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When the growing gets tough

4 min read


Think about the learning that contributed most powerfully to your development and who you are today. Consider the experiences that built the expertise you use and value most every day. Reflect on what you’re most proud of mastering during the course of your career or life.

This memorable learning that has made a significant difference to you (and to the organizations you’ve served) likely didn’t come easily. The kind of learning that sticks with people, helping them achieve lifelong results, generally:

  • Challenges them to change how they think, act, or perform in new ways.
  • Took significant energy and attention.
  • Involved struggle and failure to get to the other side.

The learning that has the most profound effect on individuals rarely comes easily.

Yet too frequently, in a well-meaning effort to facilitate and enable growth, we take actions to make learning easier. We chunk it down into digestible and doable bites. We strategize how to set people up for early wins and success each step of the way. We bake out the pain and struggle, intervening to remove the pressure and possible disappointment when the experience becomes too hard.

But when the growing gets tough, the tough get growing. Life changing, performance amplifying learning is not for wimps.

Easy instruction. Comfortable content. A leisurely pace. Fail-proof activities. They all lead to small growth steps. But genuinely difficult, challenging, mind-stretching (even sometimes frustrating) experiences generate great leaps and disproportionate forward momentum. Challenge, struggle, failure and perseverance contribute to producing the grit and resilience required to welcome and mine these very building blocks for greater development.

But how can we — as individuals and leaders — find the sweet spot and introduce that just right level of challenge into learning that inspires full engagement, optimal utilization of mental and other resources, and huge learning leaps forward? How do we push right up to — but not beyond — the unknown and outer limits of capacity? How do we enable a good, deep stretch but no breaks? How do we foster comfort with the uncomfortable?

Two key principles can help individuals embrace challenge as a vehicle for learning and help leaders support employees and others in doing so.

Set audacious, personally relevant and meaningful goals. People are willing to do incredible things and endure tremendous discomfort when they know that these acts are in service of something significant. Connecting the dots between challenging conditions and what the anxiety (and even pain) may yield creates commitment to persevere.

Cultivate mindfulness. Discomfort, anxiety and failure (or fear of it) can easily cause the mind to develop a mind of its own. When things get tough, it’s easy to begin down the ‘worst case scenario’ path, imagining outcomes that may or may not ever come to pass. As a result, it’s important to quickly interrupt those hijacked negative thoughts. Replace them with deliberate attention to what’s being learned and how it will help.

Beyond thoughts, it’s critical to also attend to language. How we label events and feelings frames our reality. Research suggests that when speakers simply express their natural jitters as “excitement” rather than “‘nervousness,” their personal comfort and quality of the speech improve. Apply the same principle to challenging learning conditions. It’s not “impossible”; it’s a “stretch.” You’re not “overwhelmed”; you’re “enlivened.” It’s not “kicking your butt”; it’s “kicking you into gear.” What begins as word play can quickly be absorbed by the mind, changing how you think and feel about the experience.

When it comes to learning, “tough” shouldn’t be a negative. Because when the growing gets tough, individuals and organizations benefit enormously.

 Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at