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Even the most accomplished people suffer setbacks. Here’s how to bounce back.
June 30, 2016

For many young adults, it’s the time of year for decisions. Colleges, graduate schools and many fellowships will soon be sending out letters accepting applicants.

They’ll send out many more rejections.

If you’ve made careful plans and worked hard, getting a rejection when you expected an acceptance can feel like you’ve suffered an insurmountable setback. But you shouldn’t feel that way.

“Ask any successful person how they got to the top,” said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, “and if they’re honest, they will admit suffering loads of losses along the way before their big break happened.”

Take the example of Warren Buffett, considered one of the most successful investors and one of the wealthiest men in the world. His plan to attend Harvard Business School as a young man ended with a rejection letter. Yet today he sees that rejection as a pivotal incident in his life. It led him to another business school he hadn’t previously considered, where he found the mentors he says shaped his career. “Everything that has happened in my life that I thought was a crushing event at the time,” Buffett told the Wall Street Journal, “has turned out for the better.”

Steven Spielberg’s path to directing 32 films and becoming the top-grossing director in movies began with not one, but two rejections from the film school at the University of Southern California. So Spielberg took low-paying jobs in the film industry until he was able to convince a studio to take a chance on him.

“Just remember this:” said Sabato, “You can’t win a race you don’t enter. Persevere. Keep trying. Every experience, even — or especially — an unsuccessful one, helps you to do a bit better the next time.”

How you can move forward

Joyce E.A. Russell (Courtesy photo)

If you recently suffered a setback in your education or career, consider these tips from Joyce E.A. Russell and plan your next move. Russell writes the “Career Coach” column for the Washington Post and teaches at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

Don’t gloss over your disappointment

“It’s natural to be disappointed,” Russell said. Upon receiving a setback, she recommends, get outside for physical activity. “Even if it’s just a walk or a run, it’ll free up your brain. You’re not going to immediately start action-planning. Separate from it, then find when to come back to it and say, ‘Can I learn something from this?’”

Assess the setback

“You should try to identify for yourself the reasons you weren’t successful,” Russell said, “but you should also get feedback from people in the field you’re applying to.” If you don’t have access to the decisionmakers to find out why your application wasn’t successful, try to contact people who have been accepted to the program you’re applying to for advice.

Keep training

“There are a lot of parallels between people who are successful as athletes and people who are successful in business,” Russell said. Not only are they persistent, but they are continually working to get better. “If you keep applying, but your resume doesn’t look any different, that’s not going to get you there. People who are successful in business or as athletes are constantly training, constantly trying to improve themselves.”