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Growth Comes from Chaos

November 24, 2016

We weren’t going to cover the U.S. presidential election, but given it’s occupied a lot of our mind-space over the past week, we felt to not reflect on it would be disingenuous. Hopefully our thoughts below offer: 1) a perspective that is different from the seemingly endless swirl of other election coverage and 2) insight that can be applied in a variety of situations.

The United States is going through a shock. Hardly anyone, including many of his own loyalists, expected Donald Trump to be elected as the next President. But it happened.  Regardless of whether his election was a “good” or “bad” thing in your view, it most likely came as a surprise.  

We (i.e., Brad and Steve) were admittedly disappointed by the result. To us, the surprise was a devastating one. But even if you were thrilled by the result, we still encourage you to read on, since, at some point, you, too, will be disrupted by an unexpected negative event.


We walk around with a set of beliefs about how the world works. These beliefs lend a sense of predictability and even an illusion of control to what, objectively speaking, is an utterly chaotic world. In doing so, they make us comfortable. Yet our beliefs are often far more fragile than we think. They rely on assumptions: underlying ideas that we accept as true, regardless of whether or not that is actually the case. When an event comes along and shatters these underlying assumptions, the validity of our entire model—how we expect the world to work—comes under question. What we held as foundational truths just a moment ago seem erroneous. We may even feel strong emotions ranging from anxiety, to panic, to fear.

Yet, moments of dramatic change, when our foundational beliefs are shaken-up, are often our greatest opportunities for growth. Research shows that people rarely make gradual shifts in their deeply-held behaviors, let alone their beliefs. Rather, change often follows a world-view shattering event. (Think: a heart-attack to change health behaviors; being the victim of racism/anti-Semitism to realize it still exists; or a friend dying to understand one’s mortality.) As we’ve discussed in a previous newsletter, such adversity forces us to evaluate not only our views, but also the assumptions and biases that underlie them. For example, in coaching, we often learn more after an unexpected bad outcome than after the good one we planned for. The bad outcome forces us to more closely examine our approach. Glaring mistakes that we were blind to thanks to our own “world-view” suddenly become obvious. Unexpected results, by their very nature, force us out of the echo-chamber of our own mind that shapes our very expectations.  

Researchers refer to this opportunity to grow from catastrophic events as post-traumatic growth. Catastrophes afford us the chance to rebuild our beliefs and world-views in ways that are more accurate and aligned with reality. No different than when an athlete notices a “weak-spot” in the weight-room, shocking events serve as information, telling us where and how we need to adapt.  

Of course, post-traumatic growth doesn’t happen automatically. It’s far easier to give in to negative emotions and rumination—for instance: the world is a “bad” place; our efforts are hopeless; the system is ‘rigged’ against us. (No doubt, if Clinton would have won many Trump supporters would be feeling the exact same way many Clinton supporters are feeling.) If we fall into this pattern of negative thinking, growth doesn’t occur. We’ve wasted an opportunity.

On the other hand, the faster we can accept the result and try to learn from it, the better. For example, perhaps academia and certain news outlets will realize that they may not had so wrongly predicted this election result had they included more conservative voices on their staff. Maybe people will stop taking their own views for granted and instead of just tweeting about them, actually get involved in community organizations.  Perhaps people will also realize that there is a big difference between “their world” and “the world,” and start doing things that affect not just the former but also the latter.

Whether it’s individuals, organizations, or entire nations, the best (and happiest/healthiest) performers don’t sulk and ruminate over chaos. They have the courage and guts—because what they’ll find often isn't pretty—to question their assumptions and adapt accordingly.


Before leaving this topic, we suggest taking the “Do You Live in a Bubble” quiz. Developed by Charles Murray, a political scientist, it’s designed to give you an idea of just how insulated a world you live in. For fun: Brad scored a 19, while Steve scored a 44.

Thank you for taking the time to read about what for many is an emotionally charged concept that breaks from our normal newsletter content. We will return to our regular newsletter in the next edition.

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