How Setbacks Can Be the Key to Taking Big Steps Forward

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Life would be a pretty simple ride if we never hit a simple bump in the road, a pothole that shot us off course or even a strike of lightning that left us dazed and bewildered searching for a way forward. In the moment, these incidents can seem monumental, overwhelming, perhaps even more than you can handle. But the truth is, you will almost always handle them, and you can come out the other side better for it. That is, if you view them for what they are, which are temporary setbacks that can actually make you a better, more motivated person.

Let’s look at some professional examples. Imagine you’ve spent ten years building your resume as a software engineer. You have honed your chops and become extremely proficient in several programming languages while also learning to successfully manage people. You work for a small startup that has seen some success, but now you’re looking to move to a large, high-growth tech company that sets the bar for equity and cash compensation. You get in the door, interview repeatedly and are finally offered the job as an engineering manager. You love your new position and your team, but four months in, without warning, your company downsizes the engineering team by 50%. You haven’t done anything wrong, but you’re a part of the reduction in force. You’re confused, scared and don’t know quite what to do.

In the current economic climate, this scenario isn’t only possible, it seems downright common. As a matter of fact, while writing this, I received a Google Alert about a large technology company reducing its workforce. But while this seems like a catastrophic blow to your career at the time, the truth is, it’s not a moratorium on you, your skills or your personality. It’s simply a result of circumstance. The key is to use it as motivation to propel you forward and not question your own self-worth.

Related: Why True Entrepreneurs View Setbacks As Opportunities

How I turned rejection into motivation

I’m not a software engineer, so the hypothetical above is not about me (for those of you asking the question). But my career has not been immune to similar situations. I’ll give you an example from my days applying to law school. For some perspective, I was not an all-star undergraduate student. Let’s just say I enjoyed the distractions of college life and just did “ok.” So, when it came time to apply to law school, my decent GPA combined with a pretty good LSAT score made me very cautiously optimistic that I would get into a law school, but I wasn’t at all certain which law school. And I was even less certain about the caliber of the law school that might admit me. But as the admissions process started, I actually got into some really good law schools. My confidence grew, and I started to expect admissions rather than rejections.

The only problem was, I was dead set on going to one particular law school. Regardless of the fact that it wasn’t the best law school I applied to, it was simply where I wanted to spend the next three years of my life. When the letter arrived, I was not only excited, I was overconfident. Based on my track record of admissions, I figured this one was a proverbial lay-up. The letter I opened, however, was not an acceptance. Quite the contrary. I was floored.

I really didn’t know what to do, but after a brief period of professional mourning, I developed a plan. I hopped on a plane, flew down to the school, made an appointment with an admissions counselor and asked “What do I need to do to get into this school?” His curt and unemotional response was “There is nothing you can do to get into this school…” Yes, he literally said there was nothing, not a thing, I could do that would gain me admission.

But after getting knocked down again, I flew home and developed a second plan. First, I called two of the schools that admitted me and asked if I could defer my admission for a year. They both graciously agreed. Then I inundated my dream school with correspondence. I wrote a letter a week for almost a full year explaining how badly I wanted to attend. I included pictures of me rock climbing, skiing and hiking with the name of the school emblazoned on my gear. I told them I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. On the first day of admissions for the next year, I received a call. A different admissions counselor simply said, “You’re in … please stop writing us.”

Incidentally, when I graduated and walked to receive my diploma, the same admissions counselor who told me that I would never get admitted actually congratulated me, told me he “knew I could do it” and offered a handshake. I less than politely declined. Looking back, that probably wasn’t the right response. Being gracious even in the face of indignity is always laudable. But hey, it is what it is.

Related: 10 Ways to Move Forward After Suffering a Big Setback

Setbacks are catalysts for taking big steps forward

The point being, when I was knocked down by the unexpected, I didn’t allow myself to stay down. I used the rejection as motivation to push harder for what I wanted. At the end of the day, I’m sure I would’ve worked hard enough to be successful at any of the law schools that admitted me, but I also know I would have constantly wondered what would’ve or could’ve been. I didn’t want that regret. And more importantly, I didn’t want rejection to be the lasting emotion from my application process.

It’s hard when someone tells you you’re not good enough, that you don’t matter or that you can’t be successful when you feel like you can. The key is to turn that rejection into motivation. Don’t sulk, don’t get depressed, and don’t put yourself into a shell. Instead, get angry. Not revenge type of anger, but motivational anger. Anger can be a positive force when it’s driving you to prove people wrong. Setbacks are going to happen. But when they’re the catalyst for taking big steps forward, they aren’t really setbacks at all.

Related: 4 Strategies That Will Get You Through Your Entrepreneurial Setbacks

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Collin Williams