Why I’ve Learned to Love Setbacks… And You Should, Too

Why a growth mindset is just as important for adults as it is for kids

Show of hands: how many of you have stumbled in the process of striving toward a goal you set just weeks ago?

If you slowly raised your arm skyward (in your mind, at least), let me be the first to tell you that you’re not alone. I set a rather meager target of exercising twice a week, and then got a nasty cold. Target blown.

And I haven’t just fallen short of meeting New Year’s resolutions. I also experienced one of the more disappointing professional setbacks in recent memory.

Did I fall short? Nah… I bombed.

Last fall, I began leading a new client through a brand-positioning process, and as recently as mid-January, the work had been smooth sailing. We were all feeling good about their new messaging, and were ready to take it to the next step. So we set up a series of focus groups to test the messaging with members of their target audience.

The first group went incredibly well. We got some helpful but relatively minor feedback. Little tweaks here and there, lots of validation.

The second group was a total, complete bomb. It was 90 minutes of me silently scribbling notes about each and every thing that they hated, mustering a clarifying comment or a bit of rationale here and there… But mostly trying desperately to manage my emotions as I felt smaller and smaller with every last pile-on.

I somehow survived the debrief with my (very kind) client, walked to my car, and then walked through the next few days in a haze of self-doubt and, well, fury.

I blamed myself… and everyone else.

I beat myself up. I suck at this! I’m not qualified to lead this kind of work! I’ve been a hack from the start! And then I blamed everyone and everything else: The client. Could they have backed me up a little? The focus-group design. We didn’t have the right people at the table! The focus-group participants. They aren’t communications experts!

Then, I realized it was my evil twin talking.

Luckily, I’ve learned to recognize the voice in my head as a sort of evil twin. Those words were spoken by my own insecurity, which manifests as a frankly awful person who loves to make up wild stories, keeps me up tossing and turning with anxiety all night long, and tries to convince me to do self-destructive things like blaming others for my missteps.

My evil twin was taking over, and had to be stopped. For example, I realized that my client didn’t “back me up” because I asked them to listen and take the feedback in. And I knew what had to be done. That project had to be set aside in favor of a couple of days of self-care. I went to bed early, bought myself some flowers, spent more time enjoying my kids, read something interesting, and looked at some beautiful art. Crowded out by joy and creativity, my insecurity piped down.

And I refocused on what really mattered.

Refreshed and restored, I reframed the setback as an opportunity to refocus. What, exactly, were we trying to achieve with this new brand positioning? What did I hear that could help us achieve that goal? Shifting to this growth mindset allowed me to zero in on the feedback that was relevant and let the comments that felt snarky or uninformed fall away. I shared the big ideas with my client, and recommended a path forward. And then I revised the messaging, and was glad that I’d been forced to take a second look at it. The writing that emerged from this latest round was clear, tight and compelling in a way that previous versions hadn’t achieved.

Last week, we debuted the new brand positioning to the organization’s CEO and Board of Directors, and they loved it. Their compliments and kind words felt wonderful. But most importantly, I was proud of where we landed and how we got there. Failure is hard — really hard. But a setback can propel you forward, if you let it.

I normally dispense branding advice, not woo-woo self-help guidance. But if you’re interested in either, say hello!