Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Leadership, entrepreneurship, and challenges that come with them have been my topics of interest for a long time. The challenges part caught my eye when I started to invest in startups and the issues founders have to deal with became personally more relevant. I began to notice that the word “challenge” is widely used in different matters and the term lacks a common understanding. Given the current situation where the majority of the world’s population faces new challenges, it seems only appropriate to contribute for some clarity in the field. As we can only tackle something we can put our finger on.
The first approach to defining a challenge - someone desiring something and not getting it. Both parts of the sentence are equally important.
Someone desiring something seems easy to grasp at first sight – if you don’t want anything then how can you say that you have a challenge? However, I have heard many people talking about having a challenge only to find out later that this was not something they really wanted to achieve but it was an interesting way to present what is happening in their life.
Coming back to the desire, then can it be so that you do not desire anything? Theoretically yes, but living beings have the need to want something hardcoded in them in order to keep themselves alive.
The first conclusion is that challenges are not created by something that is nice to have but by the things we feel are a necessity to stay alive.
The second part is actually a bit easier to understand since all tasks that we can achieve by taking action do not qualify as challenges. The challenge arises only when we feel that we have done everything in our power, used all the options and resources at our disposal and still didn’t get what we wanted. If you look at it from this perspective you understand that there are not so many actual challenges in our lives, rather just challenging tasks to deal with.
Most times we already know how to act or we know where we can gather resources we lack to get the thing we want. So the challenge is something you want to get (the Goal) but have failed to achieve using all the options you know you have, with your limited resources. Resources meaning time, energy, and money etc.
Let's look at a real-life example. For that, I will use the story of a friend who just moved into the new apartment. She loves to cook and bake but before moving in she didn’t notice that the kitchen in the new flat lacks proper lighting. Now she has a task to install new lighting. She has all the necessary tools and is able to do it by herself but she needs a wiring scheme to be sure that she won’t damage any wires. As she asks around, she gets a piece of new information that only the construction company had that scheme, but they are not sure if they stored it. Now she feels like she has a challenge in that she can’t have lighting in the place where she wants! But is it really her true challenge? She must have other options. Why doesn’t she just use some other option for lighting, there must be a hundred of them?
That question brings us to the next part of the challenge. If we dig deeper into the essence of the challenge we start to understand that most things we see as challenges are merely consequences of something else.
To comprehend it better let’s visualize it as an iceberg. Meaning that 87% of it is underwater and not directly visible to the eye and we can physically grasp only the tiny visible part of the challenge and the consequence on top of it. On the surface part of the challenge, we have the potential actions we know and can execute with resources we have that should lead to the desired goal. Let’s call it an outer limitation. I say potential actions because if you fail to get what you aim for, then it is because you chose the actions that did not lead to the desired result.
Now the underwater part of the challenge iceberg is one’s perception. This part is remarkably important because it contains all personal biases, blind-spots, shortcomings, weaknesses but also strengths that lie under the surface, hidden from plain sight. Let’s call them an inner limitation. And it is the perception that limits one's potential actions to tackle the challenge. Meaning that when we are looking for different options to overcome the problem – our fears, attitude, beliefs, etc are as much limiting as money or time.
Coming back to my friend with the lighting issue and putting it in this concept. Her outer limitation was a lack of knowledge about wiring and not knowing where to get that information. Her physical challenge was that she can’t use his kitchen as she wants. As we now understand there were some inner limitations holding her back and kept him focusing only on the solutions she first thought. This is sometimes also called being stuck or technically - being stuck in your view of the world.
It’s safe to say that the biggest limitation she set for herself was that she should install the lighting herself. From where this inner limitation came? For that, we need to go back in time to find out how such a perception formed. In the sixth grade in her English lesson, she was studying a text with professions and some of the professions didn't make sense to our friend. What was a handyman and why would one need a handyman? In her home all the men and also women in the household were crafty - fixing things, building a house, renovating, tailoring etc. She couldn't understand the text and asked for the teacher's explanation. The teacher told the class that in western society people call a handyman to put a painting on a wall for them. There was a lot of verbal bullying happening in the classroom towards those fictional people in the textbook. They were called lazy, stupid, helpless, not able to take care of their household and family themselves. This made the perception (inner limitation) even stronger that one should take care of things on her own.
This was further crystalized when she had her first baby. Her aunt was telling her when she asked for her support that if she can't take care of her child by herself then she shouldn't have any. Since then she has tried her best not to ask for support, so she would not be seen as lazy, stupid, helpless, not able to take care of her household and family herself.
Knowing this is not difficult to see why she would not even consider certain outer actions like asking for support in fixing the lighting problem in her kitchen. The challenge that initially appeared to be about kitchen lighting was actually an issue of something much deeper inside the person affecting her every day and creating new “challenges” over and over again.
So are we determined to live according to the existing limitations?
We are not! We can find a lot of new options if we change any of those outer- or inner limitations and tackle the real challenges we have.
The outer limitations are mostly consequences of our inner limitations (our perception) and in our metaphor of the iceberg, this means that this part is a way bigger and has a way more impact on our outer limitations than most people would normally believe. Therefore our perception can be seen as leverage for creating new opportunities (reducing the outer limitations). In mentoring, I mostly focus on how to change the perception as then many things tend to naturally progress and challenges can be tackled from the new perspective.
For example, if we get over some fear we know we have, then our perception changes and new potential actions we didn't see before will rise on the surface. Or vice versa, by acting as if our perception would be different, we can arrive at new perceptions and grow as a person. In other words, we get out of our preconditioned behavioural loop which gives us an ability to find new practical approaches whenever needed. But this is already the next story to be shared.
While changing our perception is part of the natural development of every individual then in many cases we do not necessarily know that this change of approach and perception also changes us. So in a sense, we are not always aware that we are growing and changing as a person which prohibits us to really leverage our growth to solve challenges much more efficiently. For a lot of people, it is not an issue. Organic growth is enough for them and they don’t feel the need to grow faster or reach out for the new levels of knowing oneself. But there are also people who want to tackle the challenges consciously and to have fun doing it.
One of the many ways to do so is to reach for mentoring and start the journey of exploring one's inner limitations. As far as my friend’s story went, she finally decided to call for an electrician who came over, did some measuring, understood where the wires were and installed the lightings. So kudos for her for tackling her challenge and reaching for proper support. :)
If you are looking for support with your startup challenges - let's talk! We run different startup founder psychology programs like .Cocoon and Mentoring Groups. The next .Cocoon event takes place online in November 25-26.