The Real Meaning of Setback is Not What You Think

When I was younger and experienced a setback, I would become demoralized.

I saw it as a personal failure.

I thought that there was no way to bounce back from it.

And then the anxiety would start.

Am I not good enough?

I can’t believe I did that! I’m so stupid.

The blame game gave my mind something to do, as much as it hurt me to treat myself that way.

But that’s not how I respond to setbacks anymore.

I don’t even think about the word “setback” in the same way.

Let's consider what I think the real meaning of "setback" is.

How I Thought About Setbacks

A setback can come in many forms.

It can be someone not liking your contribution to a work project. It can be a dismissive glance from a friend or family member after you shared an idea that you thought that they would love.

Whatever form it takes, it stings when you don’t get your way. And that’s how I felt when I was younger, probably until the age of 24.

But then I had heart surgery, and this changed my outlook for good.

Having heart surgery was the rebirth I never knew I needed. It provided an opportunity, a chance for the worst thing in my life to become the best thing. Because after heart surgery, my vision narrowed, but my world expanded. To clarify, I started to see what really mattered. I realized just how short life can be, and so I immediately learned how to look at the big picture.

Once I realized that I could overcome more than I thought possible, I realized that setbacks don’t have anything to do with me. They just happen. They are what they are.

It was my experience overcoming the grueling reality of open-heart surgery that forced me to look at the world in a different way.

I didn’t choose to have heart surgery. This wasn’t the world out to get me. It’s the path that I was on, and if I never had heart surgery, I never would have experienced the severe aftershock that affected my mental health.

I likely never would have had enough pain to learn to tell my story.

How to Handle a Setback

There is a great contradiction in life. The more difficulty you deal with, the more you learn how to handle setbacks.

It’s the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is a belief system centered around nothing ever changing, that life is impossible, that there is little we can do to learn and adapt. In essence, it’s a victim mentality.

A growth mindset is entirely different. It’s the belief that learning is possible, that the brain can rewire, and that the only limitation is the limitation we set for ourselves.

These are brief summaries of complex subjects. But they give you an idea of what’s possible.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor who wrote the seminal book on growth mindset said this:

“In fact, studies show that people are terrible at estimating their abilities.”

It’s a pithy statement that holds a larger truth. You don’t know what you’re capable of until you step into the moment and seize it. You can’t know this until life happens and you are forced to take action. Even when you’re scared. Especially when you’re scared. Because setbacks love fear. It’s what setbacks are made of.

But there is something that breaks through fear and transforms setbacks into the silly and temporary obstacles that they are.

It is action, whatever form it may take.

Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said it best, with one of my favorite quotes:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

To conclude, handling a setback is not about changing your mindset; it’s also about aligning new actions to go with the new mindset that you’ve adopted.

Do that, and I guarantee you’ll look at setbacks differently. It takes time, but soon you’ll start to see them as challenges — and then, dare I say, as opportunities.

Life unfolds in a way that is out of your control.

What is in your control is your frame of mind and the momentous actions that follow.