Prince Harry recently shared the poignant story of his near-breakdown over his mother Diana’s death. For 20 years he attempted to bury his grief, using honorable military service and wild partying to avoid thinking about his loss. But that only led him astray. While the public tried to escape the searing memories, Prince Harry enlisted in the British Army, where he served for 10 years, including two tours in Afghanistan. But he also embarrassed the royal family with well-publicized drinking, partying, and a viral Las Vegas binger that included nude photos of the prince.
Thanks to advice from Prince William, he sought professional counseling and is now on the road to recovery. Like others who experience crucibles, Prince Harry tried to avoid thinking about his loss – but his active mind kept bringing it back all the time. His story reminds us all to cope with our crucibles, fully process grief to make sense of it before turning it into personal growth and flourishing.
Needless to say, Prince Harry is not alone. After the publication of True North in 2007, I received a moving letter from Pedro Algorta, one of 16 survivors of the airplane crash in the Andes Mountains chronicled by Piers Paul Read in his book and movie, Alive. Pedro and his colleagues spent 70 days in the mountains struggling to stay alive without food or water. For 35 years, Pedro buried his crucible. At Stanford Business School, he didn’t tell anyone about his ordeal. But the experiences kept coming back. By processing them, he discovered his True North and embarked on a new career of sharing his story and helping others grow from their crucibles.
Pedro cites three ways to deal with his severe trials, of which I recommend the last one:
- Be the victim by living your life looking backward, with anger and blame about what happened to you.
- Live your life as if nothing happened, while the memories and pain remain buried inside you.
- Use the event to transform your wound into a pearl.
The sad thing about being the victim is you never feel you can trust others and lead a normal life. Burying your crucible doesn’t work either, as it will constantly resurface, often in the least appropriate ways. Reframing the event to turn its pain into a growth experience can show you the way to your life’s purpose, and enable you to use your hardships to help others.
Take Harvard student Taylor Carol who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 11 and was told he had only two weeks to live. He survived a horrendous series of treatments, and missed four years of education. Told by a guidance counselor he should skip high school and instead gain a graduate equivalent degree, he insisted he wanted to attend Harvard. Now 21 years old, he graduates from Harvard this month. Asked how his battle with terminal cancer affected him, he said, “After beating cancer, I resolved to use my singing, my words, and every ounce of my life force to glorify God. I aspire to change the world with my words and voice by pursing my career as a singer/songwriter.”
It doesn’t take a crucible as extreme as Taylor’s or Prince Harry’s or Pedro’s to have a dramatic impact on your life. We all have our crucibles – at least one struggle in life illustrated by the metaphor of a hot container. In reality, the severe trials in our lives may emanate from what seems to be rather trivial experiences. Years ago, one of my students shared in her paper how a seemingly minor moment had haunted her. In 9th grade, a boy looked at her, rolled his eyes and sneered, making her feel like a loser.
She described how she tried to seduce people by trading her authenticity for a cheerful veneer in order to gain others’ approval. She became increasingly depressed. One day she put a gun in her mouth and was ready to pull the trigger when her mother walked into her bedroom and saw to her horror what was happening. Years of therapy enabled her to grow from this experience and ultimately led to a sense of well-being.
Another student, who was from Europe, shared with me that being sexually abused by a priest as a young teen cost him 15 years of his life. He got involved with drugs and alcohol to bury his shame. By joining Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), he was able to give up both alcohol and drugs and recognize he wasn’t at fault for what had happened. This led to a productive career track and a fulfilling marriage.
My own early crucible was less dramatic, but it played a formative role in my life. When I was 10, my father told me he wanted me to become the leader he had failed to be. I bought into this expectation and joined numerous organizations. I ran for office seven times in high school and college, and lost all seven. Seeing myself as a loser, I was crushed when some seniors at Georgia Tech told me, “Bill, no one is ever going to want to work with you, much less be led by you, because you are moving so fast you never take time for other people.”
Their feedback enabled me to realize I was seeking titles to gain people’s esteem rather than helping other people. After taking time for self-reflection and gaining honest feedback, I was able to change my relationships and help other people and later was selected for many leadership roles in college and graduate school.
Understanding yourself at a deeper level requires the courage to face life’s difficulties and discover your True North. Knowing that gives you the courage to navigate successfully life’s greatest challenges.
Don’t bury your crucible. Face it head on. See what you can learn from it and let it guide you to a more fulfilling life.
Bill George is Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, former Chair & CEO of Medtronic, and author of the book, Discover Your True North.