"Suffering is universal: You turn it around so that it becomes a creative, positive force," (Terry Waite).
Psychologist Abraham Maslow found that tragedy and trauma are the most important human learning experiences. Crucibles enable people to learn life is uncertain, and that they have limited control over events.
In recent years, a new reality is emerging that empowers individuals to look at their crucibles and difficult experiences as growth opportunities -- we term this approach, Post-Traumatic Growth.
Think of the most challenging moment in your life. Perhaps it was a time when a loved one passed away, or you had a personal health crisis. Or your lost your job or your family. Whatever it was, it was a time of crisis for you -- but also a moment that caused you to reflect deeply about who you are and what is truly important in your life.
Traumatic moments propel many people into a downward spiral. As they refuse to address or even acknowledge their crucibles, they make the memories more painful. As a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are painfully aware of "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" -- or PTSD -- but this phenomenon doesn't just happen to war victims or military veterans.
New research shows that traumatic experiences can result in post-traumatic growth (PTG). PTG starts by recognizing life's uncertainties and embracing them as fundamental tenets of human existence. It also requires self-awareness to acknowledge your personal responsibility for the choices you make in life coupled with the desire to undergo personal transformation. As Warren Bennis explained in Geeks and Geezers, "Some magic takes place in the crucible of leadership. Whatever is thrown at them, leaders emerge from their crucibles stronger and unbroken."
All of us face trials in our lives. How can you respond to your crucible to transform your deep feelings of loss -- which are real and natural -- into opportunities for personal growth?
After reading True North, Pedro Algorta, one of the survivors of the famous 1972 crash in the Andes mountains, reached out to me. In his letter, he wrote while flying with 45 friends, his plane crashed into the Andes. "After 72 days barely surviving in the mountains without food or clothing, sixteen of us were finally rescued."
For 35 years, Algorta never mentioned being part of this experience to anyone other than his wife, in spite of the worldwide publicity the event received. As an MBA student at Stanford, he didn't even share it with his classmates. After reading True North, he began to process how this event had shaped his life. When he visited my Harvard Business School classes in 2008 and 2013, he shared three ways to deal with crucibles:
• Focus on the event, and live your life looking backward, often an angry life of blaming others.
• Live your life as if nothing happened, while the memories and the pain remain deep inside you.
• Use the event to transform your wound into a pearl.
In my new book, Discover Your True North, Algorta shared the metaphor of the oyster pearl. When sand grates against the oyster, its natural reaction is to cover up the irritant to protect itself with a substance called nacre (mother-of-pearl), which eventually forms the pearl itself.
Are you turning your wounds into pearls?
To do so, you will need to reflect on the impact your crucible has had on your life and what you learned from the experience. After discerning its meaning, you can reframe it as an opportunity for personal growth.
My crucible came when I least expected it. In my mid-20s, I was engaged to be married, just 18 months after my mother's sudden death. A few weeks before the wedding, my fiancée started having severe headaches. I took her to a leading neurosurgeon, but all her exams were negative. On a Saturday night three weeks before the wedding, we talked about final plans. The following morning her parents called to say she died during the night from a malignant brain tumor.
In the aftermath of her death, I could have easily become bitter and depressed and even lost my faith. In times of personal crisis, the power of faith and the support of close friends can provide the basis for healing. I was blessed to have both. Together, they enabled me to accept this tragedy and to learn just how precious every day is and to appreciate fully the value of those who are there for us when things go wrong in our lives.
Tragic as the event was, it opened my heart to the deeper meaning of life. This tragedy caused me to think more profoundly about what I could contribute to others during my lifetime. As my wife Penny explained about her breast cancer diagnosis in 1996, "Life is what happens when you're expecting something else."
With all of life's uncertainties, we learn to accept what life brings us and to use each experience as an opportunity for personal growth. You cannot go through life without getting knocked down. The question is how you will respond, and whether you will come back stronger than ever. Rather than living an angry life, suppressing your crucibles, or living a fearful life, I urge you to embrace life's uncertainties and reframe them as learning opportunities in order to turn them into pearls of wisdom.
If you do, you will lead a fuller, richer life, and you can help others to cope with life's challenges.
Bill George is the author of Discover Your True North, from which these ideas are drawn. He is senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. Read more at www.DiscoverYourTrueNorth.org, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.