I have excerpted this from a series I first wrote in 2004.
Crucible Experiences – 1
I first came across the term crucible experience when I was reading a book by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas, Geeks and Geezers. I thought about it again recently when I was interviewing a candidate and asked him what his crucible experiences were. I also began to think about my own crucible experiences. More on that later. First, let us understand what a crucible experience is.
We probably encountered the word crucible in chemistry classes in college. A crucible is a vessel used for high temperature chemical reactions. It is made of material that does not melt easily. Write Bennis and Thomas in Harvard Business Review: “For the leaders we interviewed, the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment. And, invariably, they emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose—changed in some fundamental way… Leadership crucibles can take many forms. Some are violent, life-threatening events. Others are more prosaic episodes of self-doubt. But whatever the crucible’s nature, the people we spoke with were able…to create a narrative around it, a story of how they were challenged, met the challenge, and became better leaders.”
That is the context for a crucible experience, something which transforms us, and shakes and shapes our lives. We have all gone through these experiences in our life. Some of these experiences last a short time, others much longer. Either way, they help change us in some way. More often than not, these are intense and deeply personal experiences, which we would rather not talk about. Even thinking about these experiences makes us want to purge them from our memories. But they leave an indelible mark on us for the rest of our life.
Crucible experiences have a way of testing us. They bring out aspects of our personality that we did not know existed. We can think of them in other words (for example, adversity). In each case, they help build our character, be it as an individual or in the workplace. These events can be voluntary for example, a difficult and dangerous trek we decided to take. At other times, they just happen leaving us rushing to react. It is also at times like these that we realise whom we are really close to. All in all, the crucible experiences are character-building. While we are going through these experiences, we may wonder why it is happening to us. But later (sometimes much, much later), on reflection we realise that there was definitely some good that came out of it.
Each of our lives is the sum of our experiences. As Albert Einstein said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” Add to that Benjamin Disraeli’s quote, “There is no education like adversity.” Take them together and you can think of crucible experiences as life’s step functions: each taking us to a new, higher level, as long as we are willing to learn.