Have you ever had a setback?

Whether it’s missing a promotion, getting fired from your job or being rejected by someone you love, a setback is hard on the ego.

The trouble is, there can be a lot of setbacks at work and in life.

It can feel hard to pick up the pieces and move forward. And it’s all too easy to let it shake your confidence in who you are and what your place is in the world.

So, how can you recover from a setback and come back stronger than before?

I recently had the chance to meet someone who has the answers.

The former NFL player with the answers

Dave Vobora is the founder and CEO of the Adaptive Training Foundation and a former NFL linebacker. His mission is to empower those with physical disabilities to transform their lives through exercise and community.

Specifically, he helps people who’ve experienced life-altering injuries by offering adaptive performance training. Through their work with Dave and his team, these “adaptive athletes” recover their self-esteem and indeed, their lives.

Meeting Dave was serendipity.

I was visiting Dallas for the first time to attend a conference, and Dave’s gym happened to be just 30 minutes away. I happened to get an email introducing me to one of his partners at Arizona State University where I’m a senior advisor to the president, and miraculously there was a 2-hour window for a visit before my flight back to London.

Some things are meant to be, and I’m glad I made the effort to go.

5 keys to recovering from a setback

While Dave’s work is in the context of overcoming physical disabilities, these concepts apply equally to our careers in a professional setting. And they’re relevant whether you’re the individual facing the setback, or a leader who’s helping someone else recover.

In this video, Dave and his team member Mo share some of their philosophies on how to help people recover from setbacks. It’s a masterful life lesson and the source of the five key takeaways I’m about to share with you.

1. Find (or create) your tribe

No one recovers alone. We all need people who will help and support us. Think of these people as your tribe. After all, we humans are pack animals with a need to belong.

According to Dave, a tribe is different from a team.

A team is a roster of people working together.

But what constitutes a tribe is this: Where the weakest, most inexperienced person in the group is seen as integral to the tribe. They have a role they’re empowered to perform, and are critical to the success of the entire tribe. And the entire tribe supports that person to be better.

It’s ideal to start building those relationships now so that you have a ready-made tribe when those inevitable setbacks occur. Then, just like Dave’s community, there will be other relationships you develop when you’re in the thick of the setback. But you’ll already have the core tribe in place.

To what extent are you part of a tribe already?

And as a leader or team member, how do you provide this support to others?

2. Identify your ridgeline

After a setback, it’s tempting to crawl back into a shell and nurse our wounds. When we feel shame, frustration and fear, it can seem safest to hide in our proverbial bunker where we can’t be seen or hurt again.

But even when you’re in the bunker, you can see the ridgeline, which is the farthest out you can see from where you’re hiding out. It’s the edge of your comfort zone. The boundary you won’t go beyond because what lies out there are the things you fear.

Dave told me about the first adaptive athlete he’d ever trained: a quadruple amputee for whom the ridgeline – the thing he feared most – was falling and not being able to get up.

So, Dave taught his athlete how to fall and get up on his own. Not so simple. Lots of effort. But the confidence and self-esteem that it brought made it totally worth it.

What’s your ridgeline – the thing you fear most?

How would it feel to conquer that fear, move past your ridgeline, and build the confidence to move forward powerfully?

3. Get out of the victim mindset

It’s easy to start feeling sorry for yourself and then to blame others. But that doesn’t help Dave’s adaptive athletes, and it won’t help you and me either.

Often, the need for sympathy arises when we start believing the labels others put on us, and adopt them as our own mindset. Whether that’s “cripple” or “loser” or “you can’t succeed” or “you’re less than capable”, labels have a self-fulling prophecy, so you have to move past them.

Do whatever works for you, whether that’s to rely on your tribe for help, or simply ignore or reject those labels. They’re just words, so make sure you move on.

When one of Dave’s athletes starts looking for sympathy, they have to stand in the “sympathy box”. What happens then is people toss things at you until you give up wanting that sympathy. (Don’t worry, no sharp or heavy objects involved.)

Sympathy box

I’m not sure you can pull that off in the office, but what a great concept.

When do you fall into the victim mindset, and how will you get out of it?

4. Someone out there is watching you

While you may not know it at the time, chances are that someone out there is watching what you do after your setback and how you handle adversity.

Like it or not, we are all role models. It’s up to each of us to choose the kind of role model we will be.

When Dave tells his adaptive athletes that “someone out there is watching you”, he’s encouraging them to give it their very best effort, to take heart, and above all to keep going.

You never know when someone else is about to give up but then sees the way you’re handling a tough situation. And your example may be the thing that spurs them on to keep going.

What kind of example are you setting?

To what extent are you behaving as a role model that inspires others to persevere?

5. Step forward to another journey

When faced with a setback, it can feel like you’re heading backwards instead of moving forward in your career and life as you anticipated.

According to Mo, who coaches the adaptive athletes on mindset, this kind of thinking is unhelpful to recovery. It’s the kind of mindset that can lead to frustration, anger, depression and a host of other obstacles to recovery.

He then explained how he reframes it for people.

“If I step to the edge of the cliff and it’s a 1,000-foot drop, if I take one more step I’m dead. I have to turn around. But my journey is supposed to go in the direction of the cliff. It’s demoralizing.

(But the way to think about it is) if I turn around 180 degrees, I’m not taking a step backwards. I’m just taking a step forward to another journey.”

How can you reframe your situation in an energizing way that moves you forward?

How to help someone else recover

Sometimes, it’ll be someone else in your tribe who suffers the setback. In that case, Dave had an additional thought to share about how you can help someone else recover.

It’s encapsulated in Dave’s saying:

“If you treat a person as broken, they will become broken. If you treat them as a whole (capable) person, you empower them.”

When you treat people with respect, it lifts the entire team and organization.

What could you do to empower the weakest member of your tribe?

What will you do?

Whether you’re facing a setback personally or helping someone else get over theirs, remember that there’s inspiration all around us. You just need to look for it and draw on it.

Then, choose your actions well. The way you handle yourself can inspire and empower others to move forward too.

So, what will you do when faced with a setback?

Leave a comment and let me know.