I tend to surround myself with type-A people. We strive for peak performance and constantly improve ourselves and our businesses. In turn, we expect our professional trajectories to be linear and upward.
And then something bad happens. For me, it was the death of my older brother earlier this year. For one of my friends, it was cancer. For another, it was a full-blown business meltdown. Setbacks happen to all of us. They smack us down and make a sham of our best-laid plans. They humble us, derail us and dispirit us.
But sometimes they inspire us. In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said that his being fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to him. "It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life," he said. Like Jobs, many leaders view their greatest setbacks as seminal moments in their lives and careers. What makes the difference for them? How can we use our setbacks to inspire us rather than drag us down?
In my executive coaching practice, I’ve helped dozens of people through setbacks. I’ve found that there’s a magical question that can help people make the most of these situations. The question is: What can you create from this?
This question is effective, because it returns agency to you. When bad things happen, it’s easy to feel like a victim. Circumstances can feel out of control, and many of them actually are. But asking this question -- what can I create from this? -- forces you to accept whatever has happened and to shift your mentality towards harnessing it in a constructive manner.
It’s empowering: You are no longer a victim of the universe but a co-pilot with it. It reminds me of how, in Judo, you harness the force of your opponent’s strike to make your next move. You’re creating from whatever comes at you. This, I believe, is what makes the difference.
So what’s my advice for those facing setbacks?
1. Accept whatever has happened.
Let's be honest, setbacks are awful. Some are utterly derailing. It may take a long time before you’re ready to ask what you can create from it. I don’t want to sugarcoat this.
Before you can constructively harness a setback, you need to accept whatever has happened. Acceptance may seem simple, but often we need to go through other phases in order to get there. It may look a bit like the Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.
2. Give yourself time and space to recover.
When Steve Jobs got fired, he admitted that "really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down, that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me."
Like Jobs, most of us need time to process our setbacks and land from them before we can think about creating from them. Stuffing your emotions may seem helpful in the short run, but it will ultimately hold you back. The healing or grieving process takes time.
3. Get in the right frame of mind.
As you recover, now is a good time to start rejuvenating yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Take small steps that help you get into the right frame of mind. Go to yoga or kickboxing class. Pray. Read a new book. Don’t worry so much about the future, just do what you need to do to regain your positive energy.
4. Ask the question.
Once you’ve taken the above steps and are feeling like yourself again, now is the time to ask the magic question: What can I create from this? Try brainstorming all of the different ways your setback could become the best thing that ever happened to you. What would that look like for you? It may be hard at first, but eventually you will turn a corner and start begin brimming with possibility.
After grieving the death of my brother, I eventually asked myself this question. At first I felt guilty and a little selfish about using such a tragedy to propel my life. But the process of asking "what can I create from this?" led me decide, at long last, that I want to create a family. And I suspect my brother would’ve appreciated that.
Thank you Spencer.