Why struggle at work is good for your career

Getting to the top is not, and should not, be an easy ride, says Steven Snyder.

Story highlights

  • Struggle is an opportunity for growth and learning, believes author
  • People should resist negative connotations of finding things difficult at work
  • Train yourself to be more stress resistant and build a support network
  • Challenging yourself can be an essential part of career advancement

On first blush, you probably think that struggle is a bad thing. After all, it has the connotation of weakness, indecisiveness, and incompetence, thanks in large part to societal taboos.

Yet despite what society would have you believe, years of research into the topic indicates that struggle is actually essential for career advancement. Rather than avoiding struggle -- or worse, denying it exists -- those looking to take their career to the next level must learn how to embrace struggle as an opportunity for learning and growth.

Making this shift requires determination; it means bucking beliefs that have surreptitiously seeped into our collective sub-conscious -- that struggle is a sign of weakness and therefore a source of embarrassment and shame. This attitude toward struggle is not only counterproductive -- leading to self-defeating behaviors including retreating inward with self-doubt and avoiding necessary risk for fear of failure -- it is also wrong.

The fact of the matter is that struggle is a natural and inevitable part of career growth. But it doesn't have to be painful. By breaking away from cultural stereotypes to embrace struggle as an art to be mastered, you open a new set of possibilities for career growth.

Seek challenging assignments and difficult goals

If you are constantly doing the same things over and over again, chances are you are not growing. Instead, seek out situations where there is rapid change. This will keep you on your toes. Look for projects that can expand your skills and capabilities, ideally those that give you the charter to work autonomously, so you have the freedom to experiment.

Steven Snyder

Numerous psychological studies find that performance is at its best when goals are difficult but still attainable with effort and imagination. If you find yourself breezing through your day, easily meeting your goals, it could be a sign that your goals are too easy. See what happens when you set a higher bar for yourself.

Treat negative feedback as a gift

It's natural to cringe when you receive negative feedback. It may feel like a personal attack and can evoke a whole host of powerful emotions. But receiving valid feedback is the most valuable of gifts, allowing you to step outside your delusional cocoon and become connected with external metrics of success. When you stop doing the things that aren't working, you clear a space for more things that get you the results you want.

My friend and former Microsoft CFO Frank Gaudette used to say: "I reserve the right to wake up smarter every day." In this mindset, you interpret all feedback as a learning opportunity. If you don't have the skills you need, rather than feeling angry or upset about it, find a way to get them.

Learn how to remain grounded and centered

The more anchored and centered you are, the less likely you will be thrown off balance by the inevitable challenges that come your way. Train yourself to become more stress-resistant by engaging in a set of daily and weekly practices that keep you on a steady course. There are many options, including: exercise, meditation, journaling, prayer, or even just becoming immersed in nature by walking in the woods, sitting by the water, or planting in the garden. Choose the mix that's right for you.

Personal centering practices are only part of the answer. In addition, build a support community—family, friends, peers, mentors, and coaches—to give you the advice and assistance you need during stressful times.

By challenging yourself, readily embracing feedback, and remaining grounded and centered, you can embrace struggle head on and use it as fuel for your career growth. These practices are like the foundation of a building; they keep the building steady, even through storms and the passage of time. The sturdier the foundation, the taller the building it will support.

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