Originally published November 2012; Edited November 2016
It’s easy to spike the ball when you win. But how we react to setbacks is an important indicator of our long term success.
On the morning after the national election, probably half the nation is upset they didn’t win. Yet today isn’t essentially different than any other day, in any other place in the world: Some of us wake up to something positive; others wake up to challenges, disappointment, and setbacks. When something goes wrong, we get overwhelmed by our emotions. Something isn’t right. Even when we may have tried our very best.
But what do we do next? Take some time to reflect … a day or two… and then get on with our lives!
Whenever you’re disappointed in an outcome, you’ve got a choice: Dwell on the failure or learn from it. There’s a lot in a setback that can make us better, too. Of course, it’s hard to believe that when you’re feeling down, but challenge yourself to turn the setback into a springboard. Personal setbacks are like weathervanes: they’re telling us something isn’t right. Economic setbacks (recessions) tell markets that capital or labor is being misallocated. Political setbacks tell us something didn’t work in our message or strategy. And personal setbacks challenge us to examine our premises about our lives. The trick is to manage our negative emotions – not let them overwhelm us – and put our minds to work figuring out what went wrong. And what to do next.
How we react to setbacks is just as important as how we react to victories.
Take my experience, for example. In July of 1999, after a coughing fit and an overnight stay in the hospital, my doctor told me I had lung cancer. A punch in the stomach, to be sure. Cancer? More than just a setback. It wasn’t just a surprise, it was a complete turnabout from everything else that had been going so well that year: delivering 90 events, traveling across America, buying a new car, starting a new relationship.
Since I’m writing this, you know how it turned out. It wasn’t easy. I had lots of help. But I got it done. Starting with getting my emotions in order, and turning my setback into a source of strength. It took me months, but I found the lessons: Slow down, enjoy the journey, only work with great clients, make health as important as wealth, and surround yourself with people who can help you grow. A few months after leaving the hospital, I made lots of changes – personally and professionally – and not only did I recover, but new doors opened up. My business grew in unexpected ways, my personal life started a wonderful new chapter, and I began to create the foundation for future success I might never have realized if I hadn’t learned lessons from cancer.
Now imagine what it felt like on my fifth-year checkup when my doctor said, “The good news is that you’re free of lung cancer. The bad news is that you now have kidney cancer.”
The first time, it had taken almost everything I had to build back my strength, keep my business together and return to health. I had to remind myself every day that the universe wasn’t out to get me; that I could regain momentum; be better than before. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t an option for me either. I wouldn’t let a setback stop me – even one that could have been life or death.
When it happened again, five years later, it seemed so much more than just a setback. Twice? Could I beat cancer again? Would my business – and all the people who relied on me – survive another gigantic setback? Was I able to handle the pain, the disappointment, and muster the will to come back? Talk about disappointment, screaming emotions, and the feeling like the universe was out to get me…
Was there a lesson in this setback, too? You bet.
Fast forward years later and my company is healthier than ever. We don’t look anything like we did before, but neither do I. Overcoming a setback didn’t just mean “recovery” – it meant adapting and growing to reach even higher levels of performance. I used my setback to push myself even further: I developed my skills to be able to speak to a crowds in places like Las Vegas, New York, Miami, Sydney, Paris and Shanghai. I even opened for Sir Bob Geldof in Sydney once: Not too shabby! I married my best friend, travelled to a dozen more countries, delivered programs in multiple languages, and set my sights farther than ever. My setback even pushed me to try something I’d never thought was part of my story – photography – some of which have won contents and been auctioned to raise money for charities on two continents.
None of which would have happened had I Iet my setbacks stop me.
Setbacks aren’t fun; take it from me. But we’ve all had them, and we’re going to have more in our lifetimes. Personal, political, physical and mental. Setbacks are a vital part of life. They usually offer more feedback than victories. When they happen, we have to get up, even with that pit in our stomach, get dressed, and get back to the work of our lives. Will it be hard, trying to motivate others when we feel a bit demoralized ourselves? Oh, yes. But I won’t let it stop me from doing my part, trying to make a little corner of the world a better every day. I’ve overcome far greater challenges; I bet you have too.
It’s up to us to decide if a setback becomes a stand-still or a get-better moment.
For me, they’re simply new starting points from which to change. And start again on our journey towards success!