Last week, as I noted, I had a temporary setback. Without going into details, one of the side effects of the chemo got a little out of control. I’m pretty much back to where I should be now, but the concept of a “setback” has been brewing, as it were, for several days.
We all suffer setbacks in our lives, glitches in the plan, things not working quite as they’re supposed to. We know they’re inevitable; we just don’t know when we’ll have one, or how severe it will be.
On a simple level, a setback is like missing a question on a test when you were sure you knew the answer. It’s “not supposed to happen.”
But setbacks do happen. All the time. The difference between a “setback” and a “mistake” may be that mistakes are supposed to be under our control. The whole ten thousand hours to expertise thing. Put in the time, do the practice, go through the trial and error - make the mistakes, in other words - and eventually you find success.
Setbacks, though, are something out of our control. Could we have planned better? Probably. But that would not necessarily prevent a setback.
Setbacks occur in all areas of our lives. In business: we have a deal worked out, but at the last moment a third party underbids us, or the boss of the other company had a fight with someone and negates all deals until he’s in a better mood. In our personal lives: we plan for an evening out with the spouse, but one of the kids get sick. Academically: the professor whose class we need is sabbatical this semester. And so it goes. We’re on our way to the stadium, when we get caught in a traffic jam and miss the first half. The company whose ladder we’ve so carefully climbed is “restructuring.”
Some setbacks are temporary. Some are just annoying. Some, however, are quite serious. A setback in our job, a setback in the renovation of our kitchen - these can be more than just inconvenient.
The characteristic trait of a setback is that it’s unexpected - even if we planned for the unexpected. Setbacks happen all the time during construction, don’t they? Even authors suffer setbacks - not just in sales or contracts, but in the construction of the story. Sometimes the characters just won’t cooperate.
We can’t really control when a setback will occur - it’s not like we can plan for them or “order” up our daily share. (“What will you have today, sir?” “I’ll have one routine transaction, one unexpected but promising phone call and a setback.”) So really all we can do is control how we respond to them.
The first response is inevitably frustration. Why did this happen? The unanswerable question, even if we can trace the causes. Then we might get angry - at circumstances, at someone who may or may not be responsible - or even be aware that he caused us a setback.
Eventually, though, we retrench, revise, accept the setback for what it is and figure out how to move forward. Eventually, or hopefully, we stop shaking our fists, metaphorically speaking, and recognize that setbacks, like the unexpected bonus, demonstrate that however much we like to be in control, we’re really not. What we can control is how we respond to a setback.
Indeed, our response in some ways testifies to how much we understand, or accept, the concept of Divine Providence. If we wallow in the negative effect, it doesn’t say much for our sense of purpose. It doesn’t say much for our commitment to the cause - even if the cause is as plain as a family dinner.
But if, after analyzing the setback, figuring out how we can correct it or work around it, we recommit ourselves, that also says something about us. In other words, while we cannot prevent setbacks, we can prevent them from ruining our lives. We may just have to find a different way to get things done. If, after the initial frustration, we take the right attitude, and act on that attitude, we may very well find that the setback contains the seed of an opportunity we would not have had access to otherwise. The setback - one step back - may be the start of two steps forward - progress we could not anticipate and success equally unexpected.
Are you inspired by David's work? Would you like to keep reading? Sign up for free updates delivered straight to your inbox and receive a free novella!