How to Recover Quickly from a Painful Setback

I just had my mind blown.

I sit at a common area table every morning in the hopes of having chance encounters with my teammates here at Quest. That to me is how you build real relationships. And apparently how you get your mind blown.

Tears and Triumph

Today I had the honor of sitting with someone who shared her recent epiphany with me. It was one of those moments that gave me the chills. She had just gone through leadership selection in her department for a new project, and once again she was not selected to lead a team. Her first reaction was tears. She went straight home that night and cried her eyes out. It was clear to her that people simply did not appreciate her or the value that she brings. And if that’s the case, she told herself, she was going to stop trying and simply be a clock-punching employee who keeps her head down, doing only as much as she needs to do to avoid punishment.

And then she realized that if she did that, she would never advance.

Awash in the realization of the truth of that statement, she began to ask herself a new set of questions: What have I done to hold myself back? How is this my fault, and what could I change in my behavior to get a different result?

As she relayed it to me, focusing on the things that she could do to take control of her situation instantly lifted her dark mood. She no longer felt helpless, and in being willing to admit that she had failed in her efforts to become a team lead, the path forward became clear. She sought out feedback on her performance, and committed herself to working on her deficiencies. As she recounted this all to me, she positively beamed with enthusiasm. It was infectious.

Pain Serves a Purpose

What’s so powerful about this story isn’t just that she had such an amazing and empowering epiphany, it’s that the breakthrough came as a result of not getting a participation medal. Ever since Simon Sinek came on Inside Quest and talked about how much of a disservice has been done to young people today from growing up in an environment that rewarded them simply for showing up, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that failure and emotional suffering has played in my life.

Suffering sucks, but the truth is that it creates an emotional environment that demands change. That is the purpose of suffering. It pushes you in a new direction. It forces you to take action.

Now, I’m not naïve; I know that for some people that direction is down. They get upset and never recover. They get angry and blame others — an unfair work environment, bad boss, stupid co-workers, whatever. But for others, like this amazing woman who inspired me, it becomes a guide pointing the way to ownership — to control — to the realization that they can make new choices and get a new result.

Do the Hard Things

As a leader, much like parents I’m sure, I struggle with this notion of not trying to create a work environment that fosters the participation trophy atmosphere. I want to see people happy. I want them to have fun. But I also know that resiliency comes from learning to deal with adversity. But to learn to deal with it, you’ve got to spend some time in it.

Executive Director of the Flow Genome Project Jamie Wheal recently came in for an interview on Inside Quest, and I asked him about how he deals with that situation. His answer was awesome: Do the hard things. Put yourself in difficult situations — places where you might fail. And rather than shy away from those painful failures, look at them and learn.

Is there any better advice than that? Not for me.