Don’t let setbacks stop you

Adversities often throw us off course. Learn to take them in your stride and walk on... towards your goals and dreams

American basketball legend Michael Jordan once said, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." Doesn't this remind you of a similar story you heard when you were in school? Of a spider that fails several times when trying to climb a wall before he ultimately succeeds? Success seems to follow failure. Ask any successful individual what his secret of success is and he will most likely attribute it to his ability to accept failure or a setback.

Take it as it is

"You need to be able to accept where you are right now," says Andrea Rains Waggener, author of Healthy, Wealthy and Wise. "In order for a ball to bounce, it needs something to bounce out of, right? So do you. If you want to start bouncing back after a setback or failure, you need to put your feet solidly on the ground of reality," she explains.

Accepting either—a failure or setback—does not mean saying, "OK, I know I'm in deep trouble." That's acknowledging it—only half part done. It means being able to believe deep within you that "setbacks happen, I'm facing one right now, and however bad the circumstances seem, there will certainly be light at the end of the tunnel". Because no tunnel is endless [even though it may seem so at times]. Accepting setbacks help us realise that setbacks are no big deal.

Don’t stop

Merely accepting setbacks is not enough. Acceptance does not imply that you just sit there waiting for the worst to get over. It’s like how American humourist Will Rogers said, “Even if you are on the right track, if you just sit there, you’ll get run over.” Jokes apart, what he meant was that forward momentum is what counts. And that is what separates winners from losers by a large margin. Think about Amitabh Bachchan, who wouldn’t have been what he is today if he just accepted his downfall. What he has done, time and again, is what bouncing back is all about—getting up after a fall, shaking off the dust and moving on.
So when life lands us a crushing blow, the first thing to do after you have accepted the situation is to ask yourself, “what next”? Then, follow American motivational speaker Les Brown’s advice, “Anytime you suffer a setback or disappointment, put your head down… and plow ahead”.

Accepting setbacks help us realise that setbacks are no big deal

Do something about it

According to Dr Mary Steinhardt, an American academician and a bouncing back scholar, “Some people use all of the power they have to recover and create happiness after a bad event—others experiencing the same event may collapse and give up. If you score a C in one of your classes rather than the A you had expected, you can opt to blame the professor or go to a club and drink too much—or you can take action and make a plan for success in the next class you take. Your response to setbacks like this will determine the quality of your life.”

Lance Armstrong was one of the youngest riders to win the world road race championship. He was at the peak of his career and on top of the world. Then suddenly he fell ill and was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The cancer had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. Obviously, Lance’s fast track career came to a screeching halt and so did his chance at life. The doctors had given Lance a 50/50 chance of survival. Now Lance’s setback or failure is of apocalyptic proportion. What do you think Lance did? Yes, Lance fought, and defeated, cancer. But he didn’t stop at that. He went back to reclaim his leading position. Lance is the living testimony of what F. Scott Fitzgerald had once said, “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”

Just like Lance, when we are faced with an adversity/ failure or a setback, we are left with two choices. Either to wallow in self-pity, get frustrated and blame everyone—or do something about it! Lance opted for the second alternative.

And so did Helen Keller. When it was time for Helen to see things and learn and sing and talk, she realised that her world was silent and pitch dark. An illness she contracted when she was 19 months old had left her deaf-blind. Her chance at living a normal life was zero to begin with. Still, she did something about it and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Out of the box

Coming back in life may require you to change tracks. Young Shah Rukh yearned to be a footballer. And he was doing quite well in that direction. A knee injury ended it all for him. But Shah Rukh Khan got even by becoming one of the biggest Bollywood stars.

American bouncing back expert Dr Mary Steinhardt, associates resilient individuals with the three Cs: Challenge, Commitment, Control. According to her, these individuals see challenge as an opportunity, not occasion for fight or flight; They have a strong value system and are genuinely committed to the people in their lives and to the activities in which they’re involved; and they have a sense of control and believe they have the power to influence things and make things better—they don’t feel like victims and lack initiative. She says, “A resilient person is like a tree with branches that are flexible and bend with the wind rather than crack and break under pressure.” Like Shah Rukh, who found a way around adversity, even when it meant going in a totally different direction.

Learn the one, two, three

Did you know?

The National Centenarian Awareness Project in Canada, studies people in the US who have made it to their 100th birthday. The project found that key characteristics that stand out among men and women this age are: they have a positive yet realistic attitude, an adventurous love of life, a strong will, spiritual beliefs, an ability to renegotiate life when necessary, and a sense of humour. They are resilient.

In 1985, when Donald Keough was president of Coca-Cola, he replaced Coke’s highly successful formula with a new and purportedly better formula called New Coke. It was a colossal failure. Keough quickly accepted that New Coke was a failure and focused on what to do next. Within months of New Coke’s launch, he pulled it from store shelves and reintroduced the old Coke. He addressed the failure of New Coke head-on by going on national television and telling consumers, “You’ve made it clear that you want the original formula back and you’re getting it back.” [The New York Times, July 26, 2008].

In reflecting on this incident he commented in an interview, that it was extremely painful but turned out well in the end for Coca-Cola. His story recapitulates and beautifully illustrates the bouncing back process. Keough accepted his mistake, objectively assessed his options, and rapidly took constructive action.

It’s how we see it

Unlike Keough, we are unable to take constructive action in an adversity because we let it paralyse us. Like Jesus Christ says in his interview with our editor, we look at it as something hugely negative, crushing. But successful people seem to know this and therefore view adversity as challenges—a fact that scores of self-help and motivational books advocate.

Viewing success as a challenge or an opportunity involves the ability to see things differently. Like an engineer who sees a bridge where we see an almost insurmountable void between patches of land. Now, if you observe stories of those who have managed to overcome setbacks, you’ll probably realise that viewing things differently is no rocket science. It’s a simple matter of adjusting your attitude. But, often that seems the most difficult part. The good part is that once we get it, adversities no longer seem foreboding or negative.

You are born with it

In psychology, resilience is the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and catastrophe. And according to psychologists, resilience is our inborn capacity for self-righting [Werner and Smith, 1992] and for transformation and change [Lifton, 1993]—we are born with it! “Emotional resilience is a well-kept secret. Most of us significantly underestimate our ability to overcome adversity,” writes Dr Peter Ubel, director of the Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan in his book, You’re Stronger Than You Think: Tapping Into the Secrets of Emotionally Resilient People. Ubel and his research team found that most people were so convinced that happiness is a matter of circumstances that they forgot how much they were actually able to adapt to their circumstances.

In addition, psychologists believe that people bounce back in two ways: they draw upon their own internal resources, and they encounter people, organisations, and activities that provide them with the conditions that help the emergence of their resilience. They call these internal and external conditions “protective factors” and conclude “these buffers” are more powerful in a person’s life than risks or traumas or stress. This means that no adversity is bigger than your own resources.

It’s not just you

Woman enjoying in the beachIt is important that we learn to enjoy the lows of life because adversities are not one-time events, they keep coming. In fact, they come especially when you’re least expecting them. No one, not even the richest, healthiest, luckiest person in the world is an exception to that rule. “No one gets through this life without facing adversity and change,” says Dr Steinhardt. And in fact some people, like John Bramblitt, get more than a fair share of them.

John Bramblitt is an unusually gifted painter. But John has dealt with adversity for most of his life. He had a kidney removed as a kid, then he started getting seizures, he endures hearing loss. At 11, he required glasses. As if all this wasn’t enough, just as he turned 30, his vision began to blur. He was going blind, diagnosed doctors, for no apparent reason. In the next six years as John lost more and more of his sight, has became sad, frustrated, and angry. Then, he discovered painting. John says that now he sees better than he did before. He “sees with one hand, while feeling the paint with the other”. The more he painted, the less angry he was. He found that his curse has turned into a blessing. “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,” said international spiritual leader, and author Marianne Williamson.

Give a good fight

You might be aware of stories similar to John’s, or your very own story might be similar to his. You might have experienced financial, emotional, physical or professional setbacks. Maybe more than once, and in more spheres of your life than most. Fortunately, majority of the people don’t go through life-threatening setbacks all the time. Some miss them entirely. Does that mean life is smooth for them? Of course, not. We all have our share of problems. Our setbacks may not make it to the headlines, but they are setbacks nevertheless. Bereavement, break-ups, losing your job, or for that matter even missing your flight are setbacks, each of us face. Some setbacks affect us more than others. What’s important is to keep moving on. In doing so, we would do well to learn a thing or two from those who’ve been there, done that.

Individuals from anywhere around the world and from any sphere of life and era—Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Amitabh Bachchan, Lance Armstrong, Hellen Keller—learnt to conquer adversities by refusing to be immobilised. They view adversities not as the end of the world but as a new beginning.

Indeed, every adversity is an opportunity for a new beginning, a new life that has the potential to be more beautiful than ever. So, the next time you feel down and out, just recall the words of Henry Ford: “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

Seek a helping hand

When adversity strikes, people tend to withdraw into a shell. But sometimes, a helping hand can pull you out of the ditch. According to American motivation speaker Richard Flint, “Don’t be afraid to ask the right people for help. The key here is asking the ‘right people’. There are many who would like to help, but not all of them can give you what you need to get back up. When you get knocked down look up and reach out to those who are standing emotionally taller than you.”


A version of this was first published in the June 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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