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How To Move On From A Career Setback

Here’s an exercise I sometimes do with my career performance coaching clients who feel badly knocked back by a failure or setback on the career front. I call it the ‘AS IFs Exercise’. It’s quite simple and involves giving yourself three little thought experiments:

1. Treat What Has Happened As If It’s All Your Own Doing.

Yep, we’re going to go there, folks, right into the belly of the beast of self-blame, self-recrimination, and crushed self-esteem. It can be a scary place, but you need to pay it at least a short visit—safe in the knowledge that it is not going to have the last word.

Importantly, it will give you an opportunity to go from taking personally what has happened (e.g. being rejected by the employer) to taking personal responsibility for what has happened.

Okay, so this ‘AS IF’ prompts you to name all possible reasons why you might have been the reason why didn’t get the job/why your idea didn’t come to fruition/why your finances are in a bad place/etc. These reasons might, in the first rash of responses, include:

  • Poor strategy with your job application

  • Poor performance at the interview

  • Over-estimation of yourself and/or your abilities/experience/qualifications

With a little more probing, they might become more longitudinal:

  • Self-sabotaging habits that have marked your career life up to this

  • Blind spots that have held you back in the past

  • Falling into a career field that wasn’t right for you

You’re not being asked to make definitive and final judgments on yourself in any of this, nor to draw hard conclusions as to implications going forward. All you want from this AS IF is to get yourself tuned in to some possible themes for deeper exploration.

The whole point of the exercise is to draw as much explanatory power for what has happened from yourself, your mindset, your practices, and your actions. When it comes to taking the sting of unfairness out of what has happened, it can be surprisingly powerful. And that’s before we even get to the ways it can help you reboot yourself…

2. Treat What Has Happened As If It’s A Blessing In Disguise.

Boy oh boy, this one can trigger real resistance in some people! Totally understandable. Who wants to be told this awful disappointment they’ve just endured was a good thing? Smacks of Polyanna silliness, no?

Well, bear with me. The reason this AS IF can be so powerful is that—as I have seen so many times over the years working with clients—it can take a crunch moment in a person’s career to make them face up to unresolved issues.

When we decide we want to change job or go for a promotion or start up a new business, we are making a claim as to who we are and what we really want from our work. When the universe sends us back the ‘wrong’ feedback on this, we can feel not just disappointed but deeply unsettled. And that feeling can be packed with precious information.

Alternatively, sometimes you just have to trust that this unpleasant experience has a hidden benefit that will accrue to you down the line. The first few Beatles singles flopped upon release in the U.S.A. Why? Because conditions weren’t just right. Fast forward to January 1964, and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ comes out. What a stroke of providence for John, Paul, George and Ringo that the dam didn’t burst until then…

Some of the places this exercise may take you:

  • If I’d got this job, might it not have eventually left me just as discontented as I’ve been, only in a new way?

  • What would need to happen for me to look back on this setback in five or ten years’ time and think to myself, ‘Thank heavens I didn’t get that job/find success with that business/etc…’? (Hint: Positive Opportunity Cost!)

  • What if this setback is telling me to raise my game?

  • What if this setback is telling me to change the game I’m in altogether?

  • What if this setback is telling me that I want to lead a life less ordinary?

Again, the goal in all this is not to establish finished truths, but merely to identify potential themes for further exploration.

3. Treat What Has Happened As If It Means Nothing At All.

This exercise invites you to take the opposite tack to the first two, for it’s all about not drawing conclusions from what has happened.

If I miss a bus because it arrived at my stop ahead of schedule, then no conclusion need to be drawn beyond: I missed the damn bus because it arrived at my stop ahead of schedule. Annoying, but just one of those things.

What if the healthiest response to your setback is to avoid the trap of reading anything particular into it beyond itself? What if you didn’t get the job because of some nonsense factor completely out of your control (e.g. they were going for an internal appointment all along and you never stood a chance)? What if you just got unlucky? What if the timing was just a little off? What if changing course on the basis of this one thing were a disastrous mistake?

I hope you find these exercises useful. Each offers a partial truth, the seed of which may bear real fruit. But make sure you don’t do one without doing the other two. Above all, be searingly honest with yourself as you do each AS IF, and watch out for that gut excitement that comes when a setback that has been eating you up gets reframed.

People come to Clearview for a variety of reasons, but the most common theme by far is disappointment. If you need help recovering after a career setback, talk to us today. Who knows, your setback might be the very thing that pushes you to go further than you've ever been before.


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