For all of us, setbacks are a natural, unavoidable part the process of achievement and success. For most of us, this fact is as difficult to remember as it is true. When we find ourselves smack in the middle of a failure, disappointment, or delay, we fear that this is it. All of our hard work and all of our best efforts have led us here- and “here” is exactly where we did not want to be. Of course, that’s because in these moments when we feel the most demoralized, the most like giving up, these brains of ours that studies have shown are naturally more hard-wired towards negative thinking than positive don’t call the events we are experiencing “setbacks” but “failures.” While a setback is temporary- a boulder in the road- a failure feels permanent, a dead end.
The first thing, then, that we must do in order to help students overcome setbacks is to change the language. To remind them that this disappointing “here” is a temporary place. With my students, I often use the examples of athletes or other famous people they know and respect who overcame serious setbacks only to go on to achieve great things. We talk about Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team. We talk about Thomas Edison who once said of inventing the light bulb, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Sure, some setbacks are larger than others, and here I am reminded of the classic board game Chutes and Ladders. Remember how there were chutes and ladders of varying sizes, but there was one really big ladder and one really big chute? We can think of that big ladder as akin to something like the young actor who, on his third day in Hollywood, nails the lead in a blockbuster franchise that catapults him to overnight success. The big chute, on the other hand, is like the entrepreneur who scrapes and saves, invests carefully through the years in the growth of her business until one day, due to a crash in the market or perhaps a natural disaster, she loses everything she’s built over decades in the course of a day. But just as that actor’s meteoric rise is never the whole story, neither is it the end game for the entrepreneur.
Next, I remind them that setbacks are normal. They are an unfortunate but inescapable part of the deal, I tell my students, so the fact that you are experiencing one means that you are just in that part of the process right now. Once students see that what they are experiencing is normal, even when the particular circumstances in which they find themselves could have been prevented, they begin to let go of the guilt-induced stress of past mistakes and are therefore better able to give all necessary focus and energy to the present challenge.
Finally, I make sure my students know that my door is always open even after they leave the Success Coaching program. I frequently get drop-ins, calls, and emails from former students who find themselves experiencing a momentary setback. Sometimes they ask for information that will connect them to resources that can help, sometimes we talk through a particular problem and map out a plan together, and sometimes they just need a pep talk. In any case, they know that if and when the going gets tough again (and it will, over and over, until the end of this miraculous thing we call life), I’ll always have their back.
Last night I attended a men’s basketball game on campus, and on the bench was a student I had at least a year ago. The fall semester of Eddie’s freshman year had been an utter disaster (much like the player in Chutes and Ladders who lands on a chute on the first roll), and when he came to me he was defensive, his mask of bravado seemingly impenetrable despite (yet obviously due to) his dire situation. Quickly, I noticed that, although his math grades were the weakest of the bunch, he was registered as a business major. After going over the data with him I asked, “are you sure you want to be in this field?” He told me that he didn’t really know what he wanted to do and that he had decided to major in business largely because some of his friends were doing so. “Well, would you be interested in changing your major to one that better suits your strengths?” His eyes widened. “I can do that?” he asked. We got up and walked to the office of the advising specialist right then and there. After the game last night, Eddie came up to me brimming with pride. “I made a 3.0 in the fall!” he exclaimed. Now majoring in criminal justice, Eddie has only two semesters left until he graduates, and in the midst of all of this academic striving has managed to become nationally ranked by the NCAA in track and field.
Game. Setback. Match.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.