10 Ways to Move Forward After Suffering a Big Setback

Setbacks and obstacles are inevitable. How you respond can derail you or lead to growth.

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By Joyce Russell

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We all experience setbacks or obstacles in our career and life journeys. You can't find a parking spot at work on a day when you're running behind, you get a new boss who micromanages everything you do, you don't get into the program or job you thought you were perfect for. The list goes on and on.

Minor setbacks throw us off for a few hours but others are much more significant and really throw us in a tailspin. While we will all experience roadblocks, we will differ in how we handle them. Some of us have the resilience to just pick up the pieces and move on. Others find it difficult to let go. Either way, how do we learn from the tough times?

Initially, we will all probably experience normal feelings of frustration, sadness, disappointment or anger. What we do with those feelings distinguishes us from each other -- how do we reflect on what happened and gain a greater sense of self-awareness? We need to think about and learn from what the adversity taught us about ourselves so we can move forward.

Cal Ripken Jr., who holds the record of playing in 2,632 consecutive baseball games over 16 seasons noted, "A lot of people think I had such a rosy career, but I wanted to identify that one of the things that helps you have a long career is learning how to deal with adversity, how to get past it. Once I learned how to get through that, other things didn't seem so hard."

Here are some strategies for getting past adversity and getting on with your life.

1. Failure is part of moving forward.

Richard Branson said that "entrepreneurs should learn to embrace failure with open arms and deal with obstacles by breaking them down into their smallest components and trying to then positively affect each part."

You will face challenges and adversity, so recognize that dealing with failures and setbacks is a part of moving forward. No one wants to fail, but thinking that you will never fail is unrealistic. Take responsibility for your part in the failure so that you can learn from it.

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2. Introspection is key.

After experiencing a setback, recognize that you will need some time to process what just happened to you and actually take the time to do this. It's hard to say how much time this might be, but don't expect to be feeling perfectly fine by the next day. It just depends on how big of an obstacle or failure you've experienced.

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3. Take a break.

Get out of the office. Do something fun, go outdoors, take a break from social media and just give your mind a break. Everyone needs hobbies to be healthy. It is hard to bounce back if you have nowhere to turn to when you are in pain.

Related: 12 Quotes on Failure From Super Successful Leaders Like Barbara Corcoran, Mark Cuban and More

4. Reflect with trusted mentors.

When you've experienced a failure, ask trusted mentors for honest feedback. Good mentors will give you candid feedback, let you vent and provide the support and encouragement to help you take positive steps forward. Be careful that your mentor doesn't just allow you to vent and blame others. That only makes it harder for you to take responsibility and make positive steps.

Related: 8 Important Business Skills You Can't Learn in School

5. Create lessons learned for the future.

When making future decisions, think about the possible hurdles that will occur and plan for them, especially how you will cope with those obstacles. We need to anticipate that we will run into problems and have contingency plans and actions ready for when those problems occur.

Related: 6 Odd Ways Top Entrepreneurs Found Success Going Against the Grain

6. What's in your control?

Think about what you have under your own control. If you failed due to a lack of knowledge or skills, take a course or do some more reading to gain additional skills to position yourself for success in the future. Strategize about your plans for moving forward. How will you address the setbacks or obstacles?

Related: Neuroscience Tells Us How to Hack Our Brains for Success

7. Don't be too serious.

If there's ever a time to have a sense of humor, this is it! Do something that will make you laugh big hearty laughs. This will clear your mind, even if just temporarily, so that once you do come back to the problem, you can focus on it.

Related: 4 Lies You Tell Yourself That Keep You From Being Successful

8. Take risks.

Be flexible and open-minded to trying new approaches. Some leaders become inflexible and cautious after a failure. This is generally not a good idea. Taking risks is a leader's job and it's necessary for success. Don't insulate yourself or be fearful of making decisions.

Related: Don't Let Caution Turn to Cowardice. Leave Doubt Behind.

9. The power of a positive attitude.

Be sure to keep a positive outlook at work, no matter how hard this may be. This is especially important if you are a leader. If your team just got taken off of an important project and everyone is scared about their jobs, you need to demonstrate a positive attitude. They will look to you for guidance. Your calm demeanor will be critical to helping the team move forward.

Related: Positive Thinking Is Powerful But Delusion Is Fatal

10. Reflect, then reflect some more.

Keep a learning journal as a way of reflecting on your progress and remembering what to do and not to do in the future. I've coached numerous executives who keep notes and look back on them monthly just as a way of keeping themselves on a path forward and not repeating the same mistakes.

While setbacks and obstacles can derail us, they also are opportunities to look at a problem from a new angle or reach out ask for help from a trusted colleague. They can force us to learn, and build confidence in our abilities and judgment. Many professional and personal break-throughs were achieved after people took a risk, hit a roadblock, regrouped and moved forward. Persevering through setbacks can allow you – and your organization – to continue to grow.

Joyce Russell

Dean of the Villanova School of Business

Joyce E. A. Russell, PhD, is The Helen and William O’Toole Dean of the Villanova School of Business. Russell is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience consulting with both private and public sector organizations.

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