Trying times call for our best selves

By: Gretchen M. Spreitzer

For more than ten years, I have been working with students of all ages (from high school and college students to senior executives) to help them identify and leverage their best selves. The Reflected Best Self Exercise is a process that involves asking others for stories of times when the students were their very best selves, adding value and making a contribution. Students also reflect on recollections of their own peak experiences in life — those times that stand out as times where they saw glimpses of their own greatness.

Are there any commonalities amongst the peak experiences? What do these best self stories often have in common? Interestingly, more often than not these best self experiences are in difficult times, often even crises. They are frequently times when the future was uncertain, when expectations for success were low. Respondents often recount when students reached across the table in difficult times to help another in need. These were times when students were deeply relationally present in the moment to be there for others — listening, caring, suspending judgment in favor of presence.

Why is it that our best selves often emerge in times of trouble, when others need a helping hand? I ask you to pause now and think about a time in your own life when you were at your very best, making a significant contribution.

  • What happened?
  • How did it feel?
  • Who was involved?
  • Why does it stand out to you as a peak experience?

Does your own peak experience follow this trend of occurring amidst a difficult time? Does the experience have a strong relational component to it, where you were helping another in need? If you are like my students, your answers are likely to be a resounding yes!

So what does this mean going forward? Rather than seeing crises as something to escape from, where our goal is to cope as best as we can with the hope of quickly moving on, we might instead think of crises as the very times when we are called to be our best selves and they are most likely to emerge. In fact, during trying times, we can purposely leverage the qualities of our best selves to come to the aid and comfort of others. It is through acts of caring and compassion that we can rise above the difficult times to create something positive to help us and others propel forward.

The lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s famous ballad, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, captures the essence of our best selves coming out in times of trouble. The lyrics describe how:

“When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all., I’m on your side, when times get rough.” — Written by Paul Simon, © Universal Music Publishing Group

I recall dear friends playing this song for me as I was heading off to college, excited yet scared about leaving home, leaving friends behind. They sang out loud to the third stanza, which imparted their wisdom to me — “sail on silver girl, your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way.”

My friends’ message to me was clear — my time had come to shine for others. By being my own best self in time of trouble, I could chart the pathway or even a bridge over troubled waters for others. Isn’t it time to let your own light shine for others in today’s trying times?

Gretchen Spreitzer is the faculty director of the Center for Positive Organizations. She is also the Keith E. and Valerie J. Alessi Professor of Business Administration and a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. Gretchen’s research focuses on employee empowerment and leadership development, particularly within a context of organizational change and decline. Her most recent work is looking at positive deviance and how organizations enable employees to thrive and become their best self. Most recently she is involved in a large scale project to establish the business case for how positive organizational practices can lead to human and organizational flourishing.