Rebounding from Setbacks: a step-by-step guide

Photo Credit: Kevin_Morris via Compfight cc

Setbacks are a pillar of an ambitious life. If you’re looking to do big things in 2013, you will encounter obstacles and challenges and may find yourself moving farther away from your goals, rather than closer to them.

Big setbacks can be a lot to handle. They can be discouraging, exact damage to our bodies, bank accounts and social status, and getting your groove back may take a long time and never be fully complete.

While I’m very grateful for the life I’ve lived thus far, it was not without setbacks. I’ve encountered them as an athlete (injuries and training plateaus), entrepreneur (investor rejections, unhappy customers, hiring difficulties) and human being (missing flights, trouble with the law, arguments among friends).

I was recently talking with two people – a parent of a young child, and a former coworker about dealing with setbacks and thought I’d share some thoughts that might be useful for anyone who has recently faced a difficult setback.

13 Steps to Rebounding from a Big Setback

  1. It’s OK to feel bad.
     It’s completely natural to feel strong negative emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment and humiliation. Don’t deny these feelings or take them as indication that you are a failure. You’ve hit road block on your way toward a goal and that never feels good.
  2. You won’t feel this way forever
    We tend to project our current state into the future. If we feel good, we think we’ll always feel this good. If we feel bad, we think we’ll always feel this bad. Realize that like how the pain from stubbing your toe subsides over time, the strong negative emotions you feel from your setback will subside with time, allowing you to heal and move on.
  3. You are not alone
    Because failures and setbacks are not broadcast the way successes are, we tend to think that no one has ever dealt with the situation we’re dealing with. But chances are —  whether it’s a divorce, a criminal charge, a job loss, a public failure, the death of someone close to you, a huge debt or a natural disaster —  someone you know has dealt with it before.
  4. If necessary, handle urgent matters / stabilize your situation
    Some setbacks are worse than others. If you have important time-sensitive issues to take care of, do those right away. If you got evicted from your home, finding a place is live temporarily is really important. If you are the victim of a crime, alerting the authorities right away and documenting the evidence needs to get done asap. Make sure you get yourself into a safe, stable place, even if it is only temporary.
  5. Connect with a trusted friend and avoid major decisions
    When you are under a lot of stress, it’s hard to look at your situation objectively. Studies have shown that people are more likely to break their diets, start smoking again and drink more alcohol when they are under stress. Find someone who you trust and respect and share your situation with them. Ask for suppport and guidance as you begin the rebuilding process.
  6. Take care of yourself
    The best way to reduce/mitigate those negative emotions is to take care of yourself to the best of your ability. Now is not the time to punish yourself for your misdeeds —  it is a time to heal. Get rest, eat nourishing foods, and stay active physically, mentally and socially. You will feel better and be more prepare yourself for the challenges ahead.
  7. Try to understand how it happened
    When you’re starting to feel a little better, examine how the setback occurred. If you were fired, what was the actual cause? If you feel you can get honest answers from your manager or peers, try to do so. If it was due to performance, try to understand if it was poor communication with your manager, numerous mistakes, lack of training, missing deadlines, etc. Be sure not to let this “fact-finding” mission turn into a “fault-finding” one. You are here to understand, not to blame.
  8. Capture insights about yourself, others and the world
    I was watching an MSNBC TV Special on the Thiel 20 Under 20 Fellowship, where Sean Parker says “The number one predictor of a person’s future success is how well they learn from failure.” While I think willpower might still be on top, he’s got a great point. Once you feel you have a good understanding of how the setback may have occurred, you usually discover or rediscover some important insights about:
    – yourself (e.g. you really suck at remembering certain details, you trust people too easily)
    – others (e.g. some people interpret your humbleness as lack of confidence, some people will try to take credit for your work)
    – the world (medical school requires a lot of memorization even “safe” investments can lose money).
    Write it all down while it’s fresh and save it somewhere. After some time has passed, review it again to remind yourself of these important insights.
  9. Decide how you want to respond
    You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how you respond. If you got fired from your job, you could choose to blame your manager and live off unemployment, find another job in the same industry with a different work culture, become a freelancer, study for an entirely different career or take a trip around the world, among other things. Most setbacks are going to require you to course-correct a bit, but some setbacks are just the cost of doing business. Deciding what not to change is important too.
  10. Secure some small wins toward progress
    Because setbacks are so demoralizing, it’s a good idea to start with baby steps towards the road to recovery. If you broke your diet and went on a month eating binge, start by drinking an extra glass of water every morning, instead of jumping into a new ultra 12-day cleanse. Small wins will build your confidence and give you the moral strength to tackle bigger tasks.
  11. The world is a forgiving place
    One of the wonderful things of about Western culture is that society is willing to forgive and offer 2nd chances. Henry Blodget was involved in some shady stuff in the 90’s, was permanently banned from ever working in the security industries again, yet has remade himself as the co-founder/CEO of Silicon Alley Insider. The Winklevoss Twins are working as venture capitalists, despite having a blockbuster movie made all about how they were total douchebags who sued Mark Zuckerberg for millions. If you make amends and press on, chances are, your setback will not be the end of you.
  12. People remember success much more than failure
    Ultimately, disaster strikes most people a few times during their lives and mediocrity and failure are commonplace. Big break out success is the true rarity. Anyone who has ever succeeded greatly faced numerous failures and setbacks along the way – but people usually only remember (and talk about) the home runs, not the strikeouts. So get back in the game and keep swinging.

Thanks to Al Abut for reading previous versions of this post.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. “Get rest, eat nourishing foods, and stay active physically, mentally and socially.” – one of the most essential things to do in this life. So true.

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