Life passes us through crucible experiences that change us. No one escapes life unscathed by challenges. Tragedies flow into every life, some more severe or numerous than others. What do these crucible experiences do for us?

In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book Leadership in Turbulent Times, she discusses four American presidents and the challenges they faced.

Each struggled through a myriad of challenges. They ranged from Civil War to economic collapse to needed legislative victories.

Goodwin discusses their personal lives, their crucible experiences.

What is a Crucible Experience?

The concept of the crucible comes from the need to purify precious metals such as gold. In the gold rush of 1849 in California, miners would take their findings to an assayer. He would place it in a dish called the crucible. He would then pass it through the fire.

In the process, the fire would allow the metal to reach the molten stage where it would be drained off, leaving only the dross.

A crucible experience is a fire which allows something of value to show up from the ordinary.

Crucible experiences can include sickness, financial stress, career setbacks, or mental struggles.

  • Abraham Lincoln lost more elections than he won. Yet, the man who had a knack for humorous stories fought depression throughout his life. While president, his son died.
  • Theodore Roosevelt had such severe asthma as a boy he fought for the next breath.
  • Polio in early adulthood put Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
  • Lyndon Johnson grew up in a home caught between two parents at odds. (He would often retreat to the home of his grandfather when it became too intense.)

Yet, these men would overcome their difficulties to pilot the nation in different and turbulent times.

What Do Crucible Experiences Do For Us?

No one likes trouble. As someone said, “you don’t need to look for trouble in life because it will find you.”

Most regret the times the agony and stress. We cry, “why God?” Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, we want God to remove our thorns and do it yesterday.

But as the apostle discovered, thorns and their pricks serve us, not torment us…if we can see beyond them.

What do you learn as you enter the crucible of life?


Too many times, we take life for granted. In America, we have clean water, warm beds, and more food than we need. We get up in the morning with health.

Suppose those things disappear? What happens when the body breaks down, the money dries up, or the joy evaporates?

Think of the patriarch of the Old Testament, Job. His life was ideal. His kids were good. He was wealthy. He was healthy. He was set. Then, calamity took his children, his wealth taken, and his body covered by sores.

It is then you gain perspective. You look at life from a different angle. Trouble lets us see that blessings are not entitlements but gifts.

Too many times we complain about first world problems. Traffic gets in our way. A tire goes flat, or the coffee is cold.

In times of trouble, you realize how pointless our complaining sounds. And, we remember the good that God has given us.


The second benefit of the crucible comes in how you approach your problem. People like Lincoln never gave in but continued to pursue the right.

Too many people get derailed and quit. Endurance is the ability to see challenges as what they are…challenges to overcome. People who handle crucible experiences ask a different question than “why.”

“Now that this has happened, what do I do to make it better?”

Theodore Roosevelt’s father gave his young wheezing son sound advice. “You are going to have to make yourself strong.” The young Roosevelt started a plan of rigorous training that overcame his asthma. He would box and ride horses. He decided to move to the Badlands and become a cowboy.
He never let his lung capacity stop his heart capacity.


Complacency turns our viewpoint inward to serve ourselves. In trouble, we see how others live, and it changes us.

When Franklin Roosevelt’s legs withered from polio, he experienced how it was not to be strong. He went to Warm Springs, Georgia to recuperate at a special place. It was there he realized others needed that kind of care. So he took on the personal challenge of starting a hospital for people who needed that kind of help. He raised the money and championed it.

Once he felt the pain, he wanted to help others who shared his experience.

Pain and pressure provide us a unique opportunity to “see how the other side lives.” People who go through poverty tend to show generosity. People who lose children have greater compassion for those who had the same hole in their hearts.

No one can avoid all the troubles of the world. The Roosevelts were wealthy. Lincoln was not.

It’s not about what you have but what you experience that makes you what you are. It is not what you experience but how you use your crucible experiences.

You may be encountering your own crucible experience now. Before you throw in the towel, think of what good it can teach you. Through it, you turn the pain into a passion.

What do you learn from your crucible experiences?