09/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How To Turn Any Setback Into A Triumph


Success in fields ranging from soccer to bass playing comes just as much from perseverance (which is largely about rebounding after taking hits) as from natural-born talent. Managers who let their employees risk failure bring out more creativity in them than bosses who harp on workers' missteps. And what separates men lacking in self-esteem from those who feel pretty good about themselves is the way they handle failure.

You didn't make the quarterly numbers

The flip side: "Biting off more than you can chew shows ambition," says Ben Dattner, Ph.D., a Manhattan-based psychologist who specializes in workplace issues. One screwup won't mar your career. In fact, many employers recruit people who reached high and flopped. "If a person is too safe and conservative, he's not likely to come up with great ideas," says Dattner.

Your next move: Analyze what happened. "Pick your failure apart as if you were a commentator at a golf tournament," says Frank Pittman, M.D., a psychiatrist in Atlanta. Then tell your boss what you could have done better. Your company may benefit. A Harvard Business School analysis found that some of the best medical teams have the most errors on record. Reporting mistakes is key to success.

You were fired

The flip side: You may have been hanging on to a job you didn't like out of pride or fear. Having the decision made for you can be freeing. "Being fired teaches you that your workplace doesn't define you as much as you thought it did," says Dattner.

Your next move: Plan your spin. Think about how you'll tell the story when you're hunting for a new gig. "Don't be too blasé, too self-blaming, or too defensive," says Dattner. Offer a balanced explanation, like, "My expectations about my previous job were off, and I also lacked some of the resources I needed." Show that you learned something and you're able to see a situation from a different perspective.

The woman you were chatting up brushed you off

The flip side: You can become better at this. Men who haven't faced rejection have weak mental immune systems, says Barry Lubetkin, Ph.D., the clinical director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy in Manhattan. Next time, you'll bounce back more quickly.

Your next move: Change your game. Ask a female friend to watch you in action and then give you an honest critique. (Once, by sending a patient out on a mock date with an intern, Lubetkin found out that the patient unknowingly talked incessantly about himself.) Then force yourself back out there. A 2006 study from Britain's University of Essex found that while good looks and education are important to women, they aren't as influential in their choices as "market opportunities." Just showing up and being in the running can outweigh being rich or tall.

Your long-term relationship imploded

The flip side: Heartbreak is a great teacher, and it can help you improve your future relationships. Remember, you won't always feel so miserable: A 2003 Journal of Experimental Psychology study found that older people remember fewer negative things from the past than younger people do.

Your next move: Regard-less of who did the dumping, a postmortem can help you the next time out. "We tend to overreact to failures and ignore the successful aspects of these experiences," says Lubetkin. He suggests charting out your last five relationships. What was the main conflict in each? Was it something you could control? What are some good things that came out of being with her? "You'll see that no endeavor is a complete failure," he says.

Learn from the losers : Take your cue from this spectrum of spectacular turnarounds

Tom Cruise: Bizarre mismanagement of his public image hasn't hurt his career; in 4 years he had five consecutive $100 million hits.

Lesson: Bankable competence is bulletproof. Perfect and properly market your skills and you can compensate for shortcomings.

Snoop Dogg: Snoop long ago became a caricature of himself. But no one works harder at hammering home (and cashing in on) that cheesy image than the 36-year-old entertainer.

Lesson: Once you develop a proven formula, work it until it breaks.

Al Gore: After the 2000 election, the former veep wrote a book (An Inconvenient Truth) and then earned a Nobel Prize and bragging rights to an Oscar.

Lesson: Expand your horizons beyond a singular goal. Gore didn't try to run again, yet his legacy is the enviable one.

General Robert E. Lee:
He lost the Civil War but surrendered honorably, became a college president, and regained citizenship a century later.

Lesson: Be remembered for how you handle disgrace. If you've lost a job, help the next guy make a smooth transition.

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