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How to Recover from Career Setbacks and Be More Resilient

Maybe you’ve been laid off, done poorly at a job interview, or been fired. You may wonder how to recover from career setbacks like this. How to move on instead of sinking into despair. How can you make yourself more resilient?

Psychologist Martin Seligman has studied what makes one person become discouraged or depressed after experiencing a failure or trauma, while another recovers easily and moves on toward success. What’s the deciding factor? It’s not what kind of rotten stuff happened to them–but instead, how they explained it to themselves.

We’ve all come across this idea, right? Well, keep reading, because here’s the part you may not have heard.

We each have an explanatory style, a way that we habitually interpret events. A person’s explanatory style can either be pessimistic or optimistic, in three ways.

  1. Permanence: When bad stuff happens, the more pessimistic of us tend to see it as something that will always happen. We screw up an interview and then think, “Yep, it always goes this way.” Or someone says “no” and we hear it as “never” instead of just “not now.”
  2. Pervasiveness: We have one job that didn’t work out and think we’ve failed in our whole career, or worse. “Yeah, that’s the story of my life.”
  3. Personalization: We think we weren’t offered a job because we’re not good enough. (The truth may be that the employer was impressed but someone else had an advantage, such as being internal).

If you’re like me, you may feel an urge to stick up for pessimists. Actually, researchers have found that pessimism does have some benefits. Pessimistic tendencies can help us identify problems and predicting what’s going to happen in many situations. (Pessimists probably make good insurance actuaries.) But pessimism can lead to depression, which is not only painful but unhealthy and counterproductive. According to Seligman in his book Learned Optimism, optimists tend to be more resilient, successful and happy.

Let me confess: I am a recovering pessimist. Reading this book and learning to stop seeing my troubles as permanent, pervasive and personal has really freed up a lot of energy and helped me enjoy life. And I haven’t turned into a brainless Pollyanna. I still know sh## happens. I just deal with it better.

If you’re struggling to recover from a setback–or even a disaster–why not experiment with the perspective that the problem may actually be temporary, not about you, and/or limited to one area of life? Getting out of the PPP (Permanent, Pervasive, Personal) habit is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and everyone around us.  (This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.)

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