Learning to “Run to Trouble”


Challenge is everywhere. Each of us experiences hard situations, difficult people, tall tasks, things not working out, and times when we just want to run away. This is not new to the human condition, and the challenges around us seem to continually get more complex and overwhelming. These challenges exist in multiple scales – some are smaller and some are larger and more complex – from working through a problem with a difficult team member to solving economic disparities between racially diverse communities to tackling world hunger.

No matter the size of the challenge, we are faced with a decision on how we choose to engage. A colleague of mine once told me that the best thing we can do is to teach students how to “run to trouble.” I thought this was profound. It’s not as simple as encouraging and supporting students in difficulty, but it’s teaching how to run to trouble; to build the courage and fortitude to seek difficulty.

When challenges arise, here’s the (simplified) process we face:

  1. The challenge surfaces
  2. We experience fear/doubt/limiting beliefs
  3. We are faced with a decision
  4. We either step-in and act or step-out

So how do we not only teach others to run to trouble but build our own capacity to engage when challenges arise?

The key exists in working through fear.

What happens when we experience fear/doubt/limiting beliefs? Our heart-rate increases, our palms get sweaty, our minds get frantic, we get butterflies in our stomach. What happens when we experience excitement? Our heart rate increases, our palms get sweaty, our minds get more frantic, and we get butterflies in our stomach. Our bodies have the same physiological response to excitement and fear. In both cases, it means that we are awake and paying attention. The difference between the two is our perception.

This means that facing a challenge and the decision to act or to fade away is based on our perception of the challenge.

My first job out of college was working at a large bank in sales – in particular calling potential customers for new loans or to refinance their existing mortgage. On occasion, we would get a call from a customer who was angry enough to be screaming at whoever answered the phone. I used to be terrified of receiving this call. The Assistant Manager would jump up in excitement when we’d get these calls and beg to take them. He loved it. Understanding his desire to take the call, and learning from his lead, I began to open up to the possibility that I could learn to like it. I tried it a few times, and after a while, began to get excited to take on the challenge of a difficult customer. This difference was my perception – the situation was no different than it had been before.

Developmentally we gain little by allowing our perception to be fear based in the face of difficulty – we step away and disengage. Learning to see challenge with excitement is a shift that takes time to develop. It begins with the first choice to step in, gaining confidence and building skills, and then doing it again, and again, and again. And again. The most successful leaders are those that have learned to like (and even seek) difficulty, stepping in when others step out.

When is a time you overcame fear? What did you learn about yourself?


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Dave Newell is director of the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development.

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