In life and in work, things don’t always go as planned. We all face challenging times and make mistakes – big or small – that can feel like steps backward. Yet, what if these moments are actually chances to do something amazing? The good news: they often are.

I recently sat down with Amy Shoenthal to discuss her book, The Setback Cycle. Amy’s work focuses on how some of the most successful people don’t just get over their hard times – they use them to leap forward. By interviewing hundreds of business leaders and entrepreneurs, Amy learned how their biggest challenges often led to their greatest victories. In our chat, we discussed those learnings and the patterns she explores in her book, the important theme of resilience, and lessons on how to bounce back stronger, smarter, and ready for whatever comes next.

Laura: In your journey speaking with leaders, when did the connection between career setbacks and success really stand out as something special to explore? 

Amy: Over the years, I have interviewed hundreds of founders and business leaders. And the part of their stories that always makes their face light up and gets them excitedly talking is when they start sharing the transformational experience of what they did following a setback. This is so often the pinnacle moment of their journey. What they learn during these dark moments is the very thing that leads to their most brilliant ideas and often, their most successful ventures. From chef Palak Patel, whose dream of opening her own restaurant came crashing down as her investors pulled out one by one, to Amanda Goetz, who quit her full-time job to start a wellness company while navigating a divorce and being the sole parent to three children during a pandemic – they all took an unthinkable low point and turned it into a massive upside. 

In speaking with so many of these leaders, I noticed that there was a pattern, a cycle they had to go through to get to that golden nugget – from acceptance to growth, curiosity to creativity. They were taking their own setback experiences and using what they learned to benefit society in some way. I wondered if there was a way to package it into a framework so others could see what I was seeing, understand it and learn from it. 

A setback is defined as “a reversal in progress.” It’s when something has thrown you off course or bumped you unexpectedly backwards. It’s returning to a starting line so the path ahead is less clear. It feels more murky.

I started frantically researching to see if anything was out there that covered that murky middle – not necessarily a mistake, or a trauma, or an obstacle, but a setback. Once I landed on the word that most accurately described what this was, I started having conversations with experts: a neuroscientist, several executive coaches, psychologists, and others to try to understand this phenomenon. 

That’s the journey that motivated me to dive into the psychology behind setbacks, building a framework to gently guide people through their own. The Setback Cycle is the GPS that enables folks to navigate these inevitable experiences – from the everyday setbacks to the major, life changing ones. 

Laura: As leaders navigate the fast-changing world of work – and the setbacks that come with any evolution – your insights are incredibly valuable. How can we use setbacks to power our own individual growth? 

Amy: People are often surprised to learn that it all starts with admitting the obvious. Simply recognizing we’re in a setback is the first step of The Setback Cycles four-phase framework: 

Phase 1: Establish. How do you identify when you are in a setback? Some bonk you over the head while others are more subtle, building up over a period of weeks, months or even years. Identifying what you are experiencing begins the process of gaining clarity so you can work your way through it. 

Phase 2: Embrace. What do you do after you encounter that “Oh, no!” moment of a new setback? It’s important to give yourself grace and permit yourself to feel the uncomfortable feelings in order to fully process the experience before you can begin to grow from it, something that again, is easier said than done.

Phase 3: Explore. Once you’ve processed what happened, it’s time to assess where you are, what you’re capable of and where you want to go. There are so many ways to climb out of a setback. This is where we start to explore our options so we can figure out where to go next.

Phase 4: Emerge. This is where we move into action. It is by no means a finish line, since even the most successful people recognize that they are ever evolving because progress is non-linear. Most people have multiple setbacks over the course of their lives – it is a cycle, after all. It is, however, that ultra-important, coveted moment where you finally find yourself taking steps to move forward. 

The reason setbacks fuel our growth is actually biological. Following a setback, humans absorb new information that programs the basal ganglia, the part of our brain that relies on past experiences to dictate future actions. Our brains are always moving towards rewards, and away from discomfort. That’s why we learn so much from setbacks – the experience imprints so strongly on our neurons that our cells literally change as a result. Our brains glean the data to get to the truth of why this particular setback impacted us so much. That process gives us the tools, confidence and resilience needed to work through future setbacks.

Laura: Thinking back on all the inspiring people you’ve met while researching, can you share the leadership tips that really resonated with you? 

Amy: Morra Aarons-Mele is one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever had the privilege of interviewing. In her podcast and book, The Anxious Achiever, she has candid conversations with leaders about all the things that make them anxious. 

One of the activities Morra graciously let me include in The Setback Cycle is an “expectations audit.” She points out that while we may not realize it, sometimes our expectations are not our own. When I did the audit for myself, I was shocked to realize how these standards I set for myself, what I thought were my own expectations, were actually based on my parents, grandparents, or society’s expectations of me. 

What’s also interesting is how we react to the expectations others set for us. Rebelling against them is still responding to someone else’s expectations, not setting your own. Morra’s section in the book is appropriately called “The Great Expectations Gap.”

Another great piece of advice that I love to share comes from executive coach Roshan Shah, who recommends the “ABC approach” to goal setting, which includes three versions of scenario planning to help improve our chances of success.

  • Plan A is the Ideal Plan – the ideal outcome you want to experience.
  • Plan B is the Back-up Plan. When you can’t achieve plan A, how can you refocus to achieve something that is more attainable and still valuable?
  • Plan C is the Safety Net (or back-up to the back-up). If neither the A nor B plan are achieved, this changes the focus again so you can still achieve something meaningful.

This activity helps us think through multiple outcomes, which in turn allows us to set realistic goals and manage those pesky expectations. Ideally, scenario planning should happen at the start of any business venture or project, but since we can’t always predict what setbacks we will encounter, it can be a useful springboard to help us emerge from them. 

My biggest takeaway is that setbacks are an inevitable part of careers, leadership, and life. But if we can learn to recognize the signs when we’re in one, adopt a growth mindset, set new goals, and carefully think through various scenarios to create a clear path forward, teams can emerge from The Setback Cycle stronger, more motivated, and ready to tackle whatever comes next. 

Author(s)

  • Laura Cococcia

    Contributing writer focuses on the focuses on the intersection of leadership, technology, and society, examining how we communicate, work, lead, and learn.

    Laura Cococcia is a contributing writer for Thrive Global. Her writing focuses on the intersection of leadership, technology, and society, examining how we communicate, work, lead, and learn. She is a strategic communications executive and leadership development strategist, having worked at some of the world's most recognized brands, including GE, Google, and American Express.  She is a recognized thought leader on the evolution and future of work, shaping and sharing perspectives on AI, sustainability, and stakeholder engagement. She actively contributes as a writer and speaker to forward-thinking academic and professional forums, including TED, Gartner’s CHRO Leadership Board, and the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program. She is a Fulbright Specialist, which pairs highly qualified U.S. academics and professionals with host institutions abroad to share their expertise. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the College of the Holy Cross, holds a master’s degree from Cornell University, and is pursuing her second master's degree at the University of Chicago.