How to Deal with a Professional Setback

One of the most impressive women I’ve ever met was my very first boss. Back when I worked for her, she was the newly appointed President of a much-beloved non-profit organization called The White House Project. The White House Project’s mission was to achieve equal representation of women at all levels of leadership, specifically in politics. We crafted training seminars, curriculums and learning communities to help women of all backgrounds and political beliefs build the skills necessary to run for office and win elections.

When I started at TWHP, Marie C. Wilson, one of the most well-known and well-respected leaders of the second-wave feminist movement, had just passed the leadership torch to my boss. If you’re not well-versed in the heroes of that time, I’m just going to tell you – those were big f*cking shoes to fill. Especially in 2010 with the economy in shambles and the dialogue on women’s leadership rapidly changing in challenging and confusing ways.

I won’t get into too much boring detail about why, but two years into her tenure as President, my boss had to close The White House Project’s doors. She announced the news to her eight, passionate employees in a depressing basement conference room with tears in her eyes. She apologized to us. She took responsibility and asked for feedback. Before we left the office for the last time, she turned on David Guetta’s Titanium and we danced awkwardly around the office together. I had never seen so much leadership paired with so much vulnerability.

Today, she’s an author, an executive, a philanthropist, a mother and a mentor. She talks openly about what it felt like to fail at running an organization that meant so much to her and the women it served. But more importantly, she talks about how it made her more fiercely dedicated to advancing the lives of women and girls and advancing her career in order to do so.

Career setbacks are scary and heartbreaking and embarrassing and infuriating and sad and inevitable. If you’re passionate about your career, you’ll have to take chances on its behalf. And when you take chances, you sometimes fail. It’s a statistical fact. So, then, how do you deal with it?


How to Deal with A Professional Setback

Allow Yourself to be Bummed Out 

Ok. Something major just happened in your life and not in the good way. It’s ok to care and be upset. It’s a human reaction. It’s a mentally healthy reaction. It’s a, “I give a f*ck about my career and what I do for a living,” reaction. Own it. Ask yourself the hard questions about the emotions you’re experiencing and why you’re experiencing them. Was there truly something inherently unfair about the situation? Or do you consistently look to your career to build self-esteem so this setback carries a heavier emotional weight than it should? Whatever it may be, processing those feelings of devastation is critical to getting your groove back.

If I’ve learned anything from six seasons and two feature films of Sex and the City, it’s this: Life is about building the ultimate relationship with yourself. And you can’t do that if you don’t validate your emotions and try to understand what makes you tick.

Find Perspective

Once the eating-a-pint-of-ice-cream-in-one-sitting grieving period has passed, do a little self-reflection. In the grand scheme of your life, how big is this set back, really? Yes, big professional failures do feel like the end of the world in the moment. But that’s a feeling not a fact. There’s always an answer to the question, “What’s next?”. If you can remember that, it will give you sanity-saving perspective.

The truth is that, although failure is a regular part of life, each failure is temporary. It’s a singular moment in time, an isolated result of a specific effort, attempt or ask. And as each failure happens once, so do the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and deflation that come along with it. It’s up to you whether or not to extend that single moment of failure to last an entire lifetime.

Be Self-Aware

Allowing yourself to be bummed and gaining the right perspective are both part of the grieving and acceptance process. They’re necessary and healthy and encompass all of the things I’ve already talked about, but they’re also incredibly toxic if you don’t practice self-awareness, too. Part of what made my boss SO successful in rebounding in her career was her self-awareness on what made her unsuccessful. She took responsibility for the failure and asked her team, colleagues and The White House Project community members for critical feedback. She wasn’t quick to place blame elsewhere and instead, owned her setback. She’s even gone so far as to make it part of her personal brand and her growth narrative. Her willingness to look internally made her stronger because she saw her failure as an opportunity to learn more about herself and her opportunities for the future.

Reframe Your Goals to Center Around A Growth Mindset 

Essentially, my  boss has a growth mindset. Experts on growth mindset argue that it’s the magic trait that all high-achievers have in common.

People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable, expandable, and never fixed. …On the flip side, those with a “fixed mindset“—who believe that their intelligence and abilities are less fluid—tend to beat themselves up and get stuck, by dwelling on failures.

It’s good to have traditional professional benchmarks. I’m not necessarily arguing against that approach, but I’d just push you to consider either reframing those goals or incorporating new ones that are more aligned with using growth or learning as the ultimate benchmark for success. Life is unpredictable and your career is part of life. If you only have one metric for measuring your success, like a job title or salary, setbacks will be a lot more devastating. By aligning your goals with the growth mindset philosophy, as long as you’re learning new things in both success and failure, you’ll achieve a feeling of accomplishment. I promise you – it’s that feeling of consistent accomplishment that fuels a happy, healthy relationship with your career.

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Allie is a Minneapolis-based digital marketer, lucky enough to make a living by hanging out with really smart people and coming up with disruptive, technology-driven ideas at space150. Her passions include traveling, coffee, books, convincing everyone they should be a feminist, obsessing over the dog she just saw on the street corner and trying not to blush at inconvenient moments.