• Published July 17, 2020
  • 6 Minute Read
LEADING EFFECTIVELY ARTICLE

4 Unexpected Lessons Learned From Hardships & Adversity

While difficult to endure, hardships can also bring unexpected gifts and lessons learned that will help you grow in new ways — learn how.
Published July 17, 2020
4 Unexpected Lessons Learned From Hardships & Adversity

Pain touches everyone. If you’re lucky, the toughest times in your life will be fleeting. But some hardships — including the global coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath — may linger for years, and continue to present new challenges for individuals and organizations.

Hardships aren’t asked for and aren’t usually welcomed. They’re not something you would plan into your development in the coming year. Yet, hardships are unavoidable.

The good news is, adversity can actually be a powerful teacher.

The Most Common Hardships From The Lessons of Experience

At CCL, we have a long history of studying the lessons learned from hardships and the way people learn them. The body of work — called The Lessons of Experience research — has been conducted over 5 decades across 40 countries. In the research, we’ve found that most hardships fall into 4 categories:

  • Personal Trauma: Often unexpected and shocking, personal trauma is generally an experience you can’t control, and that causes feelings of confusion or loss. This could be anything from the coronavirus pandemic to a death in the family to surviving a car crash.
  • Discrimination & Injustice: Whether it occurs in the workplace or another part of your life, experiencing discrimination or injustice is one of the most common hardships. This involves a wide range of subtle and overt, intentional and unintentional behavior and actions that can cause long-lasting negative consequences.
  • Mistakes & Failures: Such mistakes can be technical, professional, ethical, or strategic — for example, a product malfunction, a poor hiring decision, a loss of credibility, or a collapsed venture. It can often feel difficult to bounce back from these failures, especially if they’re larger in scale, tied to a deeper workplace culture or issue, or far-reaching in their impact.
  • Career Setbacks: Sometimes career setbacks are unavoidable or out of your control. It could be organization-wide layoffs, a freeze on hiring or promotions, a company reorganization, or a wide array of less severe but nonetheless significant events.

In most learning and development work, we follow the classic 70-20-10 rule, trying to find ways to provide people with challenging — or stretch — assignments, such as taking on a new role or difficult assignment. Sometimes called “heat experiences,” the majority of learning from these challenges comes from the success of meeting them.

Hardships are similar in that we learn from pushing through the challenge we face. By facing an initial lack of success with resilience, we can actually grow considerably more through reframing how we approach these difficult experiences.

Though hardships were long an overlooked influence on leadership learning, people are beginning to recognize now that they can be mined for key leadership lessons.

4 Lessons Learned From Hardships & Adversity

Hardships can bring unexpected gifts if we’re open to gleaning lessons from them. While this isn’t automatic, anyone can find and embrace these silver linings. Here are 4 lessons learned from hardships.

Infographic: 4 Lessons Learned From Hardships

What We Learn From Hardships

1. Compassion & Sensitivity.

A significant dose of humility usually comes with hardship. It’s never easy to confront the truth that you aren’t perfect, invincible, or immune to difficult or even terrible things. But going through hardship can open your eyes to the hardships of others. Receiving support and help from others may motivate you to give support more readily. Your sense of compassion can grow.

2. Self-Knowledge & Perspective.

Hardships force you to come face-to-face with who you are. Lessons learned from hardships often reveal limitations, patterns, beliefs, and skills you didn’t see or appreciate before. This shift, which increases self-awareness, is powerful. You have the chance to make new choices based on what matters; how you act, think, and feel; and what you can and can’t do.

3. Limits of Control.

As much as you might want to chart your own path, hardship is a powerful reminder of the limits of your own control. By acknowledging and embracing those limits on your power, you can put down some of the weight you’re carrying and accept that some things aren’t up to you.

4. Flexibility.

Surviving hardship and willing yourself to move forward builds added strength to tackle new challenges and face future failures. Flexibility allows you to be resilient and durable as things change. It teaches you to be open to learning and agile as you figure out what to do next.

When you’re in the middle of a really tough time, these gifts may seem far away or irrelevant — but they’re invaluable.

Read our white paper to learn how hardship can be transformational for individuals and organizations, and discover the importance of taking bold actions to push toward reinvention.

How to Learn Lessons From the Hardships You Face

6 Ways to Grow from Adversity

Here are a few suggestions to help you glean silver linings from difficult times:

1. Don’t let the hardship be everything.

Rest, exercise, and make time for wellness where you can. Spend time — even if it’s remotely — reconnecting with people who make you laugh, and do things that get your mind off your troubles. Recovery time, even if in small amounts, is essential for learning.

2. Don’t be ashamed of failures, mistakes, or struggles.

To learn, you need to reflect on the experience. Plus, reluctance to talk to others or get support can make your hardship that much more difficult to overcome. Instead of beating yourself up over it, figure out what you can do differently in the future, and keep moving forward.

3. Avoid defensiveness.

Resist the temptation to put the blame on the situation or others’ shortcomings. Try not to react defensively when other people give you feedback or point out things you are (or aren’t) doing. Denying problems or shifting blame away from yourself will not serve you in the long run.

4. Keep asking questions.

Reflect:

  • How might this hardship be a new challenge?
  • What might I learn as a result?
  • How might lessons from past experiences apply?
  • How am I feeling?
  • What’s my intuition telling me?
  • What are my actions telling me about what’s working and what’s not working?
  • What can I learn from what I and others did in this situation?
  • What feedback do I need to seek from others?
  • How might this help me going forward?

5. Connect with others.

If you’re experiencing discrimination, bias, or injustice, reach out to people who can relate or support you. Internalizing the experience won’t help you or anyone else, and it will only allow the situation to fester. Identify people you trust and figure out how you’d like to proceed.

6. Look back to find your lessons of experience.

Hardships aren’t the main way people learn — experience is the primary teacher. Our Lessons of Experience research tells us that almost a quarter of all leadership development stems from hardships. That’s more than classroom experiences or formal training opportunities, meaning that what you’re going through right now could be a powerful catalyst on your leadership journey. Consider using our Experience Explorer™ activity for yourself and others.

Hardship is painful. But if you can learn from it, and turn it into an opportunity for growth, you gain something back that stays with you forever.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Help your leaders learn to extract lessons from hardships they face, maintaining resilience while handling uncertainty and setbacks. Equip them with a customized learning journey using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Change & Disruption, Conflict Management, Emotional Intelligence, Learning Agility, Psychological Safety, Resilience-Building, Self-Awareness, and more.

Based on Research by

Bill Pasmore
Bill Pasmore, PhD
SVP & Advisor to CEOs, Board, and Executive Teams

Bill leads our efforts to help clients develop leadership strategies their organizations can use to transform their leadership cultures and capabilities. A thought leader in the field of organization development, he advises CEOs and Boards on challenges of the future including business disruption, new ways of organizing, creating more effective digital networks, leading continuous change, and improving senior team effectiveness.

Bill leads our efforts to help clients develop leadership strategies their organizations can use to transform their leadership cultures and capabilities. A thought leader in the field of organization development, he advises CEOs and Boards on challenges of the future including business disruption, new ways of organizing, creating more effective digital networks, leading continuous change, and improving senior team effectiveness.

Cindy McCauley
Cindy McCauley, PhD
Honorary Senior Fellow

With over 30 years of experience at CCL, Cindy has contributed to many aspects of CCL’s work: research, publication, product development, program evaluation, coaching, and management. She designs and manages R&D projects, coaches action learning teams, writes for multiple audiences, and is a frequent speaker at professional conferences.

With over 30 years of experience at CCL, Cindy has contributed to many aspects of CCL’s work: research, publication, product development, program evaluation, coaching, and management. She designs and manages R&D projects, coaches action learning teams, writes for multiple audiences, and is a frequent speaker at professional conferences.

Alice Cahill
Alice Cahill, PhD
Director, Organizational Leadership Practice

Alice applies her extensive facilitation and consulting experience to the design and delivery of leadership engagements for executive and senior level leaders of organizations in a wide range of industries. She holds a PhD in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, as well as graduate degrees in several disciplines, including Adult Education and Public Health.

Alice applies her extensive facilitation and consulting experience to the design and delivery of leadership engagements for executive and senior level leaders of organizations in a wide range of industries. She holds a PhD in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, as well as graduate degrees in several disciplines, including Adult Education and Public Health.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith, MA
Director & Strategic Business Partner

Mike has over 2 decades of experience in a variety of leadership roles in the tech industry. He cofounded an entrepreneurial startup and led marketing and business development in a Fortune 100 company. He now partners with our clients to help them align their people development strategy with their enterprise business strategy and shape the leadership culture required to drive organizational performance.

Mike has over 2 decades of experience in a variety of leadership roles in the tech industry. He cofounded an entrepreneurial startup and led marketing and business development in a Fortune 100 company. He now partners with our clients to help them align their people development strategy with their enterprise business strategy and shape the leadership culture required to drive organizational performance.

Chuck Ainsworth
Chuck Ainsworth, MA
Former Head of Coaching, Americas

Chuck is leader in the field of leadership coaching and a sought-after keynote speaker with a refreshingly authentic, practical, and inspiring style. He created CCL’s Better Conversations Every Day™, a highly successful one-day experience designed to be scaled for enterprise culture change and aimed at unlocking emotionally intelligent, feedback-rich conversations.

Chuck is leader in the field of leadership coaching and a sought-after keynote speaker with a refreshingly authentic, practical, and inspiring style. He created CCL’s Better Conversations Every Day™, a highly successful one-day experience designed to be scaled for enterprise culture change and aimed at unlocking emotionally intelligent, feedback-rich conversations.

Charles Palus
Charles Palus, PhD
Honorary Senior Fellow

Chuck is an Honorary Senior Fellow and co-founded of CCL’s Organizational Leadership Practice and CCL Labs. Retired in 2020, Chuck studied, taught, and developed leadership as a relational process in the context of the vertical transformation of leadership cultures, with a special interest in digital disruption.

Chuck is an Honorary Senior Fellow and co-founded of CCL’s Organizational Leadership Practice and CCL Labs. Retired in 2020, Chuck studied, taught, and developed leadership as a relational process in the context of the vertical transformation of leadership cultures, with a special interest in digital disruption.

4 Unexpected Lessons Learned From Hardships & Adversity
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At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world - including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.