Setbacks

When Setbacks Happen, Ask This Question

When Setbacks Happen, Ask This Question
Image credit: zeevveez | Flickr

Setbacks happen to all of us. For me, it was the death of my older brother earlier this year. For one of my friends, it was cancer. For another, it was a full-blown business meltdown.

These setbacks smack us down and make a sham of our best-laid plans. They humble us, derail us, and dispirit us. And sometimes they inspire us.

In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said that his being fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to him. "It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life," he said.

Like Jobs, many leaders view their greatest setbacks as seminal moments in their lives and careers. What makes the difference for them? How can we use our setbacks to inspire us rather than drag us down?

In my executive coaching practice, I’ve found that there’s one magical question that can help people make the most of these situations: What can you create from this?  

Related: 4 Ways to Rebuild Your Self-Confidence After a Setback

This question is effective because it returns agency to you. When bad things happen, it’s easy to feel like a victim. Circumstances can feel out of control, and many of them actually are. But asking this question forces you to accept whatever has happened and to shift your mentality towards harnessing it in a constructive manner. While this is empowering, it may take a long time before you’re ready to ask what you can create from it.

I don’t want to sugarcoat this. So rather than immediately asking this question, I recommend looking at a four-step process. For minor setbacks this process may be fast, for major ones it may be long -- there's no "right" timeline. 

1. Accept whatever has happened.

The first step is to accept whatever has happened. Acceptance may seem as simple as saying "well that happened," but often we need to go through other phases to get there. It may look a bit like the Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.

2. Give yourself time and space to recover.

When Steve Jobs got fired, he admitted that he "really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down, that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me."

Related: 3 Tips to Transform Setbacks Into Success

Like Jobs, most of us need time to process our setbacks and “land” from them before we can think about creating from them. Stuffing your emotions may seem helpful in the short run, but it will ultimately hold you back. Instead, be compassionate with yourself and allow yourself space to heal or grieve. Go through it, not around it. Acceptance and recovery takes time. 

3. Get in the right frame of mind.

As you recover, now is a good time to start rejuvenating yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Take small steps that help you get into the right frame of mind. Go to yoga or kickboxing class. Pray. Read a new book. Don’t worry so much about the future; just do what you need to do to regain your positive energy.

4. Ask the question.

Once you’ve taken the above steps and are feeling a strong sense of self again, now is the time to ask the magic question: What can I create from this? Try brainstorming all of the different ways your setback could become the best thing that ever happened to you. It may be hard at first, but eventually you will turn a corner start begin brimming with possibility.

After grieving the death of my brother, I eventually asked myself this question. At first I felt guilty and a little selfish about using such a tragedy to propel my life. But the process of asking "What can I create from this?" led me to decide, at long last, that I want to create a family. And I suspect my brother would’ve appreciated that.

Thank you Spencer.

Related: 6 Strategies to Bounce Back From Financial Setbacks