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From challenge to opportunity

As we continue to move through uncharted territory, I have been thinking about what it means to navigate challenges. And, I’ve been considering what allows us to see a given challenge as an opportunity to grow and learn from, rather than as an obstacle to be turned away by.

I’ve wondered if it is about the scope of the challenge, the people involved, the withdrawal it takes from our social, emotional, and academic savings, or something else entirely. While I still don’t think I have this algorithm worked out, I have come to understand that there are at least four ingredients necessary for us to turn the tables on a challenge and move it into a space of growth and change.

Visualizing an Endpoint

In order to move challenges towards opportunities, we must be able to see the apex of the challenge, and the downhill that comes beyond it. Sometimes the scope or “newness” of a challenge prevents the endpoint from being known. At other times, we simply have to allow ourselves to see the endpoint that may be right in front of us. 

Regardless, if we can’t see the conclusion of a challenge, we will never think of it as anything but an obstacle. One of the interesting things about this ingredient (speaking from my own experience, anyway) is that seeing the endpoint is often enough. 

Even if the finality of the challenge is far, far, away, knowing that there is an end can be enough for us to open up our thinking to the value the challenge may provide now and into the future. Knowing that we will get past whatever our current difficulties are can make all the difference.

Being a Part of the Process

We can work through challenges best when we are actually working through them. When we are sidelined, or when we can’t work through a challenge due to health concerns, lack of experience, or any other reason, then the challenge seems ultimately more difficult than it often really is. 

As a species of “doers”, we tend to relish the opportunity to take action; sitting on our hands, and not being able to use them, rarely suits us. To help us see challenge as an growth tool, sometimes all we need to do is be given the opportunity to actively struggle against it. In doing so, our desire to accomplish something, even if small, can be met.

You Can’t Spell “Opportunity” Without “U” and “I”

Being part of a team, connecting to one or many communities, and having people to support and to support us always lessens the size and scope of any obstacle we face. And, often, the broader and more varied our teams and communities, the more likely our networks will provide us with different ways to think about a given challenge.

 Sometimes shifting a challenge to an opportunity is all about solving a problem. But, at other times, it is all about changing our own perspective. Being part of a team is first and foremost about welcoming different perspectives; the more lenses we allow ourselves to look through, the more likely we’ll be able to see the silver lining around any cloud. 

In fact, if we allow ourselves to realize it, challenges and opportunities are two sides of the same coin, and we only have to flip the way we look at things to see that. Connections with others can help us get there.

Step Away

An important lesson I’ve learned over the last few months has been that sometimes I have to step away if I’m going to recognize an opportunity. Sometimes, regardless of the input of my team, my ability to dig in, or the fact that I can see how something ends, I still need to separate from it. This might mean doing something I can lose myself in (reading, going for a run, etc.), or it might mean engaging in a conversation with someone about a totally different topic. 

Sometimes I can come back quickly and at other times I need a night or two to sleep on it. As I’ve reflected on this, it seems like I need to take these actions to build up my “challenge account”. 

I imagine that everyone’s daily balance and limit in this account is different, and yet I’m sure we all have those withdrawal limits. By stepping away and giving my account time to recharge, I can see the good in the bad in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

The mechanics of turning challenges into promising opportunities are complicated to be sure. And, I’m convinced that the process looks different for everyone. I do believe, however, that if we keep these four ingredients in mind, we become more apt to see the incline of a hill as the process to reaching the decline, and the act of pushing the rock up the mountain as a way to build up our strength to push more rocks up higher mountains. 

After all, what’s an opportunity without a challenge to make it even more meaningful?

Fred Ende is the director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam|Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.

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