Trying to Pinpoint the Pinnacle of Your Story? Think Back to Your Biggest Setback

Amy Shoenthal is a New York-based journalist covering women entrepreneurs. She sat down with Jessica Abo to talk about her work and what she found out about the setbacks we’re facing.

Amy, you’ve interviewed hundreds of founders and executives. Tell us about your observations and some of the themes you’ve seen over the years.

One of the questions I always ask everyone is what obstacles have they encountered along the way. This is often the most interesting part of anyone’s story. In almost every narrative, it seems that what they are learning in that moment is what leads them to figure out their purpose. This is where the most brilliant ideas and often the most successful ventures come from.

And why do you think that is? Why do setbacks lead to these brilliant ideas and successful ventures? Why can’t it always just be rainbows and unicorns?

I asked myself the same. Do we just love drama or is there something more scientific going on here? My guess was correct. Psychologists have found that people go through a transformation called post-traumatic growth that leads to innovation. There is a basic process you need to work through that will generally lead you to this brilliant idea. The ones who really pull this off are the people who have, in my opinion, some of the most brilliant ideas.

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From founders destigmatizing the conversation about things like menopause and sexual health to those working to solve the caregiver crisis, it’s all come from setbacks. It’s not just about finding a niche in the market. It’s personal for a lot of these people, and that’s why they’re so driven to find solutions.

What are you going to do with all this information?

There’s a lot here, and I can’t fit it all into one article. So I’m turning all of this into a book proposal that I’m working on with my literary agent. That’s why I embarked on this journey of interviewing psychologists, executive coaches, and career coaches to really help me create the framework that can guide people through this necessary process. And not just for founders and executives. It’s for you and me and those of us who go through everyday setbacks. I want to find a way for us to achieve our creative rebirth, whatever that may be.

Given your research, what can someone do when they’re experiencing a setback?

This may seem obvious, but it is not always. The first thing to do when you think you’re going into a setback is really realize that you are in one. Sometimes we sleepwalk into a setback. You can go months and years without realizing you are in one. Think of someone you know who is getting out of a relationship or getting divorced and you say, “Finally.” And they say, “Wait, you knew?” It’s easier for others to spot when you’re going through a setback. So number one is that you need to establish yourself. Therapists always say name it to tame it, and that’s essentially what we need to do to start the process.

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Let’s say someone has realized they are going through a setback phase. How do they move in it?

Unfortunately, there is no fast forward button. I really wish they existed. And let’s acknowledge that this is scary. I don’t want to glorify the pain here at all. But research shows that this may actually be an opportunity. At this moment, we either have unlimited choices because we have given up what we were working towards, or we may have no other choice. But on both ends of that spectrum we have the building blocks of creativity, and this moment is truly what most founders and executives I interview cite as the catalyst for everything great they’ve created.

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What would you like to say to the skeptics out there who are wondering if we need setbacks to succeed?

I am absolutely not saying that you have to suffer a setback in order to be successful. Let’s be very clear about that. It’s just that as human beings we all inevitably have setbacks, be it personal, professional or social. If you draw a line through your life, you can almost see that your setbacks may have been very defining moments for you. I just want to prepare people to process this moment.

So it sounds to me like maybe setbacks aren’t such a big deal after all.

Well, in hindsight it always looks different than when you’re actually in it, doesn’t it? It probably doesn’t feel very good while you’re in it, but it can eventually lead to something great if you do the work and go through the process. When things are going well you don’t really think much about what could be better or how I can improve here. But when you’re forced to really reconsider everything, you’re more likely to take risks and make bold decisions. That’s where the fun begins.

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