Success and Challenge Legacy

by Michael C. Kelly, MA


From time to time we all must review an event, reflect on a performance or explore new issues. Any time we review, reflect or explore, either individual performances or group learning experiences, three events usually occur. First, we celebrate what went right. Next, we critique what we found challenging: these could be mistakes or problems, but we criticize without assigning blame or putting a mark on someone's character. Finally, we acknowledge the future by setting new goals with the aim of maintaining our successes and overcoming our challenges. The Success and Challenge Exercise incorporates all three of these events.

Over the years I've taught this simple exercise to thousands of people. Many have used it successfully and were kind enough to share their experiences. All have appreciated its simplicity and flexibility. They value its brevity, and, in bureaucratic environments, the absence of cumbersome, formalized, paper-driven systems to support it. It is a simple, effective and powerful mentoring tool that helps people understand each other.

I will relate a few stories that highlight four of the most important benefits of the exercise. These include the teaching of responsibility, the act of discovery, the gift of validation and, as a crowning achievement, the celebration of effort. None of the stories is set in a business environment; instead, they relate to family life. There are two reasons for this: First, most of us can relate to family life; second, and more important, it is easy to transpose these stories into business or academic settings.


The first person with whom I tried the Success and Challenge Exercise was my daughter Colleen who was ten at the time. I asked her if she would be willing to write down a few successes in her life as well as a few challenges. She promptly created the lists for each. She divided the page into two columns entitled "good" and "bad", and from this I learned an important lesson: While the contents of the success side may be good, whatever we note on the challenge side is not necessarily bad, it's just challenging.

The exercise continued. Colleen described her successes first, and there were many to celebrate. One of her successes, for instance, was playing the violin, and indeed I was able to "talk it up" by pointing out how quickly she had progressed. Another success related to how she and her friends had made a snowman and then accidentally knocked it over; the top of the snowman had rolled down the hill hitting a neighbour's car. Colleen and her friends promptly told the neighbour who a few days later dropped by to tell me that the children had shown a great deal of character in owning up to their mistake. There were many other successes to celebrate, and we had a great time recounting past adventures and present accomplishments.

In the other column was a lengthy list of challenges. I asked her to tell me about each of them; then I wanted to know which three were the most important. She selected French, math and catching a baseball.

Now for an interesting sidebar. When I tell this story and ask people which of these three is the most important, some say French, some say math, and some say catching a baseball. But the only interpretation that matters is Colleen's. So why do some people facilitating this exercise interpret the most important challenges for the participants?

The answer lies in the three approaches parents (or managers) often take to the problems others face. The first is the "to" approach, where the parent selects the most important challenge and then prescribes the solution. Consider, for example, the student who comes home with an F in math. The parent berates him: "You'd better smarten up. No more sports, no more phone privileges, no more playing, no more nothing, until you get an A in math. Is that understood?" This approach, while often well intended, usually becomes punitive. In this case there is something "bad" about the challenges.

The second is the "for" approach where the student comes home with an F in math and the parents launch a "rescue." "Wow," they say, aghast at the failing mark, "Your teacher must be completely incompetent!" A colleague of mine describes how his college experiences a semi-annual "whiner week." Each semester a small percentage of students spend, for whatever reason, go home with a failing mark. A week later the College receives a call from a parent.

"What kind of school are you running there? demands the parent."

"A very good one

"Well how come my child failed?"

"I don't know. You would need to speak with him about that."

"Don't get smart with me you snivelling bureaucrat. I invested in that school of yours."

"I'm afraid that is not accurate. You invested in your child. He is the one you should be talking to. Students here are no longer children; they are adults and ought to be able to deal with their problems themselves."

The third is the "with" approach. This is where the Success and Challenge Exercise comes in handy. After I asked Colleen to select her three most important challenges, she explained that there was a relationship between them. Every day the children played baseball during recess. She had a difficult time catching a baseball and so was often excluded from teams; even worse, sometimes her peers laughed at her. What two classes do you think she took after recess? French and math.

"Dad," she said, "every time I come back from recess I feel bad and because of this I don't really pay attention to what is going on in class."

"What would it take to move these challenges over to the success side?" I asked.

Well Dad, instead of coming home and vegging in front of the TV, why don't you toss the baseball around with me? For math we could draft some cue cards, and you could drill me on my number facts. I could write some lines of French, and you could read them back to me or check them for spelling errors.

In every instance my daughter conscripted me to help her with her most pressing challenges. I realized then that what I had really taught her was how to name, order and slay the dragons in her life. She had learned responsibility.

There is one footnote to this story. If, as one famous child counselor suggests, the challenges are illegal, immoral or life-threatening, then the parent or manager needs to intervene right away. Otherwise, don't sweat it. Challenges present an opportunity to help someone learn on their own.


About a year later I was delivering training for a local client. A participant suddenly declared that she was not convinced that the exercise would work or that I cared about it much.

You corporate evangelists are all alike, she said, You drop by, sell us a bunch of stuff, then leave having charged us a healthy fee.

That's not true, I replied a bit defensively.

I'll tell you what, she said, I'll try this on my ten-year-old daughter tonight, then I'll tell you how it worked out.

Sounds great, though I'm more interested in how the process works for you and less interested in any of the issues your daughter may raise. The content is really between you two.

Fair enough, she concluded.

The next day the mother described how the process went. On the challenge side, the ten-year-old had written, "BEING KILLED." I could hear my heart pounding in the silence that descended on the room. I asked the mother how she had responded.

My first reaction, she said, was a 'for' reaction. I scooped up my daughter and told her she had nothing to worry about because Mom was there. Then I remembered what you had said about staying quiet on the challenge side, so I asked her to explain.

Well Mom, every night we watch the news while we eat dinner. I don't really like this because all I see are people being hurt, robbed, raped and beaten and it looks like it's getting closer and closer to our house.

What could we do to move this to the success side?

Could we turn off the TV?

The young girl's solution was simple, and the mother turned off the television. But this story was far from over.

About three months later I happened to meet up with this woman. After a few minutes of conversation, I asked her how she was making out with the television.

Well, she replied, I haven't been able to watch the TV since that evening. I didn't just turn it off, I ripped it out of the wall completely.

I was trying to picture her ripping a television set out of the wall, but settled on my inevitable follow-up question.


She gave me two reasons -- the first rather shaky, the second more substantial.

I felt guilty because my daughter could have been traumatized by the news for the next ten years, only to need ten years of therapy to have the courage to go outside.

Her fears seemed unfounded. Then came the second, much more intriguing reason.

Actually, she said, after a pause, my daughter had been telling me for years to turn the television off at dinner. My response each time was to tell her to be quiet and concentrate on eating. I always heard her, I just never listened to her.

The mother's experience with the Success and Challenge Exercise involved two powerful discoveries. First she learned her child's view of the news, then she discovered her own inability to listen effectively. The mother, as Francis of Assisi said, had first to learn to value the act of seeking to understand before worrying about being understood.


People use the Success and Challenge Exercise for many reasons: its ease, its speed, its potential for learning, teaching and discovery. I have discovered that it can also validate values.

A short time ago I was delivering a training session for a group in Southern Ontario. In our group was a large, burly man named Don. Even Don's voice was large. It carried the kind of authority that made people listen when he spoke -- in short, he was intimidating.

At the end of the second day, after we discussed the merits of the Success and Challenge Exercise, Don got up to leave. As he did he announced to the group that he was going to try this exercise on his sixteen-year-old son.

"Why's that?" asked a colleague.

"Because," sarcasm dripping from his voice, "my son is a real asshole."

"Whoa Don! That's not a very nice thing to say about anyone, especially your son."

"Listen. All that kid ever talks about is getting a low-rider truck with a big stereo in it. Doesn't he realize how much a truck like that costs? Hell, just the insurance would kill him, not to mention maintenance and gas. The kid doesn't even have a job for crying out loud."

More than a little alarmed at his words I caught up with Don and reminded him that the exercise was more of a listening tool than a weapon.

The next day, five minutes before the training session began, Don stood up to make an announcement.

"Excuse me," he said, "but I want to apologize for what I called my son yesterday. It was unfair. Furthermore, I want you to know that I promised my son I would make this apology."

Everyone's eyes were on Don, and eventually someone asked,

"What happened?"

"I did the Success and Challenge Exercise," Don said, "and do you know what my son's top three challenges were? The first was to get an education. In fact he had some pretty definite things to say about this, and I must admit that I was impressed. His second was to get a job to pay for his education so that Mom and Dad wouldn't have to pay for it all. Again I was pretty impressed. His third challenge, though, really got to me; he wanted to find a way to spend more time with me."

"But that's not the last of it," Don said suddenly, "because as we finished the exercise, I asked my son a quick question: 'Why is it that you never mentioned the low rider truck and the stereo in the exercise?'"

The son's response was quick, pointed and surprising.

"Come on Dad," he said, "do you know what a truck like that costs? The insurance alone would kill me, and I don't even have a job."

At that moment, related Don, "I realized with pride that my son's values and mine were aligned. I also realized that somewhere I'd forgotten that it ought to be okay to dream."

The Human Relations Lottery

There is one other experience that in many ways is the most important. If you were to conduct a second Success and Challenge Exercise a year later, what would you expect to see on the success side? The top challenges from the year before, right? There is, after all, nothing more compelling than the expectation that the top challenges should now reside on the success side of the ledger.

In fact, one of three possibilities occurs: 

1. The original challenge disappears from both sides because it is no longer important. 

2. The challenge remains on the challenge side because the effort to move it was insufficient or inappropriate; a new attack is required. 

3. The challenge shows up, authentically, on the success side, and when it does this makes you - the facilitator - the winner of the human relations million-dollar lottery. You are now in a position to pay the highest compliment one person can pay to another. You can acknowledge that they are able to make a promise to themselves and keep it until their honour is greater than their mood. In other words acknowledging that they have the courage to act from principle rather than impulse or addiction.

This was the compliment a participant in one of my workshops paid to her son. She followed-up with the exercise only to discover that a challenge had been successfully met.

"I found myself," she said, "acknowledging his strength and could feel his heightened self-esteem. With the challenges young people face, it was nice to know that I was able to make this contribution to my son's development and in the end celebrate the success he had created for himself. It was the crowning achievement of the exercise."


Over the years many people have related their experiences with the Success and Challenge Exercise. All have been powerful since they served to teach responsibility, facilitate discovery, validate values and celebrate effort. Most have been simple illustrations of these achievements, like the police officer who did the exercise one evening with his four-year-old daughter. One of her challenges was learning how to read the face of a clock.

"What would it take to move that to the success side, her father asked?"

"We could practice," she said.

"Great," he replied, "now let me see my day timer. We could do it tomorrow."

"Why not now Dad?"

Twenty minutes later, after her father drew the clock faces and drilled her on the time, she had it nailed.

"Excellent," he said, "now should you be getting ready for bed?"

"Yes Daddy," she said, "and thanks for the help."

His daughter left for her room only to return a few minutes later.

"I thought we agreed that it was time for bed?"

"It is Daddy, but I just need to do one small thing first."

She went over to the Success and Challenge Exercise and drew an arrow from the challenge to the success side. It was the clock challenge and she'd taken care of it right then and there.

"There is nothing like living in the moment," the father related.

And maybe that is one of the great strengths of the exercise. It creates moments for all this success to happen. 

© 1998 Michael C Kelly. Reprinted here with permission.

© 2011  Michael C Kelly