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10 ways to deal with setbacks

Everyone faces failures and disappointments from time to time. The trick is finding a way to bounce back -- and maybe even come out ahead.

Things didn't work out the way you thought. The promotion you hoped for went to someone else. The contracting assignment you were counting on got postponed. Your big presentation had major problems.

Setbacks happen to all of us. How we handle them, however, can affect our career and how others view us. Here are tips for prevailing even when things go wrong.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Step back and reflect

You may think the world has ended, but it hasn't. Rather than get upset and emotional about what's happened, stop what you're doing. Reflect on what's happened and start to think about how you will adapt to this news. You will be better able to deal with the situation if you take this moment to stop and reflect.

2: Find a confidante

Finding someone to talk to about your concerns and reactions can help. Even if that person can't do anything, the fact that he or she listens can help your state of mind. Also, remember the old saying "One hand washes the other." When that person has an issue, you can, and probably should, reciprocate. Avoid friends who merely will lecture you or lay a guilt trip on you. Yes, maybe you should have done things differently. But now is not the time to dwell on those matters.

3: Stay positive

I complained that I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.

Looking at the positive side of things can be difficult. However, as the proverb suggests, things almost always could be worse. You didn't get that one contract, but do you have others that seem promising? You had problems with the presentation, but what parts did go well? I'm not saying you should be a Pollyanna or hide from reality. But focusing on the opportunities you still have or on what went right will be far better for your mental well-being than focusing on what you lost or what went wrong.

4: Focus on the future more than the past

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal...

Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

No, these two sayings do not contradict each other. Reflecting on past events is important. If you made mistakes that led to your setback, realizing that fact is important to reduce the chances of making the same mistake again. However, reflecting on the past is different from beating yourself up about the past. Engaging in "if only..." thinking, if it involves saddling yourself with guilt, will not help you.

5: Learn from the experience

It's important to learn from your experiences -- but that's tough to do if you're mired in self-recrimination. Try, if you can, to view the situation as an outsider. Don't say, "What can I learn?" Say instead, "What can a disinterested observer learn?" "What did this person (i.e., you) do effectively? What could this person have done differently?" This approach lessens the chance that you simply start making yourself feel guilty. Once you have gathered your conclusions about the matter, you can begin to do something constructive.

6: Be careful regarding blame

Maybe you, or someone else, did do something wrong. Avoiding that same mistake in the future is important. However, simply blaming someone else, or even yourself, doesn't help. For this reason, it's better to focus on "Next time do it this way instead" rather than "You &&#&$! You shouldn't have done it that way!"

7: Find a way to benefit

Try to find a way that something good can come out of the setback. One classic example is Titanic. After that disaster, among other things, lifeboat guidelines were changed so that minimum numbers were based on passenger capacity, not weight of ship. In the same way, see what changes are appropriate. Should you change a procedure or policy? Should you change your own approach or strategy? Having something good come out of a setback lessens its sting.

8: Write about your experience

One way others can benefit from your problem is to read about it. And the more analysis you can put into your thought process, the more the reader will benefit. Did you ever clobber a production database by loading it with test data? I did once, and I lived to tell about it. In fact, I even wrote about it for TechRepublic.

If you do write about a setback, remember to make the situation as broad as you can. I hate to say it, but readers probably won't care about your own emotional reactions. They might care, though, about lessons you learned and how those lessons might apply to them. By the way, I am not advocating that you deliberately mess up, or create a problem, just so can write about it.

9: Teach others

Don't limit yourself to just writing about lessons you learned from a setback. Volunteer to speak about the issue, if it's appropriate. If you're teaching a class, consider using your own experience as an example. Students will appreciate the real life information.

10: Remember that failure isn't final

Before winning two Super Bowls, John Elway lost three of them. Before winning the 2004 World Series, their first since 1918, the Boston Red Sox had lost their four previous ones. Even though you might have experienced a setback, it need not prevent you from succeeding in the future.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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