Advice for when the you-know-what hits the fan.

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Stuff happens. It especially happens at work, which is where most of us spend most of our time. Jobs disappear. Promotions fail to materialize. That pet project gets the axe. Given the frequency of work/life stumbling blocks, hitches and comedowns, it is amazing how many people’s default response is “freak out.”

Some of us have an excuse. We are just out of school or new to the workplace, and that first career setback can feel like a defeat of colossal proportions. Some of us just have low thresholds for stress and disappointment.

But it may behoove you to work a bit on raising that threshold. Yes, it’s possible — and even desirable — because displaying a cool head in times of strife can earn you the respect and admiration of your peers, as well as those in the position to forward your career (i.e., the boss, the big boss and the big boss’s boss). It’s also good for your own personal mental health.

Easier said than done, you say?

How about trying this:

Reconsider that word “displaying.” No one is asking you not to be upset about failures and disappointments. Rant and rave as much as you want to. But the key here is to be prudent about whom you rant and rave to. Your setbacks are seldom yours alone. Your co-workers and managers are also probably feeling pretty bummed by whatever happened, so don’t add to their woes by playing the blame game, spewing vitriol, and in general, ratcheting up the prevailing angst.

Rant instead to your significant other, your family, your friends, your diary or your dog. They will always be there for you.

Next, look for concrete ways to lower the stress levels in your immediate environment. Lend a sympathetic ear, for example. Focus on finding fixes to the disaster, even partial or temporary ones. Start to think about what safeguards could be put in place to prevent something like this from happening again. A fringe benefit here is that in doing so, you yourself will feel calmer and happier. Do remember that the ability to keep your cool is not just a “nice to have.” It’s an essential career skill!

In short, when the you-know-what hits the fan, duck and be part of the solution, not the problem.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use and of the novel “The Paris Effect.” Email her at