How to Bounce Back from Career Setbacks


October 10, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

With economic unrest and rapid changes in infrastructure, many good people have recently found themselves facing job insecurity and layoffs. The situation is not going to turn around overnight, so we have to take stock of where we are and look at what we can do to survive the setbacks we’re experiencing. For tips on how to do this, I contacted my good friend and best-selling author Karen Salmansohn for some suggestions on bouncing back and even thriving in the face of adversity.

Karen, what advice do you have for people who are going through a tough time career-wise?

To those who have just endured a career adversity, join the crowd–and by the way, it’s a very distinguished, successful crowd. Many members of the Fortune 500 Club could easily earn membership in the Misfortune 500 Club. Successful people are not people who never fail; they are not “charmed,” never experiencing setbacks; they are people who use the leverage of a failure to push themselves up higher.

Bill Gates relishes the lessons of failure so much that he purposefully hires people who have made mistakes. Roberto Goizueta, Coca-Cola’s (KO) former CEO, said the risk-taker mentality is the very reason he hired back the guy who launched New Coke–a huge marketing failure. “You can stumble only if you’re moving,” he says.

So, what should people who have stumbled, perhaps through no fault of their own, do?

If you’ve recently stumbled and fallen in your career, refocus on how your experience makes you more knowledgeable. Every setback, every challenge is full of lessons! Even if the problem was not your “fault,” you can learn from other’s mistakes.

Do you have any tips on how can we learn the lessons in the challenge?
You can use the method that Graham Thomas Chipperfield, a lion tamer with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, used after he was bitten by Sheba, one of his 500-pound lionesses. Before he got back in the cage with her, he analyzed the event from her point of view.

First, he recognized that lions tend to think of the trainer as another lion. So when he attempted to break up a fight between her and another lion, Sheba figured he wanted to join the fight.

Did Chipperfield blame Sheba for her inaccurate thinking? No. He took time to see the biting from her perspective. This is the same technique as that used by many therapists, beginning with Freud called “mimesis.” Through role-play from the offending party’s perspective, patients can better understand why someone has “bitten” them and hopefully avoid being bitten again. If you’ve been fired, rejected, yelled at, take time today to see things from Sheba’s point of view, so that perhaps you can avoid these happening again.

How can people avoid dwelling on their situations, which is very tempting?
If you ask depressing questions, you will get depressing answers. It does no good to ask yourself: “Why didn’t I…? What if…? Why me?”

Would you accept some of the mean questions you ask yourself if they came from an outside source? Doubtful! So you have to “stop ’em and swap ’em” immediately for these questions that bounce you upward: What can I do to move forward? How can I grow from this challenge? What’s within my control to change?

Another simple and effective thing you can do is to limit the amount of time you allow yourself to think negative thoughts to three-minute nuggets, three times a day. Set aside a specific time of day when you will allow yourself to think negative thoughts. Whenever a negative thought enters your head, tell yourself it will have to wait until your preset “negativity appointment.” Who knows, maybe you won’t even want to think negatively once this time swings around.

Thanks Karen! Lots of people are going through what you are describing this month! For more career info pick up Karen’s new book The Bounce Back Book: How to Thrive in the Face of Uncertainty, Setbacks and Losses, or go to