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How To Make The Most Of Your Setbacks

(For these real-life stories, names and other identifying details have been altered or omitted.)

I’ve been promoting our new app, which means lots of unique meetings. I always look for common ground for collaboration. Sometimes it’s easy to find, other times not so much.

One meeting reminded me a connection we all share is failure but getting the most from that setback is up to the individual.

Alex is a successful entrepreneur who recently underwent a major career change. Since the occupational hiccup, he was doing exploratory meetings and made no bones about finding his ‘next big thing’.

Typically calm and confident, I expected Alex might show burnout from repeating his story and future plans. When we met, my impression was ‘he is frustrated and flustered’.

After we settled in I realized this was someone who was out hustling but should be home healing.

Despite having the resources to do that, Alex seemed compelled to show the world all is well.  Only, it wasn’t.

A week earlier, at a networking event, Marcia was a panelist who revealed that it took being fired, twice, before she realized it was time to approach things differently.

A participant asked, “I know we are supposed to celebrate failures, so how did you do that?”

Without hesitation, Marcia answered “I don’t think we want to celebrate our failures. They are still failures. But we need to be personally learning from them.”

During the meet and greet session, we briefly commiserated about “mutually agreeing to move on” from prior jobs (also known as getting fired).

Sitting with Alex, I recalled that conversation and it struck me that the stigma around failure prevents us from really garnering all we can from the experience.

While failing is not pleasant, getting something useful from it makes it valuable.

Except we are busy proving we’re unharmed, essentially ignoring what happened and missing that opportunity.

Failure remains a dirty little secret we whisper about in code words. So, let’s dispel this notion now and get on with making the most of any setback:

We fail.  All of us.

It doesn’t matter if you have been fired, mishandled a project, got divorced, became sideways with the law, disregarded doctor’s orders – whatever it was, you are not the first, or last, to fail.

You will fail again. You will, its ok.  Know it and plan to make the most of it. Here’s how:

1. Own It

Say: “I’ve failed.”

Two simple words and you’ve already done something formidable.  Claiming it gives you room to be honest with yourself, which is crucial to creating a lasting positive outcome.  To learn you must know what it is you’re dealing with.

Here’s a bonus: It also instantly creates a community of everyone who has experienced a similar failure.

That takes away the perceived shame and isolation and opens the door to people who can relate and support you.

Ask yourself: “How have I failed in this situation?”

2. Internalize It

Say: “This hurts.”

We skip this part.  Like Alex did, we need to show the world, including ourselves, we are OK and strong. Failure doesn’t own us.  But in skipping this step we lose a chance for personal growth.

Rather than picking yourself up and getting right back to it, pause and explore the situation. Let’s be real, failure is painful. That can be a good thing.

Research shows allowing ourselves time to work through the distress establishes it as something we don’t want to experience again. It becomes motivation to avoid this type of failure in the future. Which is not to say dwell in your misery.

Simply be authentic with yourself. Let it all out and then move on.

Ask yourself: “How am I feeling about this failure?”

3. Adapt From It

Say: “I’m changing.”

We’ve all been in lessons learned discussions that tout “celebrating failures”. As a consultant, I share those lessons.

You can choose to learn from them without ever experiencing them.  They are external to you.

What we really need is an internal change. Failure becomes powerful when we consider what happened and what changes are needed to avoid a repeat.

If you aren’t fine-tuning your thinking or behaviors, you haven’t taken the lesson to heart.

Challenging yourself to define what will be different and then doing it is when the real learning and growth occurs.

Ask yourself: “What I am going to change about myself?”

At the end of our chat, all I could offer Alex was “stop and take a breath”. He then dashed off to join a conference call.

Afterward, I was so struck by the situation I decided to share this story, partially as a cautionary tale and partially as a reminder that we all encounter setbacks, large and small.

Though our instinct is to rush through the experience appearing unaffected, the best approach to failure begins with taking time to hurt and heal.

Table Of Contents

Katherine Hurst
By Christine Dawson
Christine Dawson put her background in Learning and Development and Change Management to work for more than 20 years as an effective Consultant, Leader, Mentor and Coach. After scaling the Corporate Ladder, she started her own consulting firm, most recently focusing its services on rehabilitating struggling projects. Reflecting on what she encountered throughout her career she wanted to shift her work to something that made a bigger impact and to do it by empowering growth and success one person at a time.

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