Embracing Life’s Gullies for Career Growth


The Gist

  • Ups and downs. Every executive in the leadership class had experienced both big successes and major setbacks.
  • Gullies and Mountains. Although difficult times can be discouraging, they often precede great achievements.
  • Learning from experience. It’s essential to engage in truth-seeking to understand controllable factors, avoid playing the blame game, and make better decisions in the future.

Thirty executives sat in the leadership class charting our failures. We drew a line representing “okay” across the paper’s middle. Then, starting with our first job, we sketched our experience timeline. Above the line were happy events and below the line were the disappointments. Then we shared.

Two things we learned:

  • Everyone experienced big ups and downs.
  • Deep gullies were usually followed by high mountains.

Everyone Experiences Big Ups and Downs

None of us escapes bad times, despite the happy, skippy, self-promotional posts we see on social media. Everyone in the class had drawn more than one episode below the “okay” line. During the discussion, we learned that each of us had endured failure, being fired, laid off, marginalized or demoted. We’d had horrible bosses and worked under high stress. One of my career gullies was being removed from the leadership of a cherished, high-profile project. Even though I was still sad about this experience, it was an unexpected relief to see how in this room of businesspeople with varying backgrounds, our charts were so similar that they could have been interchangeable.

Related Article: 3 Customer Experience Detours That Led to Success

Deep Gullies Were Usually Followed by High Mountains

I was excited to see this common pattern. Big leaps weren’t always preceded by intense difficulty and sometimes there was a time lag. But the pattern was repeated so often that it caused me to reframe the role of my mistakes and disappointments.

Of course, I knew that it’s impossible to keep everything above the “okay” line all the time, yet this exercise caused me to question the wisdom of even trying to do so. Variability is, after all, part of the natural order of things. Natural systems fail in stasis. A healthy human heart beats with slight irregularity. Our DNA contains an average of 150 mutations from what our parents bequeathed us.

Experimentation, whether purposeful and safe, or unexpected and risky is how nature and all of us discover breakthroughs and adapt to constant change. Organizations, careers and lives calcify unless occasionally shaken up. Perhaps trying to constantly optimize for above-the-line outcomes robs us of something essential — the opportunity to experiment and learn.

Related Article: Customer Experience Conundrum: Fix Bad Experiences or Make Good Ones Better?

How to Learn From Experience

In the discussion following the experience timeline exercise, my classmates and I explored the strategies leading to our high career mountains. Learning from difficult experiences was a common theme.


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