You may have heard the story of the two monks who crossed the river.

The two monks are getting ready to cross a river when an attractive woman asks them to help her get across too. Despite having taken a vow to never touch a woman, the older monk picks her up, carries her across and safely sets her down on the other side.

Later that day, the younger monk finally blurts out, “as monks, we are not allowed to touch a woman. How could you then carry her on your shoulders?” To which the older monk replies, “I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

Just as the younger monk remained fixated on the incident long after it happened, it’s all too easy to fix your attention on your setbacks past the point of usefulness for your career. 

But to move forward successfully, you have to forgive yourself

Since that’s easier said than done, let me share three ways to forgive yourself:

  • Appreciation
  • Action
  • Opportunity 

Let’s start with appreciation

Setbacks are a necessary part of career success. After all, no one’s career goes up in a straight line. It wouldn’t even feel satisfying if it all came so easily! And you would have missed out on all the important lessons that will come in handy in the future. That’s why it’s important to appreciate your career setbacks as valuable learning experiences.  

For example, look at the way children learn to walk. They basically do a lot of falling down before they get the hang of it. And every setback brings them a step closer to walking successfully. Rather than dwell on the frustration of so many failed attempts, they use the experience to keep improving until they’re walking like pros.

Which brings us to the second way to forgive yourself. 

Taking action is essential for helping you move forward

Our brains tend to focus on negative experiences more than positive ones. So it’s natural to keep reliving and reviewing a setback. To break out of what can become a vicious cycle, you have to find a way to draw a line under what’s happened. That’s where action taking comes in. 

After a setback, you need to identify the action step that would help you make peace with what’s happened and extract the lessons that could be useful for the future. Your action might be as simple as journaling about what you learned. By writing things down, you get the issue out of your mind and onto paper, leaving you free to move forward. 

Or you might need to take action to remedy the situation. Like the time I unintentionally upset my biggest career sponsor. It took me a year to realize how upset he was, and in that time my career stagnated without his support. I apologized as soon as I could get an audience with him, which took another six months. But it was worthwhile to clear the air so we could both move forward. 

The third way to forgive yourself is to turn your setback into an opportunity.

The way you handle setbacks determines how others perceive what happened 

It's also an opportunity to influence the way you’re perceived and therefore your career opportunities in the future. 

For example, Bob was the head of our division when top management stripped him of half his responsibilities. It was a big, public demotion. When he didn’t show up at work for two weeks, we expected a memo announcing his resignation. Instead, Bob came in on Monday morning looking relaxed and sporting a beard. 

It was as though nothing had happened, and he got back to the important work of running the business unit he was still in charge of. Seven years later, Bob became the President of the company. Whatever setbacks I’ve had in my career, I still look to Bob’s example of taking things in stride and coming out ahead in the end. As they say, every plan can look like a disaster in the middle. 

When you have a career setback, remember that people are likely to pay attention to you. It’s a perfect opportunity to show people your strength of character and desire to learn and grow. 

What if you’ve left it too long? 

Based on my own setback experience, the longer you remain fixated on your setback, the harder it feels to forgive yourself and move forward. But that’s exactly what will keep you stuck in the setback and unable to move on. 

The thing is, “too long” is a relative term. So just start from where you are and take steps. And remember the silver lining: the longer it has been the more opportunity you’ll have to make a big impression of your change. We can’t turn back time. But you can reprogram your brain with these strategies for forgiveness. These will help you let go of the setback and keep moving forward. 

Just don’t make the mistake that people often make

And that’s seeing setbacks as a form of personal failure. Usually, this mistake comes along with having what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”. That’s where we see our talents and abilities as things we’re born with, so failures are a reflection of who we are. 

Instead, you’ll benefit from adopting what Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset” where failures and mistakes are seen as learning opportunities. And her research shows that when you have a growth mindset, you’ll achieve far more than people with a fixed mindset. 

Setbacks are as much a part of a successful career as the big wins 

So instead of seeing your setbacks as failures, appreciate them, take the actions you need to draw a line under them, and use them as opportunities for growth. 

What will help you forgive yourself when you have setbacks in your career? 

Leave a comment and let me know.