Setbacks are an important part of life. They are especially a part of trying anything new, a part of our growth as human beings, a part of the human condition. If there is any skill most worthwhile, it is learning from setbacks.
Setbacks are not Failures
The difference between a setback and failure is just a matter of perspective. When describing something as a setback, we put ourselves in a position to start again. It is the middle of one chapter of a continuing story. Failure, on the other hand, has an air of permanence to it – the last chapter of a book that was never finished, and never read. Thomas Edison had over 10,000 setbacks before he succeeded in making an electric light that worked. If he had described any one of those setbacks as a failure, it would be another’s name, another’s story we would remember, not his.
Here are 5 ways to deal with setbacks that I have learned through trial and error over years.
1. Embrace the Setbacks
Imagine if you could live an entire month or year without a single setback. What would that be like? At first, it may seem like a good thing. The reality, however, means that you have not tried anything new. You’ve found a formula to do things and have been working the formula. Not once were your limits tested. Not once were you surprised. You’ve been in a rut.
2. Budget for Setbacks
Even if you are starting on a completely new project, you should already have some idea of how often to expect setbacks. If I am starting a new woodworking project, I know enough to calculate how long it should reasonably take. Then, if I’ve never done this project before, I double or triple that time. I also know, in any new project, no matter how well I have planned, I can expect to go back to the hardware store at least once, so I budget my time and money accordingly. If I am working on a novel, even when it is flowing well, I know ahead of time there is going to come a day when much of what I’ve written already, is going to be rewritten, deleted, crumpled into a ball and thrown in the trash.
3. Keep Your Goals in Mind
Another way to budget for setbacks is in the time and energy you spend recovering from them. Learning from our mistakes is important, but don’t let a few setbacks take you off course. For example, when writing articles for other websites, I know that a small percentage of them are going to require revisions. I don’t like being asked to revise articles. I take care with my work, so even a request for a small revision seems like a setback to me. I often get angry, with myself, or with the editor. But I also know they are going to happen, so I schedule a few hours throughout the week to deal with them. If I’m working on my book, or another article, my goal that day is to finish the work at hand. If, at that time, I get an email asking for revisions, I don’t look at it. I set it aside, so I can open it during my scheduled time.
4. Learning from Setbacks
Because I schedule time to deal with setbacks, and don’t dwell on them when working on other projects, not only am I able to complete my daily goals, I can give my setbacks the time and energy required to deal with them. Enough time has usually passed that I do not react emotionally. I can freely take the time I need to learn from my mistakes, analyze what happened, and work out ways to make them less likely to happen in the future. In my example with revisions, for example, I can often anticipate the most likely questions an editor may have, and can address those in the article, or with a small note attached to the article. At this point, less than 20 percent of my articles require revisions and my rejection rate with websites that have worked with me before is below one percent.
5. Follow the Curve
Setbacks are directly proportional to the learning curve on new activities. In the beginning, setbacks may outnumber successes. It may even seem like there are only setbacks and nothing else. (This is rarely true. Even dumb luck will ensure some success at the beginning of a new endeavour.) You will also notice, however, that the steeper the curve, the more rewarding later successes will be. In addition to this, we should all keep in mind that learning curves never become a straight line. Learning how to drive a car, and driving it accident-free for 20 years does not guarantee you won’t make a mistake tomorrow, or that there is nothing new to learn when dealing with traffic.
Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski