Setback is simply a step (unexpected!) in the process

Setback is simply a step (unexpected!) in the process

It can be deeply upsetting when things that I am expecting to go smoothly do not go to plan.

I am surrounded with competent colleagues and work with capable clients; so when setbacks occur, particularly ones which I feel I should have anticipated and avoided, my reactions range from mild irritation, through disappointment and annoyance, to exasperated self-criticism. It is most galling when the setbacks are serious and arise from the most avoidable errors.

Attention to the essential

Strangely the more competent and proficient I have become in my job, the more prone I am to not paying sufficient attention to the essential. These necessities, because they are so familiar and built into my routines are ironically reduced to the mundane; and as such end up receiving less than the high quality of attention they deserve.

For example: I arrange an intricate programme of work with the support and encouragement of many, and in the last instance fail to thank them for their input. I spend ages dealing with the requirements of stakeholders on a complex assignment and then simply miss calling them to let them know what has been done to address their concerns. I do the same due diligence checks that I have carried out countless times before hiring someone, yet omit asking the candidate whether their appointment may constitute any conflict of interest.

Clearly as I get more proficient, take on more work, deal with more people, have more support from others and address more complex issues, my focus has to shift from attending to the minutiae to overcoming obstacles and avoiding getting bogged down in the intricacies. My focus goes from just doing good work to getting work done well. Time and cost (not just quality) become pressures that impinge more on me. Tasks multiply and are delegated. I do less myself, but remain responsible for more. Detailed attention to the essential becomes more important even as it becomes less directly controlled by me. I rely on routines and those routines involve me working with others.

Appreciating fallibility in proficiency

Yet any man-made routine, un-refreshed, in a changing environment with multiple complexities and new knowledge cannot be expected simply to work without variation, change or even omission. Seen this way, at some point some kind of setback is inevitable. In such an environment each cycle of the routine is an opportunity for a shortfall in expectations - “a mistaken event or action”. It is also an opportunity to reconnect with the essential, to upgrade our knowledge and behaviour – to learn. As Atul Gawande the surgeon and author, having led and worked thousands of hours as a part of accomplished, successful and experienced medical teams reflects there is no mistake so dumb that we cannot make it"[1]. "

I am learning that growing knowledge, awareness and mastery come with a disarming appreciation of fallibility. Unconscious competence and that self-assured exuberance of youth has developed into a respectful appreciation of limitation. So while I no longer get stage fright, I am more aware of why the stage can be frightening and is worthy of respect. I may have imbibed the recipe book but I cannot deride the value of the recipe being handed to a trained and accomplished chef. I appreciate the importance, particularly when the stakes are high, of approaching each familiar routine and episode as if it were the first time, and with more inquiring confidence and greater respect.

Savannah and scrubland

At my best I am attuned to my changing circumstances. I embrace each new season and cycle as a lesson – one that is familiar and holds possibilities yet unknown; always with the potential to deviate from what I implicitly plan for and expect.

At my worst I can obsess over a detail, spend ages getting started and spend more time asking myself why I ever committed myself to doing this. At such times it is suddenly as if my wet and plentiful savannah has overnight turned into scratchy scrubland: a place of dusty discontentment which can only be tamed by dedicated husbandry, even if that is the last thing the inclement environment makes me feel like doing.

Yet I know that attending to what is called for is the only way through. As a coach I have found that the most effective leaders are invariably the ones that are aware, attentive and able to act in the “savannah” as well as in the “scrubland”. They are also the most effective learners. They approach life as a series of lessons. If it was tough yesterday, tomorrow doesn't have to be so, but if it is, then so be it, they are not surprised. Instead they are present and ready, starting from where they are. Upsetting setbacks can indeed create disappointment but they rarely result in complete derailment. These people have learnt to live with and even strangely to relish the unexpected. Experience has taught them to see beyond the disruption. Some even welcome the possibilities that this disruption creates, bringing as it does a new opportunity to learn, to move to better levels of accomplishment, to grow, to change or extend boundaries, to realise potential.

For these proficient people, familiarity and expertise becomes less about settling for what is, and more about learning what works and how it can be made better. Mastery grows as they go beyond rule and etiquette to discover and begin working with underlying pattern and meaning. Knowledge gathered simply highlights knowledge missing. Mystery is not a dead end, it is the stimulating reward and privilege of being alive and open.

Readiness of mind

But it would be too trite to imagine that this is easy for them. The process however meaningful when recounted in hindsight is rarely clear in the making. Each setback is accompanied with doubt and questions. Voices real and imagined gather in choruses of disapproval or discouragement. A critical parent, a well-meaning but superior friend or even a condoning or patronising sibling can all turn up unhelpfully in the mind that is already being challenged and is beset by doubt. It is therefore in the mind that any setback is ultimately dealt with. Here the instinct to discover, learn or simply recover can be lost. With will softened there is no need to numb flesh. As Shakespeare’s Henry V declared on the brink of battle "All things are ready if our minds be so".

The challenge then is somehow to avoid succumbing to voices, be they of well meaning naysayers, lesser angels or departed but unrested ancestries. Coming in drips of doubt or in torrents of criticism, what is offered as reasonable counsel at this moment may be the siren song that enchants one onto an isolated and rocky outcrop. As for the ancient sea farer this is a place where one is marooned without direction and where self-confidence is sapped and sense of initiative or will to escape can be lost.

As old hands or novices in such experiences we all have experienced the pride before the fall. The moment when we are suddenly taken from proficiency and self-assurance to doubt and disappointment. We know that accomplishment has the real potential to collapse into full-blown and unexpected derailment and accompanying discouragement. Setbacks can feel devastating. A friend once put it to me after a significant event, "My life's investment, and dedication, one of the reasons that I do what I do, and I am who I am, has just been taken away from me".

Reclaiming attention

Reflecting on my own experience of being in such predicaments, I know that it is rarely helpful or even advisable for me to be told to "see this as a learning experience" or "to consider the bigger picture". I am in a place where I can see no possible lesson in this disaster and no possible perspective in this predicament. It can also feel shameful - like I have publicly sleep-walked into a brick wall. No well-meaning positive exhortation or rationalisation is adequate. What I need is to be held. To be given a safe and compassionate space to reorient or rejuvenate myself. Compassion can be quiet almost invisible. It can come in the form of a silent listener who comes alongside, refusing to ignore and even more so, to intrude. Or it can be metaphorically “noisy” in that it is bold and forthcoming. Acknowledging the emotions that I have bottled up. Helping me in the moment by allowing me to shout - seeing and naming, freeing myself to express internally and externally my wails of grief, anger or loss. Catharsis without self-pity. A moment of release.

Many of us will have experienced significant setbacks in our teenage and adult lives that have, for better or worse, greatly influenced our lives. Typically, they may relate to:

  • Losing something (or someone) we have been committed to
  • Failing to achieve an aim or outcome we have dedicated ourselves to
  • Being let down by something or someone we have relied on
  • Being deeply misunderstood, blamed or unfairly judged
  • Missing an opportunity that we have been expecting and relying on
  • Finding ourselves unprepared for a "once in a lifetime " opportunity
  • Being deliberately or maliciously mislead or dealt with
  • Losing control of self, stability, identity, respect, authority, or responsibility

Recovery as process

Over the years I have learnt that recovery is often a process rather than an event. Processes can be swift and short, or drawn out and languorous. Recovery can be quick or take time. Even when done for now, it may never be quite complete. I have found that it is helped along by acknowledgment and support. It involves seeing each event, each predicament as it really is rather than as we fear it could become or as we wish it may develop. It rests on the realisation that our worst fears and our best hopes are just that, they may or may not come to be. So energy expended in wishing them or fearing them is energy taken away from living this life now. This present moment of possibility and joy. This place, the only one that I can be and the only pathway that the imminent next step can be taken from.

So old hand or novice, disappointed or enthralled, discouraged or bristling with enthusiasm, wisdom lies hidden in the discovery of myself becoming aware of the nature of being with -  and in relationship to - now. Voices from the past or beckoning from the future though informing cannot be determining. Mind, body and whole in symbiotic relationship with this present sentient reality, this abundant moment of opportunity, is what I must contemplate and act from. This setback is then simply an event to embrace and take forward as part of the making. The recovery is simply a step, a part of the process that I am inevitably living.


[1] Atul Gawande to presenter of Desert Island Discs Kirsty Young on the need to learn


Anthony Kasozi is an executive coach and organisational development consultant and executive director of Quilibra, a Coaching and OD consultant that works with leaders and teams to address the organisational and developmental challenges they face.

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setbacks    seasons    reflection    challenge    change    questions   


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