Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What a Setback Really Means

How to live and learn from mistakes.

“Well, that didn’t work.”

You were confident it would go one way and, much to your disappointment, it went another. Live and learn but learn what? Was it a little error or a big one, a local hiccup or the writing on the wall that you’ve got some big rethinking to do? Here are a few reflections on such questions.

Spoiler alert: This article doesn’t reveal what all setbacks really mean because they mean different things. Rather, it provides orientation to learning efficiently from your setbacks:

Perseverance furthers: Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology explored the difference between learned helplessness and learned optimism. In his early work promoting learned optimism he prescribed keeping errors local to avoid learned helplessness. If you failed a test, you failed a test. You shouldn’t extrapolate to the belief that you’re bad at tests, the subject matter you’re being tested on, or everything. Don’t go from failing a driver’s test to, “I’ll never learn to drive,” or “I’m no good at anything.” Basically, his point came down to, "If at first you don’t succeed try, try again,” or “perseverance furthers.” Fair point at one extreme. Now let’s visit the other extreme.

Don’t flog a dead horse: “Try, try again.” Is that two more tries or infinite number of tries? How many times should you fail the bar exam before you should wonder whether you’re not cut out for the law? “Perseverance furthers.” “It’s always darkest before dawn.” Always? Certainly not. It’s also darkest before death. You don’t want to flog a dead horse or throw good money after bad. When you’re in a hole you should stop digging. But how deep a hole, and how do you know it’s not a tunnel to your goal in which case you should keep digging?

Dry holes, gushers, and leakers: There are three kinds of oil wells: dry holes, gushers, and leakers. Leakers are holes that don’t quite do and don’t quite die. There’s oil but not a lot. Dig deeper? Maybe. Maybe walk-away because it will turn out to be a dry hole. In drilling, leakers can ruin you. And that’s drilling, where engineering yields pretty good predictions. How about the dry holes, gushers, and leakers in a partnership where prediction is iffy at best. Your partnership isn’t quite doing or dying. That’s a leaker that can consume you as you guess how much to generalize from recurrent setbacks.

Psychology’s uplift bias: What drives the psych industry? People who feel subnormal and would like to feel normal. Therapist, psychology writers are often playing a role similar to preachers and coaches giving pep talks to those who feel sub-par so they can feel normal. Still, why are these people feeling sub-par? For many reasons but often because they have lived among narcissists, bullies, egomaniacs who put them down–people whose positive psychology has gone to their heads. Psychology must address both ends of the spectrum from people who feel like committing suicide after failing a driver’s test to people who wreak untold havoc by localizing their setbacks too much, finding excuses for why they were right all along but for some minor circumstantial error that’s not their fault. Most of us have both voices inside us, arguments why we’re all wrong and arguments why we’re all right. Many overconfident people are compensating for a lack of confidence and many who self-deprecate are compensating for overconfidence.

The dismantled BS detector: Who among us has the stomach for setback after setback, waking up every morning from yesterday’s mistakes only to face today's mistakes? If you get setback after setback eventually you build up not tolerance but a resistance, ways to write your errors off in the name of hope that today will be different. If reality keeps serving you setbacks, you find ways to dismantle your BS detector. You’ll get systematic about ignoring setbacks, making up excuses and localizing error. That will leave you digging ever deeper holes. That’s when the people around you will get motivated to stage an intervention.

Infallibility Battles: Not that they need motivation. There are plenty of people happy to overgeneralize from your mistakes. We often find ourselves stuck in “infallibility battles” in which we can’t afford to admit even one mistake because our opponent will leap on it as conclusive proof that we’re wrong about everything. “You think Cardi B is from New Jersey?! You don’t know anything, do you?” Partners fall into infallibility battles all too easily. If you’re with a partner who takes your every setback as further evidence that you’re wrong about everything, you can’t risk admitting mistakes, let alone learning general lessons from them.

PEGs: When we set out to do something we peg out in our minds, often unconsciously a Plan, a Goal and Expectations about when the plan will yield the goal. Setbacks are disappointed expectations. We thought it would take this long, now it’s going to take twice as long. With such dashed or dinged expectations, doubt arises. We start to wonder whether our plan, expectations or goals are wrong. Maybe the setback means our plans are wrong. Maybe it means that we were just over-optimistic about expectations. Maybe we should give up on the goal. These three options pull at us from opposite directions because they point to opposite responses. If it was just over-optimistic expectations, double down on plans and goals. If it was bad planning, change your plans while holding firm to your expectations and goals. If it was bad goals, don’t bother changing expectations or plans. Just change your goals.

TBA: Alan Turing, the computer pioneer, noticed what’s now called the “halting problem” which boils down to this: Unless or until an answer is found, you can’t tell whether there’s no answer or one yet to be discovered. Can I make this relationship harmonious? Until, the answer is yes, the answer is ambiguously either “no” or “yes, just not yet.” Call it “Turing’s Blurring Anxiety” (TBA), the to-be-announced decision that you should give up or keep trying because the answer is around the corner.

The one-word difference: Setback after setback, and you keep asking yourself, “How can I make this work?” but at some point, you drop the first word. The question becomes, “Can I make this work?” opening up the possibility that you can’t. With the dropping of that one word, you extrapolate from a setback to a more general problem to be addressed.

The serenity prayer’s missing option: The two options in the serenity prayer–serenity to accept things and courage to try to change things can be thought of as within the context of a certain goal, for example, a partnership. Should you cultivate the serenity to tuck in your elbows to make more room for your partner, or the courage to jut your elbows to make your partner give you more room? There’s a third option. Leave the partnership. In other words, at some point, you might decide that you need neither more serenity or more courage but more exit. The same is true for all sorts of relationships—for example, with a job.

There must be a way: Is a motivating way to look for a way to avoid future setbacks. But is it accurate? Must there always be a way? Of course not. Likewise, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” is not universally true. There’s plenty of will that never finds a way. There are things we say to motivate ourselves that are not true.

Over- and under-regret: A setback fills us with anxiety which is like a smoke alarm calling upon us to attend to the situation since maybe some habit of ours produced the setback. We say “if only” and wonder what we could have done differently. There are false alarms, situations in which the setback is merely a product of bad luck or general uncertainty. Think about it. If you bet on the 80% odds and the 20% odds play out, did you bet wrong? No. Nothing to learn. Keep the setback local. Don’t generalize to think of yourself as a bad bettor. But there are also non-functioning alarms. If you get three DUI’s in a year and fail to generalize, you’re under-regretting. The regret alarm is dismantled. You’re staying optimistic as Seligman suggested. It will be good for your self-regard but lousy for your learning.