Five years ago, I rushed home from school, bounded up the stairs to my room, flipped my laptop open and refreshed my email for half an hour straight. My head felt fuzzy and I could feel my hands clam up. It was the day my dream college released their decisions to prospective students. The next four years of my life—my entire future, really—felt like it was hanging in the balance.
After what felt like an eternity and possibly the 374th refresh, the little (1) lit up in my inbox. The subject simply read “Washington University.” I clicked the link in the email and logged in as fast as my trembling fingers allowed me to type. My breath caught as the page loaded. I skimmed the official letter. “Thank you for your application to Washington University.” I knew that was a bad start. I can’t remember the exact verbiage from there, but I do remember one word feeling like it would burn in my brain forever.
I had never experienced something like this before. Despite all my achievements over four years of high school, ACT prep, interviews with WashU’s alumni, and even connecting with their tennis coach…I wasn’t good enough. I never felt so small, like all my efforts had been a complete waste. Like the jaded, wounded high schooler I was, I hastily withdrew my application. I never wanted to think about that school again.
Little did I know, this setback would be the first of many I would face in my adult life. I got my first ever “B” in college. I was rejected from internships. Like many, I’ve received tough feedback at my job.
Most recently, I founded a nonprofit focused on helping adults with disabilities start their own businesses, and one of those businesses failed to get off the ground. Our entrepreneurs felt frustrated, and I couldn’t blame them. Ultimately, they decided to step away from the business. This experience brought back the all too familiar feelings of guilt, frustration, and shame. I began asking myself questions like, “was all our work in vain?” “Would we ever be able to meet our goals?” “Was my nonprofit a failure?”
We all know how frustrating it can be to deal with disappointment after disappointment. Lucky for you I have found the silver lining: you learn to handle setbacks better over time. After dealing with all my own disappointments I’ve created a five-step process that helps me recover from setbacks, and hopefully it can help you, too.
Let It Out
It’s inevitable to feel emotionally invested anytime we put time, energy, and effort into our endeavors. Not processing those emotions does yourself a disservice. You’ll eventually build resentment and find yourself unable to focus on anything else. I find that giving myself a day or two to fully embrace what I’m feeling—whether it’s guilt, rage, regret—helps me clear my head to move forward. I recommend setting aside a specific amount of time for this process: you need to give yourself space to grieve, but ruminating too much can become counterproductive.
Own Your Part
This is something I’ve personally struggled with throughout my life. It’s easy to blame circumstances, timing, or other people when something doesn’t turn out the way you hoped. While outside forces may have played a role, it’s equally important to evaluate what you could have done differently. I believe that holding yourself accountable is one of the key ways to grow as a person; if you’re not checking in with yourself, it’s unlikely that you’ll change your behavior for the better.
Ask For Help
After our pilot business in my nonprofit failed, I realized that I didn’t have all the answers. I asked our community partner how we can improve our program, spoke individually with our entrepreneurs, and connected with other leaders in the field who could help me identify the best ways forward. There is no shame in asking for help when you need it—even though it might feel embarrassing. In my experience, people who actively seek feedback and advice tend to be far more successful than those who don’t. Not only will you likely receive valuable guidance from your peers and mentors, you’ll also demonstrate humility and grace during a difficult time.
Take A Step Back
Perspective is everything. Once you’ve processed your feelings, evaluated your role, and reached out to others, it’s vital to tie it all back to your original goals. How does this setback relate to your broader, larger dreams? For me, my nonprofit aims to help adults with disabilities gain independence by starting their own businesses. The failure of our pilot business certainly relates to our larger goal. However, this one failure doesn’t mean our entire nonprofit failed. We still ran classes on entrepreneurship, advise other clients, and learned so much after starting our pilot. Taking a step back puts your setback in perspective and helps guide you in the right direction.
The Power Of Resilience
The ability to accept our mistakes, setbacks, and rejections is essential to building a successful and fulfilling life. For me, part of building resilience is knowing when to keep pursuing the same path and when to look for a different one. Although I do believe you should never give up on your broader life goals, sometimes it’s important to evaluate how you’re trying to achieve those goals. For example, say your life goal is to become a professional dancer, but you’ve received rejections from multiple companies. You could keep applying to other companies, or you could consider other avenues for dancing, like teaching classes or choreography. Deciding to do something different doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve given up; it means you’re being honest with yourself. Resilience is understanding when to keep driving forward and when to choose a different path.
No one goes through life without experiencing disappointment. It’s easy to feel powerless in these situations, but learning how to respond to setbacks is the best way to take that power back. Turning setbacks into opportunities is key to ensuring personal and professional growth. Whether you’ve received a rejection from your dream college, didn’t get an interview, or launched a failed business, hopefully, these tips can help you recover and determine how to move forward.