Occasional setbacks are inevitable in careers that depend on human interactions, feature multiple and even conflicting agendas, and involve factors over which we may have little control. We may have a meeting with a supervisor that goes badly. We can encounter an unpleasant board meeting surprise. A proposal in which we have invested time and energy may be rejected. We can have a nasty conflict with a long-time colleague. Or our setback may be an angry and accusatory meeting with a parent.
Regardless of the specific context or topic, setbacks can generate reactions that range from disappointment and frustration to embarrassment and humiliation. The key to surviving significant setbacks often has less to do with the event and more with how we choose to respond. Of course, in the immediate aftermath of a setback it can be difficult to regain our balance and figure out what to do next. Fortunately, there are several strategies we can employ to gain perspective, survive the setback, and position ourselves to continue to thrive in the aftermath.
We can start by creating some space. It is usually not a good plan to react while our emotions are high, and our understanding is low. The age-old advice to sleep on a problem is worth heeding. Time can provide perspective. Reflection can lessen the shock and help us to adjust.
We can also engage our network. These situations are the reason why building a network during good times is so important. We often need to talk with people who understand our work and whose perspective we respect. Times of crises are not optimal for building and accessing a network. Mentors can help us to sort through what matters and what may be nothing more than a distraction. Other people in our network may have had similar experiences and can offer timely, useful advice.
We can release our pent-up energy, anxiety, and stress. We rarely do our best thinking while under stress and overloaded with anxiety. Our release may be to exercise, or to meet friends for some conversation and social time (not therapy). The key is to engage in whatever helps us to relax and gain perspective.
We can sort what really happened. Knowing the facts make them easier to face. Understanding the dynamics and interplay of the situation can provide reassurance and offer insights about what we might do and how we might respond. This step may involve a follow-up conversation. Checking with others who have knowledge and insight regarding the situation can also build understanding. Knowing any signs or signals we may have missed can be useful to future learning.
We can decide our next steps. Now may not be the time to reconstruct our career or plot a long-term change of course. However, having a plan to manage the next few days can create a sense of control and space to decide what to do after that.
We can also place the situation in context. The situation may feel traumatic. However, it does not negate the accomplishments and successes we have achieved, or the challenges we have faced and overcome. A “rough patch” can be nothing more than a passing experience. The future is still ours to create.
Setbacks are experiences. We can be trapped by them, or we can choose to learn from them. The choice we make will likely determine whether the setback confines and defines us, or we move forward to thrive, armed with experience and learning.