How to turn a setback into a learning experience that propels you toward success.

Share story

You just got fired. Or you didn’t get that promotion you were counting on. Or you made a huge mistake costing you, or your employer, a bundle of dough.

Join the crowd — in fact, a pretty distinguished, successful crowd! Because not only do career setbacks happen to everyone, they happen especially to successful people. After all, the road to success is seldom a straight line.

But right now you are feeling pretty devastated. What to do?

Nurture yourself. At first you will naturally be reeling from the horribleness of it all, so give yourself space to recover. Hang out with people who know and love you, go for a massage, take in a funny movie, read a book. Don’t forget to eat and sleep.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Seek perspective. You may find it comforting, as well as educational, to learn about the failures of others. Crack open any autobiography of a successful person and you will soon see that he or she suffered many failures and setbacks along the way. Take heart.

Sidestep despondency. Of course you feel bad. These are real, authentic feelings that need to be recognized and dealt with. But don’t let them take over. One useful trick to controlling negativity is to “schedule” it. For example, decide to allow yourself to think negatively for five minutes three times a day. Really wallow in it. When the timer goes off, move to the next step.

Look forward. You will inevitably be tempted to dwell on your failure, or to play the “if only” game, even while knowing this is a huge waste of energy. So force yourself to take tangible steps that point toward the future. Start an exercise regime, get a new haircut, sign up for a class, go on a trip. And, even more important, get started on the next step.

Pursue enlightenment. Call on your most sensible, experienced friends and talk through the horribleness. Ask them for their take on the events and really listen to the answers. You may discover a lot about yourself in the process. The goal here is to learn from your failure and move beyond it (so that the next time you fail, it is for a brand new reason!).

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