10 ways to beat tough work challenges just like Serena Williams

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U.S. tennis champ Serena Williams
U.S. tennis champ Serena Williams
Marco Piraccini/Archivio Marco Piraccini/Mondadori
  • Serena Williams' perseverance shaped her career through all her challenges and victories.
  • Instead of focussing on her losses, the tennis champion focused on the little wins.
  • If you are hoping to reach greater heights in your career, you will need clarity, encouragement, the ability to fail forward, regular reflection and determination to recover.


Even though she was already hailed as one of the world’s greatest athletes, in 2016, Serena Williams was on the literal backfoot. At two consecutive major tennis tournaments, she’d reached the finals and then lost. Her position as number one was slipping away, as was the possibility of breaking more records.

When she made it through to the finals of Wimbledon, recent history must have weighed heavily on her mind. But instead of focusing on the major losses, Williams chose, instead, to focus on the many little wins that had brought her to the final.

In the post-match interview, she shared how her internal dialogue in speaking directly to the worrisome history carried her through to victory: ” If anything, I was able to show resilience, that, ‘no’, that’s not going to shake me,” Williams said.

“You’re not going to break me. [You’re] going to make me stronger,” she added. 

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It’s this ability to persevere that has shaped Williams’ career through all her trials and triumphs. In the same way, if you’re hoping for a career trajectory that reaches great heights, here’s what you’ll need to stay the course:

1. Clarity on your agenda

When dealing with a difficult situation at work, you could decide to just up and leave. But this would be at the expense of your future. Knowing what you need to get out of a certain job or position will help you stick it out, even when it’s tough.

“If done with self-awareness and balanced with making constructive interventions, resilience helps in preventing job-hopping,” says Tandaza Ntikinca, a Durban-based self-healing coach.

“That air of resilience allows an employee to walk away from every job with the sense of knowing ‘I did all that I could have done, it may now be time to move on’,” she adds.

2. External sources of encouragement

Whether it’s a movie, song, or book, you need to know what boosts your spirits and makes you feel encouraged. Draw on these sources when you feel your energy and strength waning. For Ntikinca, I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor “carries that energy of resilience.”

Often seen as a post heartbreak comeback song, for her, the lyrics can also refer to loving your work and career. The chorus is one she finds particularly energising: “Oh no, not I, I will survive! Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive. I’ve got all my life to live, and I’ve got all my love to give. And I’ll survive, I will survive, hey, hey!”

3. Ability to fail forward

No matter how brilliant you may be at your job, there’ll be moments of failure and disappointment. However, people who persevere aren’t crippled by these moments.

“Resilience and assertiveness go hand in hand,” says Vumile Msweli, Hesed Consulting CEO and career coach.

“You must be able to take on a steep learning curve and fail forward in order to move up the career ladder,” she adds.

4. Embrace the season

To build a career, you’ll need to accept that there’ll be periods where you must just press on and deliver what’s required. In a previous job, business development manager Dineo Lingane recalls how she felt under-utilised due to the mundane tasks she was often assigned. Full of passion and enthusiasm, she wanted a chance to show her skills but never got the opportunity.

In hindsight, she now sees that the value of those days was “learning the basics and setting a solid foundation”. Now, she’s thankful for this grounding as it’s given her the confidence to tackle tougher tasks.  

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5. Certainty on your contribution

No one is perfect at their job, but you should be unapologetic about your strengths, Msweli advises. There will be times when you need to highlight the value you bring. Knowing and claiming your capabilities will help you overcome any challenge. And being unashamed about them means your manager will also see the benefits of keeping you on their team.

6. Recognition of triggers

Work can be stressful, and when this happens, you shouldn’t stagger on blindly.

“Resilience is not only about keeping strong, but also finding ways of practising self-care and finding creative ways of making necessary interventions,” Ntikinca explains.

“It’s not about slowly dying in the name of resilience,” she says.

To handle stress, you need to know its specific causes. Determine which individuals, functions, and tasks you find most taxing, and then map out a response strategy. For example, if you anticipate a day that may be particularly trying, bring some counter-balance before or after work.

“It’s important to find ways of releasing the stress that may be brought about by a hard day, such as going for a walk or yoga,” Ntikinca says.

If exercise feels like additional stress, then consider dinner and drinks with a friend.She adds: “Maintaining a healthy social network is also important to avoid isolation.”

7. Gentle Reassurance

Sometimes when you’re dealing with a challenge, your mind doesn’t respond to the evolved and self-aware script you planned. Instead of strong, you feel broken, overwhelmed rather than resilient, and defeated instead of triumphant. These are not times to berate yourself for weakness, but instead a call for self-compassion.

When she feels like this, Msweli retreats for a period of tender encouragement. “I breathe, take a step back, and remind myself that I have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges prior to this. I then walk away from the problem, pray, meditate and come back to it with a fresh perspective, and tackle it in more manageable chunks,” she explains.

8. An internal place of control

Truly resilient individuals – those who thrive rather than just survive – recognise that they’re responsible only for themselves. When you stop trying to control reactions and situations, you’re able to determine what actions you can take to serve your needs.

“Resilience turns one’s perspective towards the self,” Ntikinca says.

“It encourages self-awareness and introspection. The practice will not necessarily have any impact on others, but can equip you to manage and navigate workplace challenges with an air of confidence and perspective,” she adds. 

9. Regular Reflection

However, you choose to do it, making the time to capture your thoughts and emotions will contribute to resilience. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry explained how writing has been helpful.

He said: “Journaling gets it out of you and onto paper; it is a catharsis. It helps you to understand, unload and heal. It encourages me that everything is okay; this too shall pass.”

Ntikinca says journaling can also be beneficial for your career.

She explains: “In the age of quick fixes and often wanting to be seen as ‘the power woman’ in the workplace, it’s easy for one to be quite unaware of the full impact a work challenge may have on them emotionally and spiritually. Journaling helps create that awareness. It helps you identify emotions and ways for corrective measures to be implemented.”

10. Determination to recover

It’s important to have settled on the final chapter of any hardship you face. You may not be able to define the specifics of the victory but knowing that you’ll always come through on the other side will help foster the right attitude. Resilience isn’t about avoiding adversity, Msweli cautions.

“I like to think of resilience as grit, the ability to forge ahead no matter how exhausted or disheartened you may feel, to find the strength to keep working towards the vision and to bounce back quickly after being knocked down," she says.

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