Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

By Gail Barker, B.A., C.P.C.C.

I’ve been accused of being an optimistic visionary. I say “accused” because these descriptors are often thrown my way with a sneer, a suggestion that somehow my outlook on the world isn’t rooted in reality.

Generally, I choose to respond to these accusations with a smirk of my own, a wave of my hand, or a verbal “pshaw;” whatever has me stand solidly in my truth. And my truth is that I like to approach life with a certain joie de vivre, as if it’s a game. Not a “competition” kind of game—not something like chess or Monopoly® (which, at least in my experience, can get out of hand really fast). Instead, for me, life is akin to a game that’s just meant to be pure fun—something like Twister®, or a game of charades. Something where I can be silly while engaging with others. A game that allows me to show up fully present to the world around me, laugh a little (or a lot!), contemplate as needed, make mistakes and still feel good about myself. Something that’s enjoyable overall, you know? And I see no need to engage in an apology or defense of this outlook.

Here’s the thing, though: sometimes, the universe decides to change the nature of the game. It moves the game from a simple enjoyment to a challenge. And sometimes, it moves from a simple challenge to a really complicated, icky challenge. All of a sudden, life can have the feel of a test, and tests just aren’t as fun as games. Tests shift the generally light-hearted experience of whatever situation is at hand. Tests require me to “step up” and “prove myself” in a certain arena. Tests, in short, tend to leave me feeling behind the eight-ball, at least at the outset.

My most recent experience of being tested happened just last year. And it wasn’t a year of a single test; there were several tests, back-to-back. Imagine a circumstance akin to the pressure of year-end exams, during a semester when you’ve got all of your most difficult courses, and all of your exams have to be written on the same day. Yes, it was that level of intensity. The metaphor of a pressure cooker comes to mind.

I won’t go into specific details, because the details a) can’t be shared without violating the confidences of others—which is what happens in a world which is filled with relationships, and b) aren’t really as important as the lessons extrapolated from the experience.

What I do want to share, however, is that the challenges I experienced were actually exactly what I needed at that time in my life. I know, nobody wants to hear that. I’m not even sure I want to say that. And yet, I know in my heart of hearts that this is the truth.

You see, I am all about growth. Even as I play my way through life, it’s always with a view of growing, of becoming, of evolving. I had simply reached a point where I needed to be tested in order to continue my growth. There was no other way through. Without the test(s), I would have stagnated.

This is a challenging realization to have. Truthfully, it’s not one that I was willing to acknowledge for a very long time. As someone who is committed to playing my way through life, to finding the joy and enjoyment, and as someone who is equally committed to avoiding the “ick,” acknowledging the need for daunting tests is a bitter pill to swallow.

So, what did I learn through the process, beyond the fact that tests are actually a vital part of the growth experience?

  1. Be careful what you wish for.

I have a habit of choosing a word at the beginning of each year, a theme to use as a benchmark of sorts. Last year, the word that I chose for myself was STRETCH. I wanted a year in which I stretched my potential—personally, professionally, spiritually. I knew what I meant by that, and the stretch that I was envisioning did NOT include tests of any sorts. But the universe has a funny way of giving you exactly what you need, even if it isn’t exactly what you envisioned.

     2. Stop approaching life with a “this is how it is or should be” mentality.

While you might like life to be a certain way, the fact is that life can look a myriad of ways. And each one of those myriad ways has its pros and cons, benefits and costs, ups and downs. Be open to experiencing things that might be uncomfortable compared to your preferred approach.

     3. Remember to breathe.

Sometimes, the lesson here is actually to re-LEARN how to breathe. There is tremendous value and benefit to breathing with intention. To be able to breathe consciously and deeply is a gift granted to all of us—and is far more life-sustaining than simply breathing by default. To paraphrase a friend of mine, there is a difference between taking a breath and receiving one. When we receive a breath, we receive the gift of grounding ourselves and filling ourselves with deep strength (try it right now: breath in and notice the power you feel).

     4. Know who your true allies are.

When we’re being tested, we need our allies. These are the folks who are inherently trustworthy. These are the people who you know beyond a shadow of a doubt, and got your back and will walk with you, now, in this moment. They may not even be folks you’ve known forever. These are the privileged few who have earned a right to be with you when you’re most vulnerable. If you don’t trust them in this circumstance, for any reason, these are not the allies to turn to right now.

     5. Learn to ask, “what am I learning?”

Another way to ask this is, “what do I know now that I didn’t know before?” Remember, any and all tests have a seed of potential and possibility within them. Focus on that seed within, rather than the husk of challenge without. Nurture that seed and watch yourself expand and grow and evolve.

Bottom-line: we all love when life feels light, easy, and fun. There are times, however, when the nature of the beast is such that we are tested. The tests that are presented to us from time-to-time will always allow you to become so much more than you could otherwise be. The metaphor of a pearl is a good one here. It’s the pressure from the outside—the tests of life—that allow you to become the gem that you are.


Gail Barker is a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach. She specializes in supporting leaders to lead powerfully and meaningfully. Here company, Stellar Coaching & Consulting was established in 2003, and through that platform, she has supported hundreds of leaders in elevating their leadership game. A few of the additional hats she wears professionally are author, speaker, and radio show host. Personally, she is deeply committed to her family, loves to read, and finds deep restoration when walking along the beach (even in the winter).


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