Are You Choosing the Right Challenges?


I  think this is one the most important articles I’ve written. I think this topic is so important, and it’s rarely talked about.

I wasted a lot of time in my life and gone through a lot of suffering because I didn’t get it, and I’ve watched a lot of friends, colleagues, and classmates do the same. If you agree, please share the message.

As a coach, I’m frequently in conversation with clients and friends facing dilemmas. Option 1 or Option 2? Job A or Job B?  School C or School D?

I often hear them say, “I’m thinking maybe I should choose the harder option (the one that is turning my stomach upside down as I think about it right now), because then I will grow.

This is a widespread, treasured notion in our culture: stretch yourself in order to grow.

It’s true: we do grow from challenges, but after watching dozens of friends make the “do the harder option and grow” choice (and doing that several times myself) here’s what I’ve seen: there are some challenges from which we grow beautifully. We come out the other side, stronger, better, blossoming, even. Then there are hard experiences of challenge that leave us battered and beat down and less than what we were when we started.

What makes the difference?

It’s not persistence or special skills. It’s not glass half full or glass half empty thinking.

It’s the kind of challenges we choose.

There are two different kinds of challenges that we’ve confused. One kind serves us. One kind harms us and wastes years of our lives. We’ve conflated them together, to our detriment.

Leap Challenges

Leap challenges stretch you to stop procrastinating, distracting and delaying and instead:

  • Step up into who you really are
  • Share your unique gifts and voice
  • Take the risk of being authentic (read: leaving the herd)
  • Do things that fly in the face of the negative beliefs or limiting stories you have about yourself
  • Face all kinds of fears as you do this

Leap challenges shake up all the parts ourselves need to be shaken up– the fears, the little ego stories, the instinctual, over-protective irrational part of ourselves that Seth Godin calls the lizard brain.

Leap Challenges are gifts. They grow us. They rebirth us. They create breakthroughs in our lives. When a Leap Challenge shows up in your life, go for it.

Slog Challenges

Slog Challenges challenge your essence, your particular voice / brilliance / contribution / unique core self.

Slog Challenges starve your essence of the things it needs to thrive. They require you to work / live / create in environments that are just not nurturing for you, that are not the right fit, that are square-peg round hole, that take you out of your flow. They require you to work / live / create in environments in which you are unheard or unwelcomed, underutilized or even mistreated.

Here’s the problem. That essence part of us doesn’t thrive from challenge. It is more like a plant; it simply needs the sun, water and nutrients (read: people, culture, context, schedule) it needs.  How crazy would you need to be to try to improve or strengthen a plant by giving a different amount of water than it needs or sunlight than it needs?

Challenge doesn’t help your essence any more than withholding light and water is going to make a better plant. It just leads to withering.

If you put yourself through a Slog Challenge, you’ll get some benefits, no question. Connections, learning, a prestigious line on the resume, money.

But here’s what you will likely pay for that: loss of vitality, loss of confidence, loss of creativity, and a mighty strengthening of your fears.

Plus, important warning: after a person leaves a slog situation, its effects persist, sometimes for years. There’s a long, not-so-easy process involved in getting your voice back, coaxing creativity out of its hiding place, rekindling dreams and rebuilding courage. Not everyone successfully recovers what’s been lost. Not everyone remembers or finds the will to turn back to their dreams and gifts.

An Example

Carol is an artist. Her creativity is inspired by time in nature. Her dream is to run her own business doing creative portrait photography. Of course, that dream also scares the hell out of her: what if people don’t like her work? What if she builds it and nobody comes?

Leap Challenges for Carol might look like:

  • Committing to do one photography session a week with individuals and families, starting this week.
  • Researching what it will really take to start the business.
  • Sending out a letter to 50 friends offering portrait services

These will feel challenging to Carol because they require her to question her beloved little story that she’s not “ready yet.” Because they require her to step into the ring and fight her fears.

Slog Challenges look like this: Taking that job that feels like it squelches the artist in her. Moving into the heart of city, where she knows she’ll struggle to access creative inspiration. Going to a prestigious art school that she senses will not nurture her creativity, because she’s convinced herself that she needs a fancy degree to pursue her dream.

Slog challenges will help her gain a few new skills, new connections, but mostly they will help her put off the daring work of claiming her dream. And, as she pursues them, she’s likely to start to grow more afraid, more confused, more cut off from her flow.

Discerning Leap vs. Slog

Clearly, knowing whether you are facing a Leap Challenge or a Slog Challenge is very important. Here’s how you know.

Recognize a Leap Challenge–a challenge to your ego/ fears/ limiting beliefs/ lizard brain–by these clues:

  • The challenge entails leaping into imperfect, vulnerable action
  • Fears of failure and rejection are rising up like tidal waves in you
  • You feel scared scared scared, but you also feel an edge of thrill or exhilaration in the fear
  • Your brain scrambles for reasons why now is not the time to leap, for example: you don’t have the time or money, the equipment. You hear arguments about all that in your head.

Recognize a Slog Challenge–the kind that’s about starving your essence–by these clues:

  • Your reasons for going after it come from your head, not from your heart or gut instinct
  • You feel tense and tight when you think about it
  • You feel confused by complex, intricate pro and con arguments
  • As you move into the challenge, you feel more and more lost from yourself. You feel disempowered, sad or weakened.

What To Do

  1. Seek out Leap Challenges. Create them for yourself, and claim them when life brings them to you.
  2. With a spirit of self-protection and self-care, be very careful about putting yourself through Slog Challenges.
  3. When you are faced with a challenge, find out what type it is, using the discernment clues.
  4. If you are in a slog situation now, start getting clear about the kind of environment in which you thrive. What kind of culture? What type of work? What kinds of relationships? To uncover this, think back to your past peak experiences and look for common elements across them. Make a list of these elements and post it where you’ll see it regularly. Find simple ways to bring these elements into your life, right away. Then, start creating your plan to transition out of your slog environment.

You have your particular brilliance. You have a calling. Spend your energies stepping into it. Watch out for romanticization or valorization of the slog. Watch out for the arguments your own mind will make about how suffering will aid you. Do the scary-thrilling-messy-now thing. Start anyway you can, but start now.

Photo by Gibson Claire McGuire

26 thoughts on “Are You Choosing the Right Challenges?”

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Where I’m at is that many “weaknesses” are better left alone. Life is short, and ultimately I want to focus my limited time on what will allow me to flourish, make my contribution, and fulfill my vision for my life. That’s about stepping up with my strengths.

  1. What a fantastic article! The phrase that really stuck with me is, “imperfect, vulnerable action”. Blogging and writing to me is always my imperfect, vulnerable action! What a great way to identify and separate life’s challenges. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thanks Kate, and that’s such a great point about blogging. Its one of the reasons I love it too – creating something spontaneously and relatively quickly and just putting it out there to others.
      Glad you found this post helpful. Warmly, Tara

  2. @Tara – I have been in both perspectives leap or slog. It is a simple choice between being fulfilled and being drained. I would rather pick the first one and let my heart sing.

    Now, from the place I am right now I hear your heart singing very, very loud. And she sings so beautiful and clear.

    I wish y’all to have your hearts singing.

    1. Fabulous, and yes, I love that summary – fulfilled or drained.
      It sounds like you are really clear on what’s what for you and the choices you want to make… and like you are spreading the message too.
      Warmly, Tara

  3. Hello,

    Thanks for the info, really interesting post. This really is one of those times where relying on our gut feeling is essential. Every part of us maybe saying no, but if that little voice is saying yes, then listen!
    It is also easy to pick our goals and challenges based on others views such as what your parents will think of new job, what friends will think of new partner etc etc. It takes strength to really be true to our own inner voice.
    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks Kate. Absolutely agree – there are always lots of other people’s voices swirling around – outside of us or in our heads – about what we should do, what will be seen as the “right” thing, etc. And the hard to work is to hear and trust ourselves.
      Warmly, Tara

  4. This is brilliant! A post I want to share with all my friends (and plan to Tweet after I leave this comment).

    A couple years ago, I pursued a slog challenge by accepting a promotion in a job I didn’t love to begin with. A year later, I left the corporate world for good because of everything you said in this post: I wasn’t being true to myself. My head might have loved the money, prestige, power, etc. but my heart begged me to leave the corporate world far behind.

    I’m glad I did.

    I have some leap challenges ahead of me, most likely, but with your handy post, I’ll be well prepared. Thank you!

    1. Megan!

      Thanks so much, and I’m so glad this post spoke to you. I think that for those of us that have picked jobs, grad school programs, etc. that were really slog challenges, the costs of that and the pain of that resonates in a special way.
      I’m really glad you’ll be spreading this message to others….I want all those heart to heart chats where people are considering jumping into slog challenges to change…for us to take the costs of that more seriously and to also get much more serious about going after what will bring us joy.
      I can’t wait to read about your leap challenges….I’m looking foward to THAT!
      Warmly, Tara

  5. Tara, this piece really spoke to me — and the distinction between “slog” and “leap” challenges has really brought home some of the difficulties I’ve had in the past!

    I think I’ve had a tendency to take things on for all the wrong reasons (justifying it with something like “oh, well, it’ll be a good learning opportunity, I guess”). And, when I need to be, I can be pretty good at gritting my teeth and slogging through something … and hating every minute of it.

    I’ve been trying to get out of that for a while, and I’m getting there, but this has really helped me to understand what it is I’ve been doing. So thank you for taking the time to work it through, and to share it.

    1. Hi Ali!

      So glad to hear this piece struck a chord with you. I too have been blurring slog and leap challenges in my own life, and only in thinking about writing on this topic did I get really, really clear about the distinctions.

      It’s so true we do the “it will be a good learning opportunity, I guess” thing – when what we really mean is…uggghh. My sense is that we always learn something from any experience, but at what cost? What could we have gained/created/, how far could we have moved forward, doing what we love and what nurtures us during that same time period?

      Sending you all the best, t

  6. Vivienne Grainger

    This is so spot-on I printed it out and put it on my wall, where I will see it every day. I’ve done enough slogging. It does destroy you, and it does require time and effort and pain to recreate yourself. Sadly, sometimes that is not possible, as Tara so wisely points out. A great post.

    1. Vivienne,
      Wow, I’m so glad this spoke to you.
      It sounds like you are at a very powerful turning point.
      So…..what choices are the opposite of slogging for you? What does your essential self need to thrive? And how can you start giving yourself more of those things?
      I’m sending you a full heart of good wishes for the journey.
      Love, Tara

  7. You’ve put into words something that I’ve always felt. There are some challenges that really do feel like a leap – and once you take that leap, it’s petrifying but exciting. There are other challenges that definitely feel like a slog – also petrifying and in no way exciting.

    I’ve always wondered why the phrase “it’ll be a learning experience” always made me feel worse than better :)

    1. Yes! We so overuse the “it will be a learning experience” thing….to justify every lackluster choice in our lives.
      This is for me too something I’ve been simmering on and thinking about for a while…watching my friends and myself go after challenges that really didn’t nurture us or even strengthen us over the long-term, but that instead just really drained our energies and disconnected us from ourselves.
      And on the other hand…there are those thrilling leaps.
      I’m really glad this spoke to you!
      Warmly, Tara

  8. Nice post – I’ve never categories challenges before other than hard/easy – but I suppose that’s along the same track. Nice way to look at it, taking leaps keep me going. :)

  9. Very insightful and inspirational post! It makes me wonder whether one could become successful by abandoning the idea of education and focusing on talent instead. In today’s society, education holds so much value, and sometimes even when you think it would be a waste of time, you still end up going through it because that is what is expected of you and supposedly will bring you more financial stability and success. If what you write in your post is true, that people should only be focusing on leap challenges, how does one determine his/her calling early in the career and avoid the trap of wasting years on unnecessary slog challenges? How does one find the courage to stray away from conventional thinking?

  10. This is great. I can relate. I like the way you categorized the challenges. It’s nothing like challenging yourself and feeling great . Of course I’m talking in reference to the leaps. I never forget what Game said “Follow your heart because your heart is never wrong”.

  11. Hi Tara,
    I can usually tell the difference between a leap challenge and a slog challenge by the way I feel when I think about the challenge. As you’ve said, a leap challenge makes me feel excited (although sometimes also scared), but slog challenges just make me feel sick to my stomach! I’ve learnt to listen to the way I feel, and to avoid things (if I can) that make me feel sick. As you say, life is short, I don’t want to waste it by spending precious time and energy on the wrong challenges for me.

  12. Tara: I really liked this post and it was so insightful. I really do think we need to understand the different types of challenges and make certain that we are choosing those that are more in line with our inner desires and the ways we want to grow. I had never really thought about the different types of challenges and all the information you provided about the difference between a leap challenge and a slog challenge was interesting and helpful. I really like this approach and think it can really make certain we are benefiting from the right types of challenges and taking the right leaps forward.

  13. Tara, Thank you *so* much for sharing your perspective on this tremendously important issue!

    I am going through exactly this dilemma right now: I am in a slog challenge and yearning for a leap challenge, but it’s hard to leave the slog challenge for exactly the reasons you described in your post. I have been conflating the two in my mind, knowing all the while that that approach is not beneficial. My inner voice literally yells at me every day, telling me that my slog situation is not for me, but my brain justifies and rationalizes because of my fear of change and making the LEAP into a challenge that nurtures me and is right for my essential self/spirit/soul.

    Your perspective has given me the clarity I needed to get unstuck from that foggy line of thinking and move forward on my path regarding this issue. It’s a whole new way to think about it, and I am so very grateful that you shared it with us!


  14. Wow! I’ve never thought of the challenges in my life this way.

    Leap vs Slog.

    As I look back I’ve took on many slog challenges in my life and you are right they leave me with great rewards but not the one that matters most. Time to take the leap challenges now. Thanks for sharing!


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