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The Virtue of Suffering

NVIDIA founder and CEO Jensen Huang had a surprising message when he spoke to Stanford University students in May 2023.

“Greatness is not intelligence. Greatness comes from character. And character isn’t formed out of smart people, it’s formed out of people who suffered.” ~ Jensen Huang, CEO, NVIDIA

Huang's message was simple and timeless. Why then was it so surprising? You don’t hear many CEOs talk like this anymore. The message is counter cultural.

The reality is we’re living in an age where schools and organizations treat suffering as if it’s a fatal disease — something to be avoided at all cost. We’re moving mountains to spare people the tiniest discomfort under the pretense of caring. But is sparing people from adversity really an objective worth pursuing? The research says no.

The biggest problem with protecting people from adversity is we’re robbing them of the opportunity to develop resiliency. Resilience, or grit, is a habit that is forged through trial and failure. Character is also a habit. Without suffering, we miss the opportunity to develop both.

Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a book called Grit where she discusses her extensive research in this area. What she discovered was that grit is a more predictive indicator of success than IQ or talent. In fact, her research showed that grit or effort was twice as important as intelligence or talent as an indicator of success.

Resilience is an attitude that contains hope and moves us to action. A lack of resilience fosters pessimism. This pessimism leads to helplessness and hopelessness and keeps us stuck in inaction. Ultimately this pessimistic attitude affects every area of life, including the quality of our relationships. What’s more, adversity is fertile soil for building high-trust relationships and connecting with others. It fosters humility and empathy. Shared experiences that involve suffering create strong bonds that can last a lifetime.

We’re not suggesting you should intentionally inflict suffering on people or be indifferent to people’s concerns. Just the opposite. It’s when you combine nurturing with a healthy perspective on suffering that people thrive. A healthy organizational culture is a caring culture that nurtures learning and growth and equips people for success by embracing learning through failure. It’s one where leaders don’t sugarcoat failure or avoid tough conversations because they care about their people.

Jensen Huang is such a firm believer in suffering as a path to growth and resilience that he celebrates it within his company and strives to make it part of the NVIDIA culture. Are you doing the same?


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