I will never forget the day so many years ago that a too-slim envelope arrived from my first-choice college. I had applied Early Decision, and when I opened it up to find out I'd been deferred, failure washed over me. It was the amplification of every less-than-perfect test score, every time I'd worked hard on something and struggled to do as well as my peers. I told myself I must be stupid.
This mindset followed me into my early career. When I failed to get a job or had an article turned down for publication, I told myself it was because I wasn't talented.
Luckily, over the years, I’ve become kinder to myself. In fact, I’ve learned that with the right mindset, I’m able to not only move on from the setbacks that I face, but also turn them into opportunities for growth. Read on for a few helpful methods for pushing past whatever obstacle you’re facing—and maybe even leveraging it into something good.
Adopt a Growth Mindset
In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains that she had a similar take on life as I did at the beginning of her career: "You were smart or you weren't," she writes. "And failure meant that you weren't. It was that simple.” Dweck defines this mentality—thinking that one’s talent and intelligence is "carved in stone"—as the fixed mindset. People who have a fixed mindset don't really believe in effort; they believe in talent.
But the most successful people, Dweck explains, have what she calls a growth mindset. They believe that "your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts." When there’s a setback, they see it as an opportunity to rise to a challenge and to grow, not as a sign of their flaws.
To adopt a growth mindset, she says, we need to accept that there’s value in learning from an endeavor, no matter what the outcome. “It's not about immediate perfection, it's about confronting challenge and making progress."
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when you're feeling down about being criticized by a co-worker, messing up a presentation, or even being fired. But the key is to think about how your setback can motivate you to make a change. Don't let it define you, let it spur you to action. What can you learn about yourself from what happened? What changes could you make that might make a difference in the future?
Imagine a Different Future
Holocaust victim Viktor Frankl was being marched through Poland when he started to cough uncontrollably. A Nazi guard started to beat him because he was unable to stand up, and Frankl thought, "This is it." He was about to give up—when he had a vision of himself delivering a lecture in Vienna after the war on the psychology of death camps, telling the audience how he had survived. In that moment, Frankl was able to stand up, keep marching, and ultimately survive to tell the tale at lectures worldwide.
In his book Do One Thing Different, Bill O’Hanlon explains how Frankl was able to survive his horrific circumstances: “What did Viktor Frankl do that most people with problems don't do? He vividly imagined a future in which his problems were resolved and then worked backward to the present to determine what he would need to do in order to make that future a reality.”
When going through a rough patch, we tend to dwell on the circumstances that have caused our situation. A better way to go about things is to think about how you can achieve a positive outcome in the future. If you're unhappy with something that's happened at work, stop replaying that situation over in your mind or wishing it had gone differently—and instead focus on how you want things to change. Then, work to make that happen.
Maybe you always thought success meant getting that promotion at work or earning a perfect performance review from your boss. Maybe you thought it meant you'd be able to save enough money for a dream vacation this summer. And those are great goals, but the problem is, when you don’t achieve the things you’ve set up as indicators of success, it can be really tough to move forward.
A better approach is to really think about the meaning of success. Is it about your resume, or is it about how you're living your life? In an inspiring TEDx talk, Brad Meltzer talks about how sometimes we get caught up in small goals and don't really know what our legacy is—what people are going to remember us for. Watch it to get some inspiration on how you might redefine what success means for you.
No matter what professional setback you're experiencing, the most important thing you can do is to put it in perspective. It may be easier said than done, but if you can try to let go of your fixed mindset and redefine success for yourself, you may find that this setback is, in fact, something that will propel you to a future you had once only imagined.
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