November 23, 2013

Setbacks in any career are inevitable, and yet some people manage to succeed despite the worst of setbacks. Their secret is that they know the difference between a setback and failure. The two aren’t the same. A setback has to leave scars before it starts to become a failure. There are ways to protect yourself from being scarred. Some of these can be applied in advance, the way you’d apply prevention before you get sick. Others can be applied after a setback has occurred. But in both cases, anyone can learn the skills that are needed.

In advance:

View yourself as a success, no matter what is happening.

Know your personal weaknesses and deal with them.

Address the influence of fear and anxiety.

Stay immersed in the details of your work.

Have a supportive family.

Participate in a supportive team atmosphere.

Identify with interests outside your work.

Develop core values.

Learn how to be centered.

As you can see, this is a sizable list, which includes some critical elements that even very successful people tend to ignore. Success is not a vaccine against failure. It would make life much simpler if it were, but there will always be challenges that lead to setbacks, and surviving the last crisis, although it will give you some measure of confidence and strength, is only part of the story. The rest depends on the things I’ve listed -let’s examine them in detail.

1. View yourself as a success, no matter what is happening.

Some people grow up feeling so worthy, loved, and special that setbacks affect them much less than other people. They shrug off setbacks and move on to the next challenge. Psychologists don’t seem to know enough about what shapes such fortunate adults when they were children and teenagers. But there’s no doubt that self-esteem can be improved – this is true for anyone. Amazing success has come to individuals with ideal family backgrounds and to those with the worst family background. The more attention you pay to increasing your self-esteem, the less you will be scarred by setbacks.

We don’t have enough space here to go into this topic in detail. There are many popular books on self-esteem. Find one that speaks to you, and begin practicing the recommended steps (I’ve written a book called Spiritual Solutions that covers the topic from the viewpoint of expanding your awareness, since low self-esteem is a form of constricted awareness).

2. Know your personal weaknesses and deal with them.

Most adults are keenly aware of the areas where they are weak, but in a culture where success is too often seen in terms of toughness, admitting a weakness, even to yourself, is considered the sign of a loser. This is far from true in real life, where knowing yourself is an enormous advantage on the road to success. It’s not possible to be all things to all people. No one is a superman or superwoman. If you look in the mirror and honestly assess what you’re good at and what your weak points are, whether it’s a hot temper, perfectionism, procrastination, or any other personal trait, the act of being honest is the first step in getting better. Hiding your weaknesses rarely works, since the people who work and live with us generally know already what our liabilities are.

3. Address the influence of fear and anxiety.

Modern life is anxious and stressful. Medical statistics tell us that prescriptions for antidepressants and tranquilizers keep soaring, but no one knows why something like 80% of these medications go to women. Perhaps they are better than men at admitting how they feel inside and taking steps to get better. The whole area of how to treat psychological problems is controversial and perpetually in flux. Popping a pill may or may not alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, but for certain it doesn’t offer a cure. You need to realize that anxiety is a natural reaction to stress. Reducing the pressure at work makes a good beginning, along with meditation, exercise, and learning to relax outside work. Listen to your body. If you are tired, have trouble sleeping, experience muscle tension or other discomforts, these signals should be heeded before you reach the stage of feeling anxious or depressed. It’s significant that a recent study found that getting enough sleep turned out to be a major preventive in depression.

4. Stay immersed in the details of your work.

Setbacks feel worse when they come as a surprise or shock. This can be ameliorated by knowing in advance as much as you can about any situation. After the economic downturn of 2007, each new crisis caused people to ask, “Didn’t they know how bad things actually were?” Quite often the answer was no. Managers and executives either turned a blind eye, refused to see the looming dangers, or otherwise ignored risks that seem obvious in hindsight. So take heed and practice foresight. Don’t trust in luck; don’t assume you are immune to risks. Don’t delegate detail work to others without keeping track of what’s going on.

5. Have a supportive family.

Fifty years ago it was typical for a husband not to tell his wife about what was happening at work. Today husband and wife are likely to both be working, and there’s no reason for either of them to go it alone. Call upon the support of your spouse, and when you are in the supporting position, lend your full attention to what is going on in your partner’s work life. All of us thrive with encouragement and wilt with discouragement. So having an encouraging partner who believes in you is an essential kind of support. If you currently don’t communicate on this level with your partner, take steps to begin to.

6. Participate in a supportive team atmosphere.

Some people are destined to work alone, writers and artists being the classic examples. Everyone else works as part of a team, and teams build their own culture and atmosphere. The ingredients that go into a good team are well known, so it’s important for you to trust that you are participating in one. If you are part of a good team, everyone is respected and listened to. Each member is given an assignment that fits their skills and interests. The ongoing success of the whole team is constantly valued. No one is an outsider, a scapegoat or bully. There’s a sense of moving forward and growing. Being part of such a team provides a major buffer against setbacks when they loom.

7. Identify with interests outside your work.

Everyone needs both down time and play time, not just on the weekends but every day. If you only live for your work, setbacks can be devastating – witness the alarming rise of depression and suicides among middle-aged men who became unemployed after the recent downturn. The value of down time and play time is that your brain, and in fact your whole body, need this change of pace in order to remain in balance. One study showed that the simple act of getting up from your desk and moving around was enough to normalize blood pressure and heartbeat. This is just one clue to the benefits of varying what your brain does throughout the day. The ability of mind and body to restore balance is miraculous – don’t turn your back on it.

8. Develop core values.

I strongly believe that building a self is one of life’s most important goals. It’s a process that proceeds consciously. The self you were born with is full of potential, and all these years you have been developing those potentials. This has been a central activity even though you might not have used the same words for it. Some potentials are skills and talents – learning to play the piano or drive a car. But by far the most valuable potential lies inside consciousness itself. Deep inside you is where core values become established. Their names are familiar: love, trust, honesty, compassion, self-reliance, devotion, reverence, loyalty, and courage. But have you consciously been working to turn these words into your own personal reality? Such core values, when firmly established, prevent you from being scarred by setbacks – a setback won’t turn into a sense of failure when you possess values that endure external crisis.

9. Learn how to be centered.

I’ve saved for last an ingredient that covers everything else. Being centered means that you can rest within yourself no matter how stormy your circumstances may be. You reside in your own existence. You don’t identify with external markers of value like money, rank, and possessions. Being whole within yourself is the prize that comes after you’ve remained centered for years, because being centered isn’t a passive state. It’s the place from which you learn, grow, observe, decide, and appreciate. People who find that they don’t change with time, who bring the same reactions to new situations, who have little appreciation for life – they are not centered enough to build a self. Instead, their existence is passed reacting to daily events. They are up on good days and down on bad days. Then truly horrible days can be devastating, and after they pass, inner scars remain. So if you decide to work on only one thing that helps prevent failure, this is where to begin.

In the next post we’ll discuss the steps to take after a setback has occurred so that it doesn’t leave scars and make you feel that you have failed.

(To be cont.)

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 75 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers. What Are You Hungry For? (Harmony, November 12, 2013).