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How to Recover from Career Setbacks: Don’t PPP Yourself!

If you’re human, you’ve taken some hits in life and in work. Maybe you’ve screwed up a job interview or had a job that didn’t work out. How can you recover from a career setback and move on instead of sinking into despair? How can you be more resilient?

Here’s an idea: Don’t PPP yourself.

Psychologist Martin Seligman has deeply studied what makes some people become discouraged or depressed after experiencing failures and traumas, while other people recover easily and move on to success. The deciding factor is not what kind of sh## happened to them–but instead, how they explained it to ourselves. We each have an habitual explanatory style. 

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, when the fact is that the employer was extremely 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 painful, unhealthy and counterproductive. Optimists tend to be more resilient, successful and happy, according to Seligman’s book Learned Optimism.

Let me make a confession: 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, take a moment to experiment with the perspective that the problem may actually be temporary, not about you, and/or limited to one area of life. Let’s not PPP ourselves!

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