Desirable Difficulties

Challenge leads to growth. If you’ve been associated with The Leaders Lyceum for long, you know this as the core of our approach to fueling growth in perspective, readiness and capacity to be more effective. We believe that we don’t grow when times are easy but rather when we are challenged.

In his new book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell challenges the idea of the underdog by studying commonalities shared by those who overcome obstacles in order to succeed. Gladwell unpacks several aspects of their life experiences that developed perseverance, tenacity and ingenuity in them. He calls these “Desirable Difficulties.”

He tells the story of Londoners during the 4 1/2 months of bombing of World War II. War planners anticipated that the assault would take a significant emotional and psychological toll on citizens. This belief led to the construction of mental health centers on the outskirts for the mass of refugees fleeing the city. What happened almost immediately after the bombing began astounded the planners. Instead a flood of war-weary and emotionally damaged individuals showing up for treatment, almost no one came!

Researchers launched into action, surveying those affected and arrived at a surprising discovery. They developed three categories for those impacted by bombs––hits, near misses and remote misses. They, of course, surmised that the “hits,” or those who lost their lives, could not spread panic or promote fear. The “near misses” who were injured or lost close relatives and friends may have required the support originally envisioned, but in a city of nearly 8 million, it was a relatively small number–about 46,000. That means that nearly 99% of Londoners fell into the “remote misses” category.

What was the impact to this group? They became emboldened by the fact that they had cheated death, survived repeated brushes with their own mortality, and grew resilient and empowered to live more fully. Reports were that life nearly went on as normal during the day, with shops open for business and children playing games in the streets, seeking shelter only at night during the worst periods of bombing. These survivors were reported as “no longer afraid of being afraid.” They had gained incredible perspective that provided fuel for future courage and resilience!

While some days may feel like a WWII siege, today’s “desirable difficulties” can help to remove some of our own fears regarding what challenges can bring. While not life-threatening, the “remote misses” of a job change or even loss, difficulties in relationships, or tough decisions about career or family can be your defining moments––fuel for gaining strength and perspective.

How are you harnessing your personal difficulties? With the right outlook and perseverance there can be desirable results ahead for you!