How to Handle Career Setbacks
Career setbacks are part of life. No career goes completely smoothly, and it can feel like one step forward, two steps back at times.
But even so, it’s upsetting when you don’t get what you want (and what you’ve worked hard for) in your career. Like the time I wasn’t chosen to head the group and had to report to my former peer who got the job. Or when my father was passed over for the role as department chair at the university.
Career setbacks can feel devastating in the moment. But what matters is what you do next.
If you’re suffering from a setback in your career, take heart. You are not alone. And there are important things you can do to influence your chances of getting back on track going forward.
Here are three things I’ve learned to do when career setbacks happen. Perhaps this advice can help you too.
- Don’t judge it now
- Always be doing your best
- Don’t keep looking back
Don’t judge it now
When I asked my father how he dealt with his career setback, he said, “you can’t know at the time whether something is bad or good. So it’s best to proceed as though it is a good thing for you, and trust that fate will bring you to where you are supposed to be.”
He went on to pursue a new frontier in his field. One that built on his passion for math and led to a collaboration with a colleague with similar interests.
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Six years later, he and his partner were recruited to another university which was unranked in the new field but had grand aspirations. They ended up building a highly successful program that is now #1 in the world in the field of biomedical engineering.
Looking back, my father said that it was a good thing that he didn’t get chosen as department chair. If he had, it would have been much harder to make the move to the different university.
So in the midst of your disappointment and heartache, remember that this is not the time when you can judge whether your career setback is really a setback. The story hasn’t played out yet, so trust in your future destiny and keep going.
Setbacks are in the eye of the beholder. And it’s in your interest to frame your perceived career setback in a positive, forward-looking way.
Which brings us to the second advice.
Always be doing your best
When you’re coming from a constructive, positive mindset, it will show up in your performance. As I like to say, your mindset affects your behavior which affects your outcomes.
So you always want to be doing your best. Even when you feel disappointed.
This is important for two reasons.
First, when you do your best work, you’re more likely to attract new opportunities. So see how you can refocus your energy on creating the conditions for bringing your best self. And ideally, choosing to do it in a way that leverages your best abilities. Just as my father did by leaning into his strengths and interest in math. You’ll become a magnet for opportunities that suit you well.
Second, no matter what happens, you’ll know you’ve done the best you can. And when you do your best, you can live a life of no regrets.
Which brings us to the third advice.
Don’t keep looking back
As my mother says, “looking back only wastes your inner energy.” Especially when you’re looking back at what you see as a career setback.
So if you look back and see things you could have or “should” have done, extract the lessons and then move on. Don’t continue to revisit it because you’ll only be hurting yourself.
Recognize that people make mistakes. You might well have been the better candidate and done a better job. That was true in my father’s case – the person they chose talked a better game but didn’t produce much in the way of results – and it might well be true in your situation too.
But like my father’s example, it’s important that you don’t dwell on it. Otherwise, you might miss the next opportunity, which could be an even better fit.
Remember that decisions are made at a point in time based on the situation at the time. So it’s useful to look back once to learn what you need to learn. But don’t keep looking back.
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But what if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
What if it genuinely is the only thing you’ve ever wanted career-wise and there’s nothing else like it out in the world?
That’s when the idea of fate and your destiny comes in. As my father told me, he believes that there is such a thing as fate. And that the universe conspires to lead you to the thing you’re meant to do and become. You just need to allow it to unfold.
In my case, I was devastated when my peer was chosen to lead the group instead of me. But I gritted my teeth and carried on doing my best. My opportunity came a couple of years later when our department was merged with two others. In the integration process, my former peer no longer had a role while I ended up with a larger set of responsibilities.
So, things change, and you never know what the future has in store. All you can do is take care of the things in your sphere of influence, do your best, and let the rest unfold.
Just don’t make the mistake of giving up too soon
If you have greater aspirations but you’re thinking of giving up after a career setback, don’t make any rash decisions. Sometimes, it’s just about continuing to put one foot in front of the other.
Or as fellow member of the mastermind I belong to said, “Maybe you’re already there and you just have to stick it out to see it.”
The final result may be in a slightly different form than you were expecting, so be open to it when it shows up.
Now it’s time to set your aspirations and stay open to opportunities that lie ahead
And instead of sitting with the disappointment of a career setback, remember to take my parents’ advice:
- Don’t judge it now – the story hasn’t played out yet, and setbacks are in the eye of the beholder
- Always be doing your best – it’s the surest way of attracting new opportunities and having no regrets
- Don’t keep looking back – extract the lessons and move forward.
Which piece of advice would serve you best when you have a career setback?
Leave a comment and let me know.