Thinkers50 Awards

Every two years Thinkers50 ranks the world’s top management thinkers. In addition, several individual awards are given for distinguished achievement in global thought leadership.

The deadline is September 1st. To help you nominate a leader, we’ve included the form below (or click here).

A True Mentor: How CK Prahalad Influenced My Career
Watch as Liz Wiseman introduces the Thinkers50 and discusses how her life and career were greatly impacted by CK Prahalad.

The Joy of the Struggle

Liz Wiseman, Excerpt from [email protected]

What are the hidden dangers of collectively hitting the “EASY” button? In seeking ease of use and the comforts of automation, might we be robbing ourselves of the joy that comes from struggle?

Is it possible that in the name of advancement and process, our lives have become too easy?  In his autobiography, the 19th century philosophy John Stuart Mill asks:

Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions, which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?[i]

Is the aim of human progress – for which men and women have struggled mightily – to  alleviate struggle?  Or is well-being, and the very notion of progress, fundamentally dependent on continued struggle?

The notion of human progress was introduced in the early 19th century by philosophers of the enlightenment, who defined progress as intellectual advancement and asserted that the human condition has improved over the course of history and would continue to improve. Sometime in the 20th century, economists joined the conversation and began to equate progress with a growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Their premise was that more goods and services per capita equaled progress.  They asserted that higher incomes would ease peoples’ lives, make them more comfortable, provide them with additional options, and satisfy desires for amusement, prestige, and pleasure.  Following suit, the industrialists built tools to remove physical labor and automate repetitive, manual work.  Workers became detached from the outcome of their labors and susceptible to disengagement and mental passivity.  In the late 20th century as the industrial age gave way to the information age, the technologists joined the race, building tools to manage information and automate quotidian knowledge work, eliminating mental drudgery and speeding work cycles.  The dawn of the 21st century brought the rise of data analytics, AI, and machine learning with it’s potential to rival or replace human insight.

Somewhere along the way, the notion of human progress and intellectual advancement became less about well-being and more about efficiency and simplicity.  While the advantages of large-scale production, increased connectivity, access to education, and the life-saving advancements of biotechnology are undeniable, does all of this ease and convenience pose a threat to human development?

Numerous studies have shown the importance of the relationship between job satisfaction (the positive emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s own job[ii]) and the level of challenge present in one’s work.  While there are many variables, empirical evidence suggests only one clear attribute of the work itself that consistently influences job satisfaction: the cognitive challenge of the work.  In addition, employees who are satisfied with their jobs tend to perform better, withdraw less, and lead happier and healthier lives.[iii]

In my research, which investigated how people of varying experience levels approach work, my research team and I surveyed approximately one thousand people from across a variety of industries, asking them to indicate the current level of challenge in their jobs and their current level of satisfaction.  We found the following correlation between “challenge level” at work and “satisfaction level” at work.

In other words, as the challenge level goes up, so does satisfaction.[iv]

Strangely enough, satisfaction isn’t found in the absence of challenge, but as the natural bi-product of challenge conquered.  The steep climb that accompanies hard work, with its scramble and struggle, tends to be our happy place.  It is in striving that we feel joyful and most alive.

Yet, how can we feel joyful when we know so little?  Can it be that we are actually at our best when we know the least?  The research my colleagues and I have done shows that we tend to do our best thinking and work when we are in the process of mastering something challenging, not when we’ve finally achieved mastery.  Why is this?  Because when we are in the process of learning new things and overcoming challenges, we engage our creative energies.  It is in the climb that we feel on top of the world.

Unfortunately, the converse is also true: job satisfaction plummets for those shielded and walled off from real challenge.  According to the oft-cited Gallup poll, 70 percent of American workers claim to either hate their jobs or to be completely disengaged from them.  Another poll found that 63 percent of American workers report having high levels of stress at work with extreme fatigue and feelings of being out of control.[v]  Is it really the amount of work that leads to stress?  Or is it a toxic combination of too much busywork and too little challenging work that is to blame?  What looks like apathy and burnout is more likely the exhaustion of being underutilized.  Today many organizations are building campuses with luxury amenities and conveniences; however, the single most effective way organizations can achieve a satisfied workforce is to provide their employees with mentally challenging work.

Here’s the point: As technology advances and offers greater simplicity and ease, we need to maintain healthy levels of mental challenge and struggle in our work.  The human mind is built for challenge and wired for growth.  While we don’t need more work, we do need constant opportunities to do harder work.  We need to leave the comfort of sure knowledge and face new challenges that put us in the role of apprentice rather than master.

We not only need strategies to ensure high levels of challenge, we also need practices that emphasize learning over knowing because while technology promises ease of automation, it also portends the prospect of obsolescence.  For professionals working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) or anyone working in a field related to or highly infused with science and technology, acquired knowledge doesn’t last long.  Based on the rate at which knowledge is increasing and the rate at which knowledge is decaying, it has been calculated that only about 15 percent of what we know today is likely to be relevant in five years.[vi]  Of course, the real kicker here is that we don’t even know which 15 percent this is.  Truly, the critical skill of this century is not what you know but how fast you can learn.

So how do we find comfort in the fundamentally uncomfortable?  How do we thrive in what feels more like chaos than progress?  The following are a set of concrete strategies to help us struggle productively and joyfully.  The first three are intended for professionals for their own development while the last three are for managers wanting to help their teams embrace new challenges.

  1. Sign up for a stretch. If you can do your current job with ease, it might be time to dial up the intensity level at work.  Try to “disqualify” yourself, meaning, take on a new challenge, a job you aren’t yet qualified for.  As you size the challenge, look for an assignment that offers a sudden increase in difficulty rather than a gentle stretch or incremental skill development.   In her New York Times article “How to Become a Superager,” Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote, “you must expend enough effort that you feel some ‘yuck.’”[vii]

When we learn to push past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort, we develop the necessary mindsets to tackle oversized challenges that are not of our choosing.  When we linger too long on a professional plateau, a part of us dies inside.  When we step out of our comfort zone and onto a learning curve, we feel alive again.  We feel human – perhaps at our most human – vulnerable, in need of community, striving, learning, and growing.

As you leave the comforts of work you are well qualified for, remember, if you have a job you are qualified for there is nothing to learn.  And taking a job that you aren’t qualified for doesn’t necessitate a change of employment or even a new assignment; just submit to a new challenge and put yourself squarely at the bottom of a new learning curve.

  1. Toss out your scripts. The late Dr. C. K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business was considered to be the greatest management thinker of his time (twice listed in the top slot on the Thinkers50 ranking).  He was also a terrible fire hazard to the university because his courses were so perpetually oversubscribed that students lined the halls just trying to get in earshot of one of his lectures. When C. K. was a tenured professor, his wife, Gayatri, found a stack of his teaching notes in the trash bin of their home office.  She recovered this most precious resource and she returned it to C. K. later that night.  He thanked her but admitted, “I actually threw those away on purpose because my students deserve my best thinking and fresh thinking every semester.”  If you want to deepen and refresh your thinking, throw away your notes – your stump speeches, your handy scripts, your stale templates.  While you will lose the comfort of familiarity, you will also rediscover the joy of creation.
  2. Admit what you don’t know. Leaders guiding their organizations in times of change or chaos can feel pressured to project confidence and capability.  However, it is in these moments that the best leaders become learners.  While I was working at Oracle Corporation in the mid-1990s, I worked closely with the company’s top executives as they set a new strategy for the Internet age.  When it came time to communicate the strategy to the mid-level managers, the feedback was brutal: the strategy was unclear and not compelling.  After several attempts to revise the strategy, the feedback wasn’t any better.  When I reminded the three top executives how important it was for them to clarify the strategy, Jeff Henley, the CFO (and my boss’s boss), became agitated and blurted out, “Liz, you don’t need to beat us up.  We know we need to fix this.  The problem is that we don’t know how to do it.”  He explained matter-of-factly, “We’ve never run a twenty-five-billion-dollar company before, so this is new to us.”  The President and the CTO nodded in concurrence.  I went slack-jawed.   It hadn’t occurred to me that these executives, whom I held in the highest esteem, were learning on the job too.  Jeff continued, “If you could help us learn how to do this, now, that would be useful.”

I arranged for some rapid learning that enabled the top executives to re-architect the strategy.  The new strategy received accolades from the next level down, and the once beleaguered executives were now ebullient, exchanging high fives like an excited group of teenagers.  In fast times, everyone is winging it, even those at the top.  When facing new challenges, don’t pretend to know the route.  Let people know you’re learning (albeit quickly).  Activate the mentor gene in others and enlist their support as you navigate the unknown.

  1. Stretch your team. When a team is experiencing fatigue, managers often assume the role of team Sherpa, taking responsibility for solving the hardest problems, removing obstacles and attempting to ease burdens. While attempting to serve their teams, these leaders actually do a disservice.  The best leaders don’t lighten loads; they lay down intriguing challenges.  The challenges need not be a dare to scale a singular, daunting peak.  You can build capability in your team by offering a steady diet of challenge.  Don’t just dole out more work, give harder work— bigger challenges that prompt deep learning and growth.
  2. Don’t rescue strugglers. Many people are promoted into management positions because they are natural problem solvers. So, when someone brings you a problem, it is only natural for you to want to fix it.  Watching people struggle is its own form of pain from which most leaders seek relief.  The next time you see someone struggling, step back and remind yourself that they are learning, and jumping in will halt their learning process.  When someone brings you a problem that you think they are capable of solving, give it back to them.  Ask them how they think it can be solved.  Play the role of the coach who pulls a solution from them rather than a being the problem solver who stands ready to hand out a solution.  Train your eye to distinguish between struggling and failing.  In cases where there is an imminent danger of terminal failure – a mistake from which there is no return and no opportunity to learn – jump in and contribute.  But then, when the threat has cleared, put the other person back in charge.
  3. Create safe space for mistakes. The ability to tolerate challenge-based struggling increases when we acknowledge that mistakes are inevitable and permissible. Define a space for experimentation in your team’s work by clarifying the aspects of the business or operation where it’s okay to fail (i.e., where the ship can take a hit and recover) versus where failure is simply not an option (i.e., where a blow will sink the ship).  Creating and communicating this delineation will be empowering.  It can give your team confidence to accept challenges with mettle; it will also signal where they should proceed with caution.  This distinction will help you know when to stand back and when to rescue.

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed, “I don’t know why were are here, but I’m pretty sure it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”  To be sure, struggle is unpleasant, and failure of any sort is painful.  But the sting of learning is like an adolescent growing pain; it is an indicator of process.  As those in the Marine Corps like to say, “pain is weakness leaving the body.”  It is strength under construction.

It is debatable whether the history of human civilization is a long arc of progress or a cycle of rise and fall.  What history certainly shows is that a civilization resting on its laurels will languish and fall.  For while the ancient Greeks and Romans prevailed magnificently in a barbaric world, it was their desire for security and comfort that brought about their ruin.

It is in struggle not in ease that we find growth.  It is in seeking not knowing that we find truth.  And when we allow the sting of learning to propel us forward, we find joy in the struggle.

[i] John Stuart Mill. Autobiography. Vol. XXV, Part 1, Chapter 5. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14.

[ii] Edwin A. Locke. Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behavior. Second Edition. United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2009. 139.

[iii] Edwin A. Locke. Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behavior. Second Edition. United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2009. 139.

[iv] The research shows that those who are the least challenged are 40 percent less challenged than the average and those who are the most challenged are 36 percent more challenged than the average.

[v] Additionally, 39 percent cite workload as the top cause of stress; Nikki Blacksmith and 
Jim Harter, “Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs,” Gallup, October 28, 2011; Sharon Jayson, “Burnout Up Among Employees,” USA Today, October 24, 2012.

[vi] David R. Schilling, “Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to be Every 12 Hours,” Industry Tap, April 19, 2013; “Quick Facts and Figures About Biological Data,” ELIXIR, 2011; Brian Goldman, “Doctors Make Mistakes. Can We Talk About That?,” TED, November 2011; Brett King, “Too Much Content: A World of Exponential Information Growth,” Huffington Post, January 18, 2011.

Edward N. Wolff, “The Growth of Information Workers in the U.S. Economy,” Communications 48, no. 10 (2005).

  1. L. Bosworth, “The Rate of Obsolescence of Technical Knowledge: A Note,” Journal of Industrial Economics 26, no. 3 (1978); Lionel Nesta, “Knowledge and Productivity in the World’s Largest Manufacturing Corporations,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (2011); J. Allen and R. van der Velden, “When Do Skills Become Obsolete, and When Does It Matter?,” in A. de Grip, Jasper van Loo, and Ken Mayhew, eds., The Economics of Skills Obsolescence (Amsterdam and Boston: JAI, 2007).
  • [vii] Lisa Feldman Barrett, “How to Become a ‘Superager’,” The New York Times, 31, 2016.

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