Adversity, the Uncomfortable Spark that Ignites Growth

“Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.” This quote is credited to American academic Joseph Campbell who spent much of his life studying the human experience. Quotes like this are becoming ubiquitous in our deeply challenging context. Do these quotes hold any meaning for us today?

From a learning perspective, the answer is yes. Adversity is key to sparking transformative human growth. American sociologist, Jack Mezirow, describes a process of transformative learning as starting with a “disorienting dilemma.” This period, which is often uncomfortable and downright difficult, occurs when we encounter an experience that doesn’t fit within, or cracks open our current way of seeing ourselves and taking action in our world. I like to think of such an event as opening a gap between what we currently know and what we start seeing as possible, or maybe even necessary, for us to weather a storm, excel in a new role, or take the next big step in our career/lives. Check out this graphic:

So what’s this learning gap all about? Well, the first thing to know about the gap is that it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because while we may be starting to see a possible improved future state, we don’t immediately know how to close the gap to get there. I’ll give you an example from my own career. A few months after stepping into my first manager role, a gap started to open up for me. It became clear that it was no longer all about me. Rather, it was about this team, whose members were looking to me to help them succeed. I was transitioning from an analyst to a manager of a whole team of analysts. Initially, that looked like this:

As you can see, this was not a comfortable place to be; however, it motivated me to close the gap toward my desired end state. Now I’m not going to hold myself up as some paragon of successful people management. I have made mistakes and I continue to make them, often over and over again. I will, however, lay out my actions for closing the learning gap and making progress in that previous role toward my desired end state of becoming a successful people manager. That looked something like this:

My process wasn’t all that novel or sophisticated. Indeed, I would describe it as simple, but not easy. Through the process, I learned the importance of prioritizing my time, delegating, adapting my approach to the needs of others, and developing coaching skills to develop the people around me. It basically broke down into these five steps.

  1. Awareness: The growth process often starts with awareness that there is a gap between where you are and where you want or need to be. Without awareness the process is much longer, less effective, and may not happen at all. Awareness can be triggered by noticing that you’re feeling uncertain, uncomfortable, confused, frustrated, etc.
  2. Reflection: Once you have a sense that you’re starting a growth process, setting aside time and gaining space to reflect is critical. How do you know you need to grow? What makes up the gap between where you are and where you want to be? What resources do you need to close the gap? This is a wonderful place to read a book, watch a video, or talk to a good friend or mentor.
  3. Openness: Learning isn’t easy. If it is, you’re probably not gaining all you can. Real growth, transformative growth, is messy. You’re going to feel pretty unkempt for a while. You’ll need to get ready to let go of go-to-actions and prime yourself to stumble and fall from time to time as you try new things. It’s important to be open to that experience and to find the learning in it. It’s also important to seek out feedback and really take it in.
  4. Planning: If we’re aware of the learning opportunity, have reflected on where we want to go, and are open to the process, now we can start taking action to fill the learning gap. This is a great place to seek out formal learning opportunities, like leadership development classes, and engage with a coach. There are key supports to include here, including SMART goals, timelines, and things to hold yourself accountable to closing the gap and not just falling back into more comfortable ways of doing things.
  5. Time: There isn’t really anything to do in this step other than to be aware that real growth takes time and effort. It won’t happen overnight, so calibrate your expectations, be mindful of your energy levels, and celebrate your little wins as you make progress. You’ll get there.

So what does all this have to do with our current time? Well, I for one am feeling really uncomfortable. The path I walked to get here is washed out and the new one has yet to present itself. Uncertainty reigns and I’m fighting the urge to try to make the future appear before it’s ready. It certainly seems like this is an opportunity to learn. Perhaps it’s how I deal with uncertainty or stay present in the moment. I clearly have some reflection to do.

Adversity creates the conditions for transformative human growth. With so much adversity around, it’s appropriate for us to look for the learning that’s here for us. There is an opportunity, no matter how uncomfortable, for us to leave this deeply difficult time a little better than how we entered it. I imagine that my learning opportunities are different from what may be before you. So set aside some time for reflection, and if you need a prompt to get started, try placing human well-being at the center of your attention. Then ask yourself what you are noticing in your external context and inside yourself during these uncertain times. There’s probably a glimpse, even if it’s fleeting, of a spark for growth.

Written by: Jason Smith.

This article has emerged out of the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate leadership. For more information, please refer to

We seek to engage leaders and organizations in conversations to cultivate humanistic leadership to promote human dignity and well-being.