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. Continue reading

Randy Pang Echo Peak

Randy Pang, my cofounder at Ridejoy, on the summit of Echo Peaks in Yosemite.

Having perspective is powerful.

When you ask for advice from a mentor or advisor, you are reaping the benefits of their perspective. They have a different (often higher) vantage point from which to see the situation and offer suggestions. But how do you get that perspective?

I recently ran two trail races that had a lot of uphill climbs. Trudging up those steep hills was no fun. We were sweating and grinding forward on a path that seemed to go up indefinitely.

When we finally reached the top, we were rewarded with incredible views of the surrounding area. You could see out for miles, across enormous swaths of of the Bay Area.

We got to enjoy this beautiful vantage point for most of the race and it was glorious.

It has occurred to me that to get great perspective, to get sound judgement and a better sense of what you ought to do in a given situation, you need to climb mountains.

These mountains can be literal, like the ones in my trail race, or metaphorical ones: dealing with tough challenges, making progress and pushing ahead:

  • Working on a startup
  • Raising a child
  • Launching a new product
  • Shooting a documentary
  • Recovering from an addiction
  • Traveling to foreign lands.

These things are hard, scary and sometimes dangerous. But it’s the struggle (and eventual success) that gives you wisdom.

A parent, a veteran entrepreneur, a seasoned traveler – these people have hard-earned perspective that came from their facing the steep hills of their lives and forging ahead. Sometimes they slipped back a little or had to stop and rest. But they always kept their eyes on the path, rallied and continued onward. Because that’s what it takes.

So remember:

If you want perspective, you’ve got to climb mountains.


If you can’t see the video – click through to the post!

Nice little gymnastics montage pared with a great talk.

Get back and do it again indeed. That’s what I thought when I blew out my knee. My doctors tried to set expectations low but I had already decided my injury wasn’t going to hold me down. While you still draw breath, there are no excuses for not pushing ahead.

(hat tip to Gymnastics Coaching)

Full transcript below:

Life is tough, that’s a given. When you stand up, you’re gonna be shoved back down. When you’re down you’re gonna be stepped on. My advice to you doesn’t come with a lot of bells and whistles. It’s no secret, you’ll fall down, you’ll stumble, you’ll get pushed, you’ll land square on your face. But every time that happens, you get back on your feet. You get up just as fast as you can. No matter how many times you need to do this.

Continue reading

Sometimes it takes very specific moments for people to realize their intense desire to change (I wrote about these ‘focal moments’ in another post). A friend that I have a strong affinity to (we think alike in many ways and treat our work and life with huge amounts of enthusiasm and a touch of masochism) sent me an email about three epiphanies he had over a recent evening. He clearly had a focal moment and I wanted to share a sanitized version of this email for you guys.

How dissatisfied are you really with your appearance? Or your career? Or your chances at starting a startup? These are the words of a man who has drawn the line and is going to do whatever it takes to make shit happen.

I was dancing shirtless to crazy techno at a party with some friends amid a huge crowd of half naked energetic people. Strobe Lights, Fake Smoke, Stage Dancers, Energy.

Looking around the crowd I noticed more beautiful girls than I’m accustomed to seeing in SF. Dancing shirtless (with arms flexed and stomach pulled in) right next to an attractive girl I was also aware of lots of guys with smaller stomachs and bigger arms. I could probably beat most of the guys there in a fist fight but from just looking at me I didn’t seem particularly special and potentially even below average. There and then I decided that I had enough. I was never going to be in that situation again. Starting that day I would start a consistent training program focused specifically on biceps mass gain, abs, and reducing fat.

I’m terrible at closing physical distance. It’s not that I’m never able to do it but it’s something that I’m so aware of and so bad at that it needs to be fixed ASAP. I would call it my #1 problem. My friend started grinding against her later in the night and it wasn’t a big deal while I danced close to her but not touching – I was afraid to do it and didn’t know how.

So both an amazing night but also a call for action. I’ve been thinking about many of these things for a long time but now I’m going to be laser focused on them. Athletics, Appearance, and Social Skills are only one side of the coin but I need to stop making excuses and work on them.

That night I went to sleep at 5 and that morning I got up at 8am to go to Muay Thai. Then I lifted weights. Then I climbed. Then Monday I went to Crossfit. I was scared of it like I always am for some reason but I went and I did it. Then Tuesday I sparred even though it scared me even more. And I’d love to say I kicked ass or really overcame most of my fear but I didn’t. But I did persist and I’m going to keep persisting and pushing. I don’t know if I really want these things as bad as the quote is describing – I don’t think I’m there yet. But I want to get there.

(photo credit jwhairybob)

I taught a course at Stanford all about the psychology of personal change. There is a ton of research dedicated to understanding why people succeed (or more likely, fail) to maintain diets, begin exercising regularly, quit smoking and more.

One paper published by researchers at Harvard and Dartmouth looked at 119 people’s self-reported stories about successful or failed life change experiences. They examined various elements of these stories and coded the content for things like whether “major suffering” or “moving to a new location” or “received help” played a role in stories of success or failure. Consider some of these:

  • Critical / focal event: 59.4% (Change) vs 9.1% (No Change)
  • Crystallization of discontent: 57.8 (Change) vs 12.7% (No Change)
  • Change from negative to positive affect: 75.0% (Change) vs 9.1% (No Change)

Some of the most important factors that can make or break a change is transformative moments where people realize how much pain and frustration certain behaviors cause and reorient their mindsets from how hard change will be to how much positivity it will bring. In other words, people change when they get inspired.

James Prochaska is a professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island and has authored some of the most influential papers on behavior change in the past quarter century. He has articulated a theory of change that involves 5 separate stages.

Precontemplation (not even concerned about changing) to Contemplation (considering whether to attempt to change) to Preparation (gathering the resources / plans necessary to make change) to Action (actively attempting to change behavior) to Maintenance (continuing with the new, better behavior and avoiding relapse)

What causes someone to move from one stage to another? I believe that often, it’s when you get inspired by an external event. When you see your friend go from being out of shape to running a 5k or read an article about an 80 year old woman finally getting her college degree or see a TV interview with a first-time entrepreneur who’s business is growing profitably, you get inspired.

Those moments of inspiration are what drive you to really think hard about getting back into running, start researching online courses to take and fire up your text editor to keep plugging away at that side project. When you hear stories of other people triumphing over adversity, over internal struggle and their own fears and doubts, it lifts you up and makes your obstacles seem a little smaller.

I believe that inspiration is a key part of a successful change effort. So you can imagine that I was a little peeved to read this article by Jim Taylor called “Why Inspirational Talks Don’t Work“. He leads with this:

Have you ever listened to an inspirational talk, for example, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch? Have you ever read an inspirational book such as Born to Run? Or watched an inspirational film like Hoosiers? How do you feel after? Well, inspired, right? What a great feeling! You’re fired up and ready to take on the world. You’re brimming with confidence. Your eye is on the prize and, by gosh, that prize is yours!

Then something rather deflating happens. You wake up the next morning and the inspiration is gone. You’re still the same old you. And you may even feel worse about yourself because, after the previous day’s inspiration, your failure to take even one small step towards your goals is all the more glaring.

What’s the problem here? He assumes that no one did anything after being filled with inspiration and confidence. “You’re the same old you.” Except that if you had taken that opportunity to tackle some portion of your change efforts – or to move from one stage to the next – then you are most certainly in a better place. Jim assumes that everyone who gets inspired immediately turns around and does nothing with that inspiration.

Yes, of course you have to do something. But the point is, most people KNOW what they have to do but they still have trouble doing it – often because they find the task too daunting or they keep making excuses for not starting. After engaging in an inspirational event/material, you are in a heightened state where things feel less scary and the impetus to begin is present.

Go talk to one of the hundreds of people inspired to start (or restart) running because of Born to Run. Or the millions of basketball teams who have bonded over Hoosiers before their championship game. Or just chat with ClicClickBang, who posted this on The Last Lecture youtube video:

I was never taught by this guy. I never even knew this guy until he was dead.

I heard his book on tape when I was on a road trip, and I had to pull over for a long time to stop and decide whether I was to listen to the last disc or not. I just didn’t want to hear this guy stop talking. I wish that I had been fortunate enough to meet this amazing man face to face. This man made me rebuild my life.

Rest in peace, Randy Pausch. I owe you my life.

While he isn’t specific about how Randy Pausch helped him rebuild his life, I don’t think it was because he just got puffed up with inspiration one day and then deflated the next day. I would venture to guess that the video sparked the beginning of a long road of action, struggle and triumph.

What’s Jim’s take on all this?

The truth is that you, and millions of other people looking for inspiration to change their lives, have been hoodwinked by the “inspirational-industrial complex,” a multi-billion dollar industry. Why, you ask? Because the inspiration that comes from other people is manufactured from the outside. This “synthetic” inspiration simply can’t last long because when the source of the inspiration (i.e. the talk, film, or book) is gone, its shelf life is very short.

Ah – it’s the old “corporations are evil” trick. If companies are making billions of dollars from selling you something, it must be bad. I agree that self-help gets a bad rap from stuff like The Secret and late-night infomercials but that doesn’t make the core product bad. Perhaps lots of people get inspired and do nothing. Lots of people try to join gyms or start diets or enroll in smoking cessataion course and fail as well. That doesn’t mean that working out, eating healthier or quitting smoking is bad. Just that those things are hard. Jim’s advice?

If you want real inspiration … look deep inside and see if you can find it in you.

Thanks for the help. What happens if I don’t find anything after looking deep inside? Does it mean I have no chance of succeeding in my change efforts?

At the end of the day Jim Taylor sells books, coaching and speaking engagements. I have no problem with the fact that he is part of this “inspirational-industrial complex”. I suspect that in the end, he’s making this controversial statement to gain attention and perhaps find some new clients. But there are people who whole-heartedly agree with his argument, particularly the “synthetic” nature of inspiration. The argument is weak. You know what else comes from the outside and doesn’t last long? Eating food, taking showers and cleaning your room. You need to keep doing it to experience the effects and that’s ok.

Inspiration is an crucial part of the human experience. Whether you find it from a close friend or from listening to passionate speaker, you should never feel embarrassed about seeking inspiration to spark your change efforts – knowing that it’s part of a greater process that will take time, effort and strategy. We need it as much as we need food, water and shelter and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Inspiration Matters.


If you’re feeling inspired and looking for some concrete steps to tackle a new change in your life, feel free to check out some of the articles I’ve written on this topic:

Finally, The Last Lecture and Born to Run are both truly great and highly recommended. Hoosiers is a classic but as a former NCAA athlete and watcher of inspirational pre-championship-game films, I’d have to go with either Miracle or 300. Just saying.