Thursday, September 18, 2014

Success after Setbacks: On Overcoming Challenges and Pursuing Your Dreams

There is a ton of advice on accomplishing one’s dreams, and for good reasons: dreams and the pursuit of those dreams energize us and drive our human spirit forward. But nothing can be as disheartening as a setback. Notice, I won’t call it a failure. The only time you fail is if you quit, and setbacks can make us stronger.

If you’re a writer who has received a rejection letter, a dreamer who hasn’t (yet) landed that dream job, or any number of examples, you know what I mean. I’d like to share my strategies for overcoming setbacks.

Take a break

Most writers will agree that after you’ve written something, you need to step away from it for a few weeks to a few months. It’s easy to get excited about an idea or a finished piece of work, and we want to send it to the masses immediately. That’s ok, but if you receive the rejection letters, remember to take a break. There’s no need to immediately dive in and revise. Step away for a bit, and when you do return to your work, you’ll have fresh perspectives and make it even better than you thought it was originally.

The same can be said of many things. If you didn’t get the job of your dreams, many may tell you to work harder and keep at it. You should of course, but why not take a mental break from applications, interviews, and just from thinking about the damn thing. Give yourself a deadline; you don’t want to give up on your dreams. But if you’ve had several setbacks, perhaps it’s time for a two week vacation. Like in writing, you’ll come back and see new perspectives with a rejuvenated energy that may be exactly what you need to accomplish your goals.

Invest in a new creative project

I write a lot. You may act a lot, or draw a lot, or simply work a lot. We want to be successful in each of our goals, but sometimes to keep the creative juices freshly flowing, it helps to tackle a different kind of project. You’ll learn to use different creative aspects and you’ll find strategies that may help you with your biggest desires.

For example, if you’re an actor, why not try to direct a small show? If you’re a writer, why not try to draw (as bad as it could be) visual concepts for your work? Or if you are terrible at drawing (as I am), collaborate with an artist and help him or her discover the full concept of your vision. Don’t you think your vision will also be sharpened?

You could even learn something entirely new. Drop what you are doing, take that break (like my first idea), and learn something new: take a class on a musical instrument or take one semester of a foreign language at  your local college. It’s not a bad idea to browse your college’s catalog and find something different. Maybe a tai chi class will do the trick. We all need to move out of our comfort zones and explore diverse creative interests to strengthen the creativity we need for our current goals and projects.

Walk daily

Sound too easy? It is easy, but the payoffs are incredible. This is something I discovered this summer. I’m already an exercise fanatic. I hit the gym hard 4-5 times a week. But that’s my problem: I hit it hard and lose myself in the workouts. That’s great, and I think we all need that level of intensity too. But I wanted to add something simple that would let me think and get me out of the house, away from distractions and technology, and let my mind wonder. And while I certainly don’t mind a walk or hike with friends, I think you need to have some time alone too. It’s being alone, outdoors, and away from everything that opens the mind to new ideas.

So 5-6 days a week, I take a walk outside for 30-60 minutes, depending on the time I have available. I have two dogs, so they are benefiting from this idea too, but here’s the thing: I don’t look at my phone or computer during that time. I breathe fresh air. I walk in different directions. I try to find paths that inspire me. Sometimes I drive my car to a place I want to walk for different scenery. I think about my work, my writing, my relationships, and more. And almost every evening, I come home and immediately write down a few ideas that popped in my head. These ideas, I have no doubt, would not have developed if I had not taken time to just get the hell out of the house and walk and think and clear my mind from all other distractions. Try it for one week, and I promise it will be something you’ll want to do all the time.


Writing in particular is a lonely job, but when you are going for your dream job, you’re also on your own in that job interview. When you want something, talk to others who have accomplished the goals you are pursuing. It’s only common sense, but sometimes we are shy and don’t want to put ourselves out there.

When I applied for my college teaching position, I contacted the professors at the department in which I was applying. I asked if I could meet with them individually for a 30 minute chat and pick their brains about their work. I wanted to know about their daily routines, what they loved, their frustrations, and the work they did prior to landing my dream job. Those conversations helped, and I did get the job of my dreams. Each person had different perspectives, and I took time to think about all of their experiences and what I could bring to the table too.

I also practiced my interview. I asked friends and colleagues if they would give me a mock interview and provide genuine feedback to my answers. I took nothing for granted, and I wanted to be the absolute best. I’m convinced it’s those steps that landed me my dream job. And now I have to repeat those steps with each new goal, like connecting with other writers, learning about publication, and finding a circle of readers I trust to give me raw feedback on the work I want to succeed.

Create your success story

Finally, I do think we all need confidence from our previous accomplishments. This step is like building a resume, but I think of it as more personal than that. It’s your life narrative, the accomplishments you’ve made, the steps you took to get there, and the methods in which you overcame previous setbacks.

Here are a few of mine, very early in my teaching career. Each one had setbacks.

When applying for my first teaching job, it was obvious the superintendent at the high school where I had applied wanted a coach. I’m not a coach. I don’t have much of an organized sports record. But I won him over by demonstrating my love of that particular school. You have to show that you really love the place where you want to be. I did several things to make this happen, and after my interview, he told a colleague, “Joe’s passion for our school and community is unmatched.”

In my second year of teaching, I convinced a world-wide best-selling author, who normally charges $30,000 to visit schools and speak, to attend my classes for free. That was awesome. You have to understand that of course he said no at first. I was not willing to accept that. It took an incredible amount of persistence, but I  talked best-selling author Mitch Albom into visiting with all of my classes and speaking at my high school.

I took a small after-school martial arts program and built it up to national recognition: We won Black Belt Magazine’s Best Children’s Program in the United States award in 2008. The key to that success was commitment and collaboration. There were semesters in which I had only a few students. I didn't let that stop my enthusiasm. By the end of my leadership of that program, we have over one hundred students involved.

Those were accomplishments all very early in my career, and there are others more meaningful to me from recent years. I tell all of these stories when pursuing a new goal. I tell them to myself first, as a reminder of what can be done. And you don’t have to win any national awards to build your story. Start with the projects, the jobs, and the people you’ve worked with: How did you better the world around you? And how will the accomplishment of your current goal better the world too? That’s the story you learn, and that’s the story you tell to those who will listen.

You’ll conquer all of your dreams, and I will too. It takes a high level of confidence with the highest level of humility. Believe in yourself, and work your ass off.  No great reward is earned without great work.

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1 comment:

  1. Take a break...something I need to remind myself of this upcoming week.