Should "struggle" be a dirty word? | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer

Life in general, and certainly in business, has its dark side.

If we are in the game, we are most certainly at risk to some extent. We are told that’s where the learning is, and to learn is to embrace failures when they occur, and the struggle associated with both our wins and losses—but who wants to fail much less talk about it?

And the opportunity to struggle doesn’t exactly sound like an invitation to many of us. Do you know anybody who made the cover of Forbes simply because they put up a good fight?

I have benefitted enormously from the lessons of both failure and struggle, but I question just how much any business leader really considers failure or even the struggle for success to be something they want to talk about. But we do continue to talk about it, and how we want to our employees to take risks.

So what gives when it comes to the failure/struggle question?

Recently I came across a new book touting the benefits of struggle, and I decided to pick it up simply because the author was bold enough to use the word in the title. As it turned out, it made for pretty solid reading, so much so that as an executive coach I think I’ll be using it as one of my recommended readings.

So is struggle a dirty word?

In practice, we live in a culture dominated by positive psychology. You must have heard this phrase at one time or another: “Failure is not an option!” Even struggle has become something that most leaders want to avoid admitting to at all costs. Its perceived negative connotation is off-putting and even occasionally frightening.

Who really wants to struggle? Steven Snyder, author of “Leadership and the Art of Struggle,” suggests that we all should.

Snyder believes struggle has gotten a bum rap. He suggests we have lost sight of its benefits and unintentionally placed roadblocks in our own paths to appreciating the benefits struggle can provide.

Our purely negative view of struggle is the result of misinterpreting popular positive psychology and also an inaccurate understanding of struggle itself. Snyder calls this the paradox of the positive.

Practitioners of positive psychology never meant for us to see a blessing in a plane crash, but unfortunately the message has become so watered down that often the mere mention of thinking positively can turn off an audience. Honestly, this approach has never suggested we ignore life’s challenges. Nor has it ever advocated a denial of struggle. That would be naive and dangerous.

Positive psychology is not a call for tunnel vision concentrated only on the good. Instead, it suggests we spend as much time focusing on our strengths as we do on our weaknesses.

It is a call for equal attention, but is often misconstrued as an elevation of one over the other. It’s this misunderstanding that leads us to see struggle as undesirable and something to be avoided. Steven Snyder seems committed to turning this interpretation around and giving struggle back its good name.

According to Snyder, it is time for struggle to be reconsidered and redefined. What if instead of avoiding struggle, leaders welcomed it as a necessary part of the journey? What if we move away from stereotypical thinking and embrace the positive aspects of struggle?

Snyder argues that struggle must no longer be seen as a symptom of failure but rather a path toward success. He encourages us to be savvy about our trials and embrace struggle as an opportunity for growth and learning, as an art to be mastered.

Surviving struggle may never bestow a badge of honor, but it can be seen as a legitimate part of life for anyone in any pursuit.

If navigated well, struggle can shape and grow us. It can be a teacher. A leader that emerges from a difficult challenge can be stronger, wiser and better prepared for the next trial.

Confronting conflict with openness to new learning and the energy of positive thinking can turn struggle into transformation, paving the way for accelerated growth and development.

I have always thought that great leaders were made in the process of dealing with challenge and adversity. With coaching clients, I have often focused them on developing an ability to honestly discuss their struggles as a way to connect with others.

Vulnerability is attractive.

As a practical matter, an honest look at the opportunities in embracing struggle with the help of Steven Snyder is probably a great gift for yourself or someone you know.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

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