’t do” or “shouldn’t do” or “shouldn’t be” something that has me so charged?! Such ‘challenges’ trigger in me a fiercely led mission of proving them all wrong! I began to realize an inner resolve steps in, leans me forward and puts me on a determined path to forge forward and emerge triumphant, with trophy in hand saying: ‘I did it, I proved them wrong!’

At a critical junction in my career, I recall overhearing a senior executive comment on a performance review report, before I was taken through it, in which my supervisor rated me low on being strategic. Once I heard it, I couldn’t un-hear it! It drove me insane, I kept hearing the words ‘low on being strategic’ and within me, a fire arose. I had to prove them wrong. And, to support my resolve, my brother offered up a few simple and wise words: “Just because they said it, doesn’t mean it’s true.” This sentiment was particularly helpful to me when I engaged in a learning mindset to unexpected or unwanted feedback, which for me translated to a challenge for me to tackle.

In the book “Mindset”, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck points us to the power of mindset as a determinant of success. Her studies show that abilities and talent alone are not enough – it is “…whether we approach our goals with a fixed or growth mindset”. Carol points us to a growth mindset as a learning mindset. In relating to this, I came to the awareness that I perceived judgements of my performance as challenges to meet and exceed, to helping me develop and grow. Quite honestly, this is more of an academic analysis of what at the time felt like a slight on my character! And, it is the response that mattered. In responding to the challenge to elevate and improve, there was an unconscious intention that became habit.

The winds of change blow over me with each challenge. I step closer and closer to self-assurance and a surety of authentic expression. I was given such a gift in that performance review, one I appreciated with time and an acknowledgement of the deep impact of such challenges. Without challenge, I would be content with my performance and outcomes. With the challenge, I spent time bringing out my best abilities as a strategic planner, an advertising executive and a leader.

This realization has me reflect on the polarity of complacency – challenge. On the side of complacency, we are satisfied with what is, content with the status quo. On the other side of the polarity, we have challenge. I realize that the polarity gives us a range to play with in our work and personal lives. Leaning into only one or the other for periods of time is dangerous. It is the play within the range that empowers.

There are times to step back and be self-satisfied; and there are other times when leaning into the challenge has us emerge with more than we can possibly imagine. From a considered judgement call and balanced approach on letting go and leaning in emerges a hope of amazing feats envisioned and about to be realized. From a deep sense of hope emerges brilliance previously unseen and unheard.

I am reminded of the popular prime time series “Lost’ and the character of John Locke. He absolutely cringed at the mention or idea of someone telling him he can’t do something: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” becomes a theme with his character. He sparks a resolve of challenging back when appearances deceive our range of abilities. There is no chance for complacency to set in with Locke when it comes to what he profoundly believes he can do! The Hunger Games trilogy brings this home at a more systemic level. In a fictional world, the gap between the rich and the destitute is so vast, crossing to the other side is a literal death trap. Yet, as the lead character Katniss Everdeen authentically and courageously steps up to the challenge, supported and championed by those inspired by her sheer bravery and strong will, a sense of hope is infused across the gap. In the polarity of despair and hope, hope wins out!

I still have a love-hate relationship with being challenged – I have learned to value the range both sides give us. As I acknowledge what’s been gained through the years, I notice there’s much to learn and I love that! I also value the polar side, as it has me notice what’s the emotional charge within me. With greater awareness, I judge more succinctly when a challenge is worth meeting and when it is best left alone.

There are times when I step into challenges unprepared and emerge scathed. I am still learning how not to do that! There is an emergence within from both leaning in and leaning out of challenges. I’ve learned it comes from creatively using sensible judgment, authentic expression and poise to emerge the deepest impact, on me and others around me. With this piece of insight, I have a deeper sense of hope of meeting the challenges to come!

As you lean into your own challenges:
What are your greatest learnings?
What helps you to lean forward?
What holds you back?

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