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Unicorns & Embracing the Suck
By Bill Marklein


What do unicorns and stress-free living have in common? They both don’t exist in real life. Although unicorns are an adorable gift for our young daughters and stress-free living is adorable marketing for health, pharmaceuticals, and beauty products—a mindset shift must happen now that stress-free living is not attainable. Not real. Bogus. Yes, I’m bursting the stress-free living bubble with the mythological horn of the unicorn. And here’s why.

The majority of organizational culture journeys are on a dysfunctional, utopian trek to find stress-free living in their work culture so that everybody feels “happy”. Guess what? The things that are worthwhile and push you to the next level always have some type of discomfort and pain—some sort of suck. Some lack of happy. Some sort of showing up earlier or putting in the extra work. You don’t complete a 5k off the couch, win championships or have a lasting, meaningful marriage with stress-free living. Yet, as a society, this is exactly what many people are expecting in a form of bizarre entitlement. Curated above the surface social media only makes it worse. People want to finish the 5k without any sweat, win championships without any adversity and have a lasting, meaningful marriage without any tough years. But greatness is only achieved by embracing the suck. As Duke women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson said, “things don’t get easy, what happens is you handle hard better.” Yes, glorious for a winning culture and the essence of maturity.

There’s a real leadership burden of trying to create a culture of stress-free living—leaders fail every time trying to do so. Making everybody happy is exhausting and lacks courageous leadership. Leadership is not a popularity contest. A culture thrives when all believe to embrace the suck—the inevitable change and discomfort called life. A culture thrives when all believe in a purposeful vision that has inevitable ups and downs. When we do not embrace suck, we create a false illusion that everything is okay and this only suppresses the authenticity of life. The reality, the epiphany moment of awe, is that there is less stress when you embrace the suck. You start to handle hard better. Creativity and trust accelerates. People speak up in all directions to make positive change. People feel inspired and motivated. Change starts to be beautifully embraced. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “we can’t stop the waves, but we can learn how to surf.”

As leaders, coaches and mentors—we must shift our people into a growth mindset of embracing the suck. Most importantly, as parents we must shift our kids into a growth mindset of embracing the suck—they are our future and will absolutely thrive with grit and resilience, and not being coddled to feel good all the time. Last place is last place and provides growth to improve. A C- report card provides growth to improve. Leaning into uncomfortable conversations, situations and setbacks to grow as individuals and teams is the way forward in a world deeply struggling with mental health, self-esteem and emotional intelligence. This is real health. A brightly-colored unicorn might not exist, but the color of a rainbow does after every storm.

About the Author: Bill Marklein is a sought-after keynote speaker in the space of leadership, culture and emotional intelligence and invites you to Employ Humanity Leadership Day 2024 in Milwaukee at the iconic Harley-Davidson Museum. If you liked this article, please give it a share. 

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