Recently I had a setback. Doesn’t matter what on; setbacks happen. Sometimes they’re on things outside your control: if a meteor smacks the Earth and the tidal wave is on its way to you, well, you’re out of luck buddy.
But sometimes it only seems like a tidal wave about to wipe out all life. Suppose your party has lost the election. Your vote didn’t stop it. You feel powerless – but you’re not. You can vote. You can argue. You can volunteer. Even run for office yourself.
Even then, it might be a thirty year project to get yourself or people you like elected President – but most problems aren’t trying to change the leader of the free world. The reality is, most of the things that do happen to us are things we can partially control.
So the setback happens. I got upset, thinking about this misfortune. I try to look closely at situations and to honestly blame myself for everything that went wrong. By honestly blame, I mean to look for my mistakes, but not exaggerate their impact.
In this case, at first, I thought I saw many things I did wrong, but the more I looked, the more I realized that most of what I did was right, and only a few of them were wrong, and they didn’t account for all the bad things that had happened beyond my control.
Then I realized: what if I treated those bad things as actual problems?
A disaster is something bad that happens. A problem is a situation that can be fixed. A situation that has a solution. At work, and in writing, I’m constantly trying to come up with solutions to problems, solutions which sometimes must be very creative.
“Treat setbacks as problems,” I thought. “Don’t complain about them (ok, maybe do) but think about how you can fix them.” Of course, sometimes the specific problems are unfixable: the code failed in production, the story was badly reviewed. Too late.
That’s when the second idea comes in: what if you treated problems as opportunities to better your skills?
An opportunity is a situation you can build on. At work, and in writing, I try to develop better and better skills to solve problems, be it in prose, code, organization, or self-management. And once you know a problem can happen, you can build skills to fix it.
So I came up with a few mantras: “Take Problems as Opportunities” and “Accept Setbacks as Problems” were a couple of them that I wrote down (and don’t have the others on me). But I was so inspired I put together a little inspirational poster.
I don’t yet know how to turn this setback into a triumph. But I do know what kinds of problems caused it, and those are all opportunities for me to learn new skills to try to keep this setback from happening again. Time to get to it.
Pictured: me on a ridge of rock, under my very own motivational poster.
P.S. Now that I’ve posted this, I see I’m not the first to come up with this phrase. Great minds think alike!