3 Unconventional Tactics When Dealing With Setbacks

Dealing With Setbacks: The Avengers by Joss Whedon

Genius involves figuring out who you are, and owning yourself. It’s about amplifying your best traits and compensating for the rest. Geniuses grab life by the horns, and persevere amidst setbacks. They take control of their lives, instead of waiting for others to open up doors. In this very important sense, greatness is completely, utterly, made.

Geniuses Are Made, Not Born by Scott Barry Kaufman, cognitive psychologist at NYU.

Human beings haven’t evolved to deal well with setbacks.

Dealing with setbacks has to be a pretty recent invention of our brains.

After all, mistiming a jump in prehistoric Africa meant death, not a do-over.

The idea that you could recover from setbacks at all is pretty new. So our brains aren’t optimally equipped to deal with a world where experimentation and perseverance are more important personality traits than caution and prudence.

Most modern, everyday problems present setbacks of the non-fatal variety. Poor career choices, failed relationships, missed deadlines. These all suck, but they’re hardly lethal. Yet we still have a massive psychological barrier to dealing with setbacks in a constructive, positive way.

Before diving into the psychological research, I want to bring up some pretty basic, but essential points about recovering from setbacks:

  • Setbacks happen to everyone.
  • It isn’t personal.
  • How you respond to setbacks is more important than why they happened.
  • Anyone telling you to “just get over it” is full of shit.

Setbacks are real. They can do psychological damage over time if they’re allowed to fester and rot in your subconscious. They take time to heal.

So while I’m talking about some shortcuts today, remember that motivation above all else is the thing that will get you back in the saddle after the third or fourth time the horse throws you off.

Without further ado, here are 3 unique, unconventional ways to deal with setbacks in your life:

#1: Get Self-Compassion

It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’ve encountered a setback. Especially if those setbacks were your fault. It’s no secret that high achievers are often their own harshest critics.

But research psychologists have discovered what works better than beating yourself up: self-compassion.

After I graduated college, I had a choice between two different jobs.

One job was a safe, entry-level corporate position as a project manager at a well-established software company. I had to move 3 hours north to Madison, Wisconsin and be separated from my friends, family, and girlfriend.

The other job was in my hometown of Chicago. It paid $20,000 less, but I would be learning how to trade bonds from a self-made millionaire.

I took the “safe” job that paid more money and had more prestige.

7 months into it, I hated the experience so much that I had to quit.

I beat myself up about that decision for a long time.

Taking that safe, entry-level job was stressful. It put a strain on my relationship and flattened my sense of self-worth. I still wonder what might have been had I taken that other position, learning at the feet of a 30 year old millionaire.

But over time, I’ve learned to be more sympathetic to my younger self.

Leaving 20 grand on the table isn’t an easy decision for a 20 year old fresh out of college to make, especially when salary is the main way the Herd uses to signal success.

Everyone has a journey to take, and taking that project management job (mainly) for the money taught me a valuable lesson about what kind of work I want to do (and just as important, what I don’t want to do).

You can beat yourself up after a setback, but it’s nowhere near as effective as looking back at it with a non-judgemental eye and finding a lesson to guide your future decision-making. Cut yourself some slack.

#2: And Now, For Something Completely Different …

Sometimes we don’t need to quit or take a vacation, we just need to work on a different project.

When blockbuster film director Joss Whedon wrapped up production of The Avengers, he knew he’d created something special. But he was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. He didn’t know whether he could direct The Avengers 2. He contemplated taking a long vacation, but his wife knew better.

The solution wasn’t to stop working, but to work on something completely different. The result was a low-budget, black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a project as different from The Avengers you can get.

At first, Whedon was hesitant about jumping into another movie project:

I remember thinking: Have I gone completely mad? Then, I’m shooting and I feel all the tension release from my body. It was amazing. When you work at something really hard, then working at something else is a vacation. I remember returning to work on The Avengers with a clearer eye and being more invested not because I have my art and this is my commerce but because the joy of storytelling is back.

When you’re dealing with setbacks, sometimes the best solution is to put everything down, walk away from the problem, and work on something completely different.

Joss Whedon took a break from the Avengers universe to do something small and personal with his good friends. That was enough to recharge his batteries, and along the way probably contributed new ideas to The Avengers 2.

After all, they’re both stories that combines elements of humor and drama with a large ensemble cast. Having multiple projects you can turn to when the going gets tough is often better than taking a vacation or quitting.

#3: A Rerun Isn’t Just on TV

Dealing with setbacks often requires recharging your depleted willpower and brainpower first.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo discovered that watching a rerun of a favorite TV show could restore your drive to get things done.

But why a rerun and not a new episode?

When you watch a favorite re-run, you typically don’t have to use any effort to control what you are thinking, saying, or doing. You are not exerting the mental energy required for self-control or willpower.

At the same time, you are enjoying your ‘interaction,’ with the TV show’s characters, and this activity restores your energy.

In other words, it’s pleasurable to see characters you like, without the anxiety of unpredictable actions.

That’s why the researchers noted that this effect isn’t found in social interactions with your real friends, because your real friends are unpredictable. They could be stressed out themselves or have problems of their own, and pass that stress on to you.

So if you need a quick refresh of your mental resources, head over to Netflix or Hulu and watch a comedy you’ve already seen. (Arrested Development and 30 Rock generally hit the spot for me.)

Final Thoughts

No setback lasts forever. The most important trap you have to avoid is giving up completely. Failure isn’t final unless you let it be.

Setbacks are ultimately okay. It’s how you deal with setbacks that defines your personality.

Management guru Peter Drucker has said that the biggest problem for a large corporation is 20 years of uninterrupted success. Drucker was right, in more ways than one. The “too big to fail” corporation that is successful for so long naturally adopts pain avoidance as the number one goal.

That means never dealing with setbacks.

So when setbacks happen due to forces outside our control (as they inevitably do), the giant corporation seizes up and dies.

Dealing with setbacks is like a vaccine for future shocks. Agile people aren’t afraid of setbacks, and even failure, because each one is an opportunity to learn and grow stronger.

Image by Pop Culture Geek.

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