When I worked for colleges and universities, I always felt stuck in one way or another. There are so many competing priorities for professors and administrators. Even as a Dean of Instruction, there were many barriers to delivering the best educational experience I could to the students in my charge. The hierarchy and bureaucracy within each institution lay heavily on my desk as I worked diligently to improve curricula. 

Even in the seventies I saw the higher education system not adjusting appropriately to changing student needs. I was frustrated by how slowly institutions moved because I knew that time is critical for students. Every semester that does not improve upon the last is a semester that fails the students. I worked to see change, to see better outcomes. 

Even in the seventies I saw the higher education system not adjusting appropriately to changing student needs. Click To Tweet

In traditional universities, several groups compete for resources: instructors, administration staff, students, and even politicians. I knew there was potential for modernization and institutional responsiveness, but my work was blocked by the fight for resources and more broadly, higher education traditions. 

I acted and decided to establish my own university. And that came with its own challenges. In 1978, I was operating a university all on my own. You want to apply? I was your guy in the Admissions Department. You saw our ad in the newspaper? I was the Marketing Department. You have a complaint? I took care of that too. Welcome to class, I’m your professor as well. 

A photo of a modest dining room table taken from a small kitchen.
Photo by Sativis

It was a lot to juggle, especially while I worked at my kitchen table, corresponding with students via mail and phone calls. But through the years, through persistence, I began to hire others to help me. An assistant here, an admissions representative there; and eventually, whole teams of people.  

Every step has been a journey, and I didn’t have a road-map. Instead, I just kept moving. Sometimes in the wrong direction, mind you, but I was always moving. I knew that my goal of supporting students was achievable, and I had to act. 

Fast forward to 2020, and we have quite the established institution. We serve thousands of learners every year and we have a hard-working, highly qualified, diverse team who is dedicated to delivering the best experience possible. And we’re still growing. 

The times I have been most successful after a challenge, are the times I employed the steps outlined below. 

Step by step guide for overcoming challenges 

1. Breathe. 

Sometimes when we’re faced with conflict, it’s difficult to see things clearly. Our minds rush through different scenarios and we can lose the ability to problem solve if we become overwhelmed. The only way to face a challenge objectively is if you take the time to clear your mind and adjust to analyze the problem instead of reacting emotionally. 

2. Take a step back.

In order to see clearly, it’s important to take a step back in order to assess the situation. It’s an important part of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which encourages the STOP method for addressing challenges (click the link to learn more about the STOP method and its efficacy). Seeing the big picture is essential to solving the root cause of the challenge you’re facing. Without stepping back to see the full picture, we only see a portion of the truth. We can only solve problems we can see. Most problems that cause anxiety or distress are rooted in a larger issue that if not solved, can lead to similar problems in the future.

3. Set goals. Transform them into plans.

You’ve probably heard of the phrase, “a goal without a plan is just a dream.” This could not be any truer. Setting goals is crucial to overcoming any obstacle, but without developing steps on how to achieve them, goals will stay in the clouds with no mechanism to reach them. Plans take additional time to develop but solving a problem without this step creates significantly more work for you and everyone else affected by the challenge.

4. Identify and leverage all available resources.

This may also take time, but make sure you research all types of resources to ensure you’re utilizing every advantage possible. Ask your team, ask your mentor, conduct research online, and even check your bookshelves. Even if you don’t learn of new resources, it may assist in creative problem solving by bringing your mind into different contexts. Allowing your mind to be flexible will open doors to new solutions, according to Dr. Thomas Lynch.

5. Commit and persevere.

This is arguably the most important step. Many challenges seem insurmountable, but with commitment you can get started. And when you get overwhelmed and want to give up, perseverance will help you stick to it until you get results. This type of dedication is rare, but results will not come if you run away from a challenge.

6. Learn.

When you have finally achieved your goal and worked through the challenge in front of you, take time to review the challenge, its cause, your actions, and the results. There is always opportunity to learn from challenges in order to prevent identical problems from happening again and to apply best practices to the next challenge you face. 

A quote is set in front of book shelves that reads: "The only constant is change." -Heraclitus

I still struggle with the patience required from many of these problem-solving methods. It’s easy to get distracted or frustrated by your motivation to get things done and achieve results for yourself or your organization. But these steps are exactly what you need in order to grow and gain wisdom for future challenges. 

Tackling challenges at work or in your personal life can become stressful and stumbles along the way but remember that we learn the best when we face adversity. And we can grow something successful out of these challenges if we’re strategic and analytical. 

What do you think? What other strategies do you employ when facing challenges? 

About Dr. Donald “Doc” Hecht — Doc is an Educator, University Founder, and President Emeritus writing and discussing the trends and challenges facing higher, online, and distance education, among other topics. Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, or ask any questions! You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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