How to Alchemize Challenge – Future of Leadership Letter [March 2020]

Ben and I showed up a few minutes early to the Zoom meeting. 

I love the few moments on a Zoom call just before a meeting formally starts. People act like people instead of corporate bots. 

We chatted. 

He told me a story about a recent outing he and his young son went on.

“Found a new trail by our house,” he said.

He told me that after they had explored the trail on their bikes for some time they needed to get back to base. 

“I decided we should take a shortcut.” He was smiling as he told me this. 

He became animated as he told me about their shortcut through the woods. 

“We were biking through brush on a trail we made up,” he said. “We ended up biking through a homeless encampment.”

He went on about how neither of them knew what they were doing. They were just making it up in the moment as they went.

Toward the end of the story, he paused. His voice changed.

He said, “you know, that was the first time that my son and I had a real adventure. He’s 12 years old and that was the first time.”

He seemed to dwell on that thought for a moment before the other meeting participant joined the call and we had to switch gears. 

I have been dwelling on it ever since. 

I have been dwelling on it because I have had been enjoying similar experiences with my son in recent weeks. 

We have been out biking almost every nice day. We have found new trails. We have ridden around the lake near our house. We have trekked to the store to get treats.

These experiences, though extremely valuable for me and for my Zoommate, help me illuminate a larger idea for you.

It has to do with the philosophy of resilience. 

When I say resilience what do you think of? My guess is that your thoughts drift to some concept of strength amid challenge. 

It’s having a never-say-die attitude. It’s the woman who swam the English channel four times back to back. It’s the man who hiked across the whole of Antarctica while dragging his own supply sled.

Resilience is the ability to withstand challenge, right?

It’s the ability to slog through so that we can return to the way things were.

Even the definition points us in this direction: “The ability to recover size and shape after deformation.”

But we have it wrong.

The definition of resilience works for palm trees after a storm, but not for us. For us, deformation lingers. Being laid off lingers. Getting divorced lingers.

We reflect on it. We talk to other people about it. We read up on it. We make plans from it. 

What deforms us, informs us.

And large deformations change us forever. 

We may say that we want things to go back to the way they were, but we actually want something else. We want it to be better than it was.

What we get wrong is that resilience is not about recovery, it’s about alchemy. Instead of converting metal into gold, we are converting challenge into forward progress.

Deformation naturally focuses our attention on what is wrong. We focus on the dent in the car door. We focus on what we are no longer able to do. We focus on the constraints. 

The alchemy starts by changing the question deformation elicits from us.

What can’t I do?

Gets converted into:

What can I do now?

One question is about limitations, the other about opportunity.

Each of us has been deformed in some way by the virus and our response to the virus. The goal for the resilient is not to “get things back to the way they used to be.” The goal is to convert the deformation quickly into something that continues to move us forward.

When looked at from that perspective we can give ourselves permission to stop waiting. We recover our agency and we are free to get creative about where we go from here. 

That day on the Zoom call my friend told me a story about resilience. Were it not for the deformation coming from the fallout of COVID-19, my friend may not have realized that particular kind of forward progress with his son.

He unintentionally alchemized challenge into progress. 

Will you choose to do the same?


by Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan is the Head Coach at Sandcastle Company, a Seattle-based leadership training organization. His first book, Future Leader: Rebooting Leadership to Win the Millennial and Tech Future [link], is now available. Jonathan regularly writes and speaks about The New Leader Way, leadership resilience, and the future of work. He has years of leadership experience in both the public and private sectors, a master's degree from Seattle University, and professional coach training from the University of Miami.
Published on April 19, 2020

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