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We often talk about ‘personal growth’ as if it’s this beautiful thing that we’re excited about. We can’t wait to grow, learn, and be better!

In reality, the kind of growth that takes you to new heights is much more of a painful process. I closed out the book Resilient Management with something I learned about caterpillars and cocoons: 

I used to think that when a caterpillar wraps itself up in a cocoon, it takes a little nap as it sprouts wings, and then emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

It turns out, the process is way more gruesome than that: inside that cocoon, the caterpillar reverts to a primordial state, digesting itself into a kind of soup. (I’m sorry for the mental image!) Eventually, it reforms itself into a wholly new state, and the butterfly pops out, glorious and winged.

I absolutely love this as a metaphor for growth.

This year has been chock full of moments in which we reverted back to a primordial soup. It’s been painful. It’s been messy. We’ve had to relearn how to stay close with those we love. We’ve dealt with a lack of choice around going into a shared office or sending kids to school in-person. We may have had to say goodbye to family members via a video call, and we’ve continued to witness hatred and violence against Black people. It will continue: we wrestle with a lack of certainty of what the future holds for our day-to-day routines, government structures and freedoms, travel plans, health and safety – you name it.

But this discomfort, this pain, can mean that you’ve also been growing. Growth doesn’t come from ease; butterflies don’t grow their wings without going through the cocoon stage first. The metaphor remains the same, but the circumstances are different: COVID-19 and new kinds of uncertainty have forced us to evolve. There’s room for reflection in that, even if it feels like you’re getting dragged back to the goopy stage over and over again.

Consider what you’ve learned about yourself this year:

  • What did you historically believe was true about yourself, but now with new constraints and circumstances, you see in a new light?
  • What old routines did you find an opportunity to discard?
  • What new things are you saying ‘yes’ to?

Consider the tools and coping mechanisms you’ve developed this year:

  • What do you need in order to stay safe and calm?
  • How have your relationships evolved during this season?
  • Who do you now surround yourself with, and what do you lean on them for?
  • What new skills have you acquired for finding strength, solitude, belonging, or progress?

For sure, this past year has looked very different than we’d planned. We’re living with grief. We’re looking to the future and wondering what’s in store, and recognizing new ways in which we won’t have control or choice over what will happen.

But amidst all of that, you – and your colleagues – have grown and evolved. And (maybe annoyingly!) there’s still more growth and primordial goop to come.

Take 30 minutes in the next few days and brainstorm using the questions I asked above. You can use them as a jumping-off point for your year-end 1:1 discussions with teammates, too. You might find a deeper appreciation for where you find yourself in this moment and the person you have become.

You don’t need to only look for the silver lining of a stressful season; that’s not the point. Your pain is real. Our collective suffering is real. In both your work and personal life you will continue to face difficult challenges and significant change. Your homework today is to identify your new skills, tools, and ways you’ve grown, so that you can leverage them going forward, and help your team do the same.