Five Career Setbacks (And How To Recover)

Five Career Setbacks (And How To Recover)

Have you ever felt like burying your head in the sand and waiting until no one remembers what just happened? Positive thinking sounds awesome in theory, but it won’t help you erase a mistake. What can help is smart, adaptive action. Here are five common workplace blunders and what you can do to make the best of them.

Image remixed from olly (Shutterstock)

You’re Fired

Being fired, especially from a job you love, is one of the most devastating things that can happen. It’s not only the missing pay cheque that hurts; it’s the humiliation and the big question mark about your self-worth.

I should know. Two years ago, I was fired from a job I loved, and that bitterness still lingers. But feeling bitter and acting bitter are two different things. If you want to turn being fired into an opportunity, consider these options:

Volunteer and freelance. My former colleague was fired from his position as a junior graphic designer, but just a month later, he made the jump to become a lead designer in a well-known non-profit.

How did he do it? He chose not to be paid for his new position. However, it was a massive credibility boost, and his work quickly became some of the most well-known in the industry. Today, he makes more money freelancing part-time than he made working full-time.

Go to a competitor. Offer your services and you might even get a raise. If you’ve done amazing work, you didn’t have a non-compete clause in your contract, and you hate your former boss (kidding…well, not really), this is a great option to explore.

Don’t think it’s possible? Recruiters specialise in looking for people just like you. It’s called “talent poaching”. So why don’t you just present yourself to the company and save them a couple of thousand dollars in finder’s fees?

You’re Demoted

What if you’re demoted, not fired? You don’t have the time to freelance or volunteer, and you can’t switch camp either. What should you do?

Look at it this way: your boss probably felt bad that he or she needed to demote you in the first place (if you’ve been doing a great job). That gives you an opportunity to ask for what you previously couldn’t get.

For example, accept the demotion but see if you can negotiate a flexible working schedule (location- or time- wise) that will allow you to take on clients of your own.

You’re Stagnant

Career stagnation happens when you’ve learned all you can from a position but can’t seem to move up. You should understand two thing to turn this into an opportunity:

This is the time to expand your job and responsibilities. Train an intern, hire an outsourced worker to help with repetitive tasks (with you verifying the results, of course) or practice using a new tool. You won’t have the time to deal with these things once you’re taking on new responsibilities.

Use your extra time to attend company-funded training. You’ll not only learn skills that are directly related to your job, but also skills that will help you sell yourself. That’s probably what you’re really missing if you’re stagnating.

You Made a Legendary Mistake

Those of you who are old enough will remember a legendary screw-up called “New Coke”. To this day, marketing professionals still talk about it across the world, and Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in his bestselling book Blink, even though it happened two decades ago. What do you do when you screw up so badly the whole industry knows about it?

Create a case study out of it. Executives LOVE case studies, especially when they come from someone who made such a legendary mistake. In the case study, explain why the decisions you made were rational at the time, and what you did after you found out the project was a failure.

Note that there’s nothing here about “spinning” failure into something positive. For example, don’t say: “At least we got lots of publicity.” That only shows you haven’t learned your lesson.

Believe it or not, there are executives out there who absolutely love people who made big mistakes. In fact, a lack of blunders in your resume would turn them off. Search for these people and figure out how to work for or with them.

You’re Simply Bored

Nearly three-quarters of American workers are either not engaged or actively disengaged in their jobs, according to a 2011 study published by Gallup. If you fall into that camp, then listen up: prolonged boredom literally kills.

Now, I won’t go into the science in this post, but if you want to use this to your advantage, here’s how: tell your boss you’ve been doing this awesome work (quantify your claims so he can’t dispute them), but that you’re bored. Explain that if this lack of interest goes on, your productivity will go down and the company will make $X less or spend $Y more.

Make sure you get that last part. It’s important to make it about the company, not about you.

How to Recover from 5 Embarrassing Career Setbacks [Brazen Life]

Patrick Del Rosario is part of the team behind Open Colleges, one of Australia’s pioneer and leading providers of web design courses.


  • I was fired my first job and yes it really shook me up. Yet it made me fire on my next job and make me realise that NO ONE is responsible to train you. You are responsible for your own career.

  • only setback i have really had was when i quit my job because i wanted more pay and ended up in a job with the more pay but instead was a massive step backwards in my career progression….. I lasted 3 days in that job before calling it quits and finding a higher paying job that was still a jump forward in my career

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