Making Challenges Work for You

When it comes to taking on the big challenges in our lives, the simplest (and most famous) words of advice are attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Especially for people who become anxious or filled with dread in the face of obstacles (and everyone does from time to time), it is a helpful reminder that no one expects you to perform superhuman feats or win marathons without breaking a sweat. Instead, if you break challenges into realistic, manageable steps and simply do your best, you can turn your attitude around and make challenges work for—not against—you.

Here are four tips to help make it happen:

1. Make sure your goals are realistic. Consider projects at work. Some people are so eager to please, determined to prove their worth or convinced they’re always one misstep away from being laid off that they habitually promise more than they can deliver. That’s setting yourself up for failure. Instead, when asked how much or how fast you can deliver on any given project, take a moment or two to create a realistic proposal and give an honest estimate. You’d be surprised how often your client or supervisor will agree with your assessment, but if they don’t, hold your ground. No one, least of all you, wants the end result to be shoddy or late work because you overpromised from the start. On the other hand, if you complete the project well and on schedule, everyone wins.

2. Remember that trying is the point. People—even very, very successful people—fail all the time. Star basketball players miss free throws. Smart financiers make bad investments. And everyone has heard about the great band, novelist or inventor who was rejected hundreds of times before becoming an “overnight” success. What they all have in common is they keep trying, learn from their mistakes and usually grow a thicker skin along the way. So whatever challenge you’ve set for yourself, large or small, don’t expect to succeed on the first try. Just give it your best shot and consider it an exciting learning opportunity. When you think of it that way, challenges are something to embrace rather than dread…a mindset that just might even improve your chances of success.

3. Notice your progress. People like to talk about the power of positive thinking, but the flip side is also true: Negative thinking is very powerful as well. Take a child who’s determined to beat her sister in tennis, and every time she loses, the loss is all-consuming. She may be completely oblivious to the fact that her serves are getting stronger, she’s making fewer mistakes and her sister is having to work harder with every match. As an adult, you’re better equipped to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and see that although you may not have mastered a certain goal yet, you’re getting closer all the time. Remember that challenges can serve a positive purpose by giving you an incentive to work harder and make progress toward your goals.

4. When you feel like you’re hitting a wall, revaluate and try again. Changing course is not conceding defeat; it’s strategically looking for another path to success. Find a new mentor who can help suggest adjustments to how you’re approaching a certain challenge, or considering making adjustments to the challenge itself. Say you want to start your own catering company, but it turns out your wedding cakes take off while the rest of the business flounders. Maybe your new challenge—the one that best puts your best skills to use—is to become to go-to baker of specialty cakes in your city.

In all of these examples, you have little to lose by trying, and a world of experience to gain by trying. You might even find that you enjoy yourself just a little bit along the way.


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