Your Struggle Is Your Superpower

6 minute read
Lipman is a Yale lecturer and former editor in chief of USA Today. Her new book is NEXT! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work.

We’re at a perilous moment in time, when so many of us are searching for a “new normal” after the past few tumultuous years, and looking for more meaning in our lives and careers, reprioritizing our lives. We need a guidebook to get there.

That’s why I wrote NEXT! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work. I wanted to answer the question so many of us are asking now: what’s next? And how do I get there?

The book is the culmination of hundreds of interviews, both with people who had made major transitions and with experts who study the process of change, from management gurus to neuroscientists.

The people I spoke to traveled astonishingly varied paths. Some switched careers, others had life-changing “aha” moments, others were trying to pivot after devastating failures or terrible traumas. I spoke with well-known names like novelist James Patterson (former ad executive) and legendary Fed chair Alan Greenspan (former professional jazz clarinetist), as well as others who you may not know who had equally remarkable pivots. There’s the trial lawyer turned TikTok cooking phenom, the economist who became a cattle farmer, and the telephone repairman turned women’s shoe designer. There’s the “Budget Fashionista” blogger who now advises Black-owned startups, and the mom who quit the corporate world to raise her kids—then re-emerged as a non-profit CEO and mayor.

Yet I found that they all had a similar trajectory in reinventing lives and careers. Even those who had the most seemingly extreme makeovers followed a surprisingly similar trajectory. I call it the Reinvention Roadmap, and it progresses through four identifiable stages: Search-Struggle-Stop-Solution.

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Broadly speaking, each pivot begins with a search to gather information. Surprisingly, the search is often unintentional: for those who switch careers, for example, it may simply start as a hobby or side hustle or even a random interest that you have no idea will ultimately lead you to an unexpected new role.

Then comes the second stage: an uncomfortable, sometimes miserable, middle period of struggle when you’re disconnecting from your previous identity but haven’t figured out the new one. The struggle often doesn’t end until you reach the third stage, the stop—whether you choose a break (like quitting a job) or one is forced on you (like getting laid off – or a pandemic!). The stop pulls you out of your routine, allowing all of your previous ideas and experiences to coalesce. Only then do you come out the other side with the final stage, the solution, completing the pivot to the new identity.

Perhaps it’s human nature, but we have an unfortunate tendency to focus on just the first and last steps of reinvention, conveniently ignoring the messy struggle in the middle. We get caught up in the Cinderella myth, the idea that these transformations are sudden, abrupt and seamless: Mark Zuckerberg goes from college kid to tech billionaire. Boom! Vera Wang from figure skater to bridal designer. Julia Child from World War II intelligence official to cooking doyenne.

Unfortunately, this kind of myth-making just makes transformations of any kind seem unattainable for us mere mortals. It makes us feel bad about ourselves. What’s worse, the stories we tell ourselves are wrong, Transitioning to a new career is not a magic metamorphosis from ugly duckling to swan.

Instead, it’s that middle step that is actually the most important: the struggle. It’s a slog. It’s when you are banging your head against the wall, attempting to figure out a problem. It feels like you’re standing still, or spinning your wheels. You’re sure everyone else has their act together and only you are in the morass. There’s something wrong with you. It can be agonizing and almost unbearably frustrating. Nobody wants to go through it.

Yet the struggle isn’t just necessary; in virtually every arena of transformation, it’s the key to finding a solution. What’s more, everyone goes through the struggle. There’s nothing wrong with you—and you aren’t alone.

Leaning into the struggle doesn’t come naturally. But it is actually possible to convince yourself otherwise, to change your attitude. Social scientists Shawn Achor, Peter Salovey, and Alia Crum were called in to banking giant UBS at a particularly perilous time, when the organization was going through the twin convulsions of a banking crisis and massive restructuring. The researchers asked one group of managers to watch videos that showed stress as a debilitating condition that would hurt their performance. Another group watched videos showing that stress would actually strengthen their brains and bodies. Six weeks later, the latter group still viewed stress as a positive enhancement. What’s more, they also reported a decrease in health problems and an increase in work satisfaction.

This was one of the most empowering findings that emerged from my reporting. When you’re in the midst of that struggle, you may feel like you’re standing still—but you’re actually moving forward. You may not realize it consciously, but beneath the surface, the important work is being done that will ultimately lead you to your next destination.

In NEXT! I identify a dozen strategies that successful pivoters use to get through this difficult period. They range from finding an “expert companion” who has an objective view of your strengths, to reaching out to your “weak ties,” to taking a break – there’s even a more productive way to take showers! (There’s a reason why that’s where you get those sudden “aha” moments.)

The bottom line is, once we understand the Reinvention Roadmap, and the strategies that can help us navigate each stage, we’re armed with the tools to face life whatever life brings us.

Join a virtual workshop on Monday, April 3rd at 6pm ET / 3pm PT with NEXT! author Joanne Lipman and Time contributor Kevin Delaney, Editor-in-Chief of Charter, to learn more about reinventing how you live, work, and lead.

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