8 Ways Successful People Overcome Setbacks

UPDATED: September 7, 2016
PUBLISHED: September 7, 2016

Carrie followed a lifelong dream. She used almost all of her savings to realize her dream of owning a gift shop. At first, the satisfaction of seeing this store just as she had envisioned was one of her proudest and happiest moments.

But by month five, her sales were far below what she had anticipated. Summer was coming to an end, which meant her walk-in traffic would start decreasing and a major supplier had just increased costs. Carrie’s excitement was replaced with anxiety and concern.

She was left wondering how this happened and what to do about it.

We’ve all been in Carrie’s shoes at some point in our lives. When business ventures, careers, relationships or dreams didn’t go as we planned and a change in course was unavoidable.

Related: 4 Ways to Turn Obstacles Into Opportunities

But when we look at these situations as failures, it distorts our reality. This distorted view can prevent us from seeing a situation for what it is. And without a clear picture of a situation, it can be impossible to pivot, solve or make progress.

A setback doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In fact, a setback might be exactly what you need to get where you want to be.

Here is how successful people handle setbacks. Take note.

1. They expect setbacks.

Any successful person experiences setbacks. It goes hand in hand with trying something bigger and better. Setbacks happen, so expect and accept them when they come.

The creator of a thriving children’s nonprofit once told me, “Setbacks are a badge of honor. It meant that I was doing something hard.” Embrace your badge of honor and own it.

2. They set time limits for disappointment.

Allow yourself time to acknowledge your feelings of disappointment. But put a time limit on how long you will focus on that feeling. You might still feel disappointment, but redirect that emotional energy toward progress.

Your promotion didn’t happen or you weren’t hired for your dream job—accept your feelings as they are. Once recognized, quickly move on to “now what?”

3. They manage their blind spots.

If failure causes us to lose perspective, anticipate what will cause you to lose yours. What’s your blind spot?

I am naturally impatient, so when I can’t see the progress I had hoped for, I know my blind spot is growing. Others might assume that a setback is exclusively their fault and miss other contributing factors. It keeps you from accurately assessing what really happened and what you need to do.

4. Less emotion and more information.

Objectively size up what happened. Was there an event or decision that created a change in course?

Be a researcher and actually write down what worked and what didn’t. Write down what factors created the setback. Was there funding? Was there enough interest? Seeing the facts on paper void of emotion can crystallize the facts. Be objective.

5. They rely on “now what?”

Successful people find a path to progress. Carrie might consider a different assortment for her store, more marketing, an event to encourage new customers or more social media focus.

Make a list of options and then evaluate each of them based on what the situation requires, not what feeds your greatest emotional need.

6. They think tomorrow more than next year.

A change in course can be overwhelming when you have too many decisions to make. Feeling overwhelmed leads to stagnation because doing nothing seems easier in the moment than making big decisions.

Instead, ask yourself, What can I do tomorrow or next week to make progress? Start there. You need a long-term direction, but it might evolve rather than being an aha moment.

7. They learn what must be learned.

My research on Wave Makers, and the research on other successful people, reveals a confident willingness to learn what must be learned. Rather than saying I could never start a business, successful people determine what they must learn to become an entrepreneur.

A lack of experience or knowledge doesn’t close a door, but defines what must be learned. In my research, I met successful entrepreneurs who knew nothing about running a business or even their product when they started. Or those who started an impactful nonprofit with no knowledge of managing any organization. But they learned and surrounded themselves with those who knew what they didn’t know. The lack of knowledge was a path that must be followed rather than a dead end.

8. They manage their self-talk.

Setbacks and disappointment can create self-doubt. Manage your internal thoughts so you stay focused on the future and what you can do next. Give yourself credit for doing important work and trying something new.

After all, a setback is a setup for a comeback.

Related: Why Self-Doubt Might Be the First Step to Success

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.