Sunday, February 08, 2009

Seeing Setbacks as Stepping Stones

The daughter of a friend of mine was rejected last week from both her first and second-choice law schools. She was wait-listed from the third and hasn’t heard yet from the fourth. Understandably, she was demoralized. She’d been dreaming of living in Chicago next year and eventually, law degree in hand, working for the FBI.

Her dad asked me to give her a call, so I did. First, I commiserated. Then I tried to buoy her with platitudes. (“When one door closes, another opens,” I said.) But I have to admit that other than assuring her that she’s loved no matter whether she gets into law school or not, I doubt I helped much.

A few days later I was chatting with another mom who had also contacted my friend’s daughter. This woman had a radically different approach. She said to the girl, “What’s your game plan? How are you going to move forward?” The woman then suggested that the girl contact the one school she was wait-listed from and ask what she could do to increase her chances of acceptance. She also advised being proactive and writing a letter to the school she hadn’t heard from yet, updating the admissions committee on any accomplishments she’d had and awards she’d earned between when she’d originally applied and now. And finally, the woman said, “Look at your alternatives."
Consider, for instance, moving to Chicago anyway and getting a job at a law firm. If after witnessing firsthand what it’s like to be a lawyer, you still want to become one, then re-apply. If you don’t like what you see, you’ll have learned something about yourself.”

Listening to the woman tell the story, I was in awe of how she handled the situation. It hadn’t occurred to me to suggest to the girl different ways of moving forward. When I commended the woman for being so helpful, she told me that she never accepts rejection outright. “Sometimes you’ve got to fight for what you want,” she said.

How true.

When it gets down to it, we don’t have a heck of a lot of spare time to toss away licking our wounds and feeling sorry for ourselves. Life might feel slow when it’s moving forward; but looking back, it happens in the blink of an eye. An occasional pity party is fine, sometimes even fun in a perverse sort of way. But how much more fun would it be if each of us, when faced with a setback, said to ourselves not “Why me?” but “How can I move forward?”


  1. She was right - that was the proactive approach!

    As a motivational speaker, I tell people to throw a five-minute pity-party and then get busy finding a solution. As long as we continue to take action and seek answers, we WILL find a way! We certainly won't otherwise...

    L. Diane Wolfe

  2. Anonymous8:32 AM

    What terrific advice she offered! That makes me look at my own life and say, where can I be more proactive?

  3. What a perfect post, especially during these trying times. I was reading an article in the Times yesterday about how people's Plan B's have taken a turn, how the dream goal was falling off the radar screen because of the survival mode awakened by the economy. I disagree. Perhaps we need to be realistic and build stronger contingency plans or take a temporary detour for a year or two during this recession. But we can continue to move forward on our goals and dreams. That was great advice for her to move to Chicago and work at a law firm. Keep the dream alive, just in a different form.

  4. I love this post, Prill!

  5. Anonymous1:19 PM

    This is a good message, and a great post. In fact, it's made me think of going further -- and I'm about to blog on my own blogsite about it. Since we are in a mode where all bets are off (that is, the "safe" job you aimed for, the security you counted on, isn't necessarily going to be there now) why not go for it? The wild, the passionate, the unlikely? Since "likely" is not to be counted on, why not just be brave? You're probably going to be broke for a while anyway!

  6. This stepping stone stuff must be in the ether. Just had a networking lunch with a producer. We talked stepping stones, believe it or not!

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Blogging at Writer's Digest 101 Best Website blog,
    Tweeting at

  7. Anonymous6:32 PM

    Thank you for a wonderful lesson, Prill!

    This story reminds me of a time when I convinced myself that a pity-party was unacceptable.

    I was speeding along I-95 when I noticed a wall of cars ahead. I began to slow down, then realized the cars were completely stopped in a traffic jam. I knew I was driving too fast to stop in time and I was going to crash. It was obvious that I'd cause a horrible accident with multiple cars, injuries and deaths. Perhaps I wouldn't survive either.

    A voice in my head said "Is that it? You're just going to give up before even trying to get out of this situation?" And then I said "NO!" to giving up, and swerved from lane to lane, moving my way to the far right lane as I applied my brakes, until I came to a complete stop without bumping a single car.

    I was in shock that I survived. And all it took was resolve,and perhaps a guardian angel or two, to turn the situation completely around.

    After this event, I never give up if I truly want something.

  8. I love this story, Callie! Wow!

  9. Anonymous9:34 AM

    What a great lesson, and very well expressed, Prill. When I'm beset with financial worries these days - and who isn't? - I realize I have a choice of two reactions: fear, or going into action. Action for me means either by reviewing my expenses or asking myself what I can do to generate income.I love your friend's advice. And WOW, Callie, what a story!

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