Define or Refine?

Some of life’s challenges define who we are. Others refine us towards our potential.

The former are the challenges that shape our lives, our careers, our families, our very identities. Some of these may be empowering; others may be traumatizing. They deserve care and soft handling in our minds and hearts, and they’re not the subject of this post.

But in our professional lives, we often get to choose whether a challenge will define us or refine us.

Even the toughest workplace challenges, like a high-stakes failure or a difficult launch, can refine us into stronger, wiser, more empathetic leaders.

A professional challenge might help you strengthen a weak knowledge area, or stretch a rigid way of thinking, or help smooth out a rough collaborative style.

When we choose to let a career challenge refine us rather than define us, it can become a transformational moment of professional and personal growth – even if it’s dressed in defeat.

Again, this does not apply to traumatic workplace challenges like harassment, discrimination, or the debilitating toll taken by the pandemic. What doesn’t kill you can still hurt and hinder you, and I have no wish to downplay this truth.

But I do see an opportunity in those tough-but-typical challenges we face as leaders: the ones that feel terrifying in real time, but if you can manage to zoom out on it, you see that the stakes are professional, not existential.

These are the challenges that can lead to our greatest growth – if we let them.

When you’re sweating it out over a major project or an unpleasant career turn, remember: You can choose. Do you want this challenge to define you, or refine you?