Surviving Setbacks

Surviving Setbacks

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published August 2018


Bring gloom down to the minimum. So goes one of the recommendations in the 1944 song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” by Jonny Mercer and Harold Arlen.

Wholly tranquil days are as rare as entirely taxing days. Most days are a mix of good, bad, and neutral happenings. Becoming despondent because it’s raining or there’s another pin-hole leak in a pipe is just silly. The rain will stop. The pipe (and damage) can be fixed.

With perspective and patience, we distinguish between the ebb and flow of little troubles and a truly adverse event. The big tests will come to most of us, but in the meantime, we do not squander our time and energy.

“I’m 67, and I’ve had some good times and bad times,” says Jake Clark, president of Armstrong-Clark Company in Sonora, CA. “You only go through life once, and you shouldn’t let anything get you down.”

A person must achieve a “balance” and go from there because “bad things are going to happen, and when they do, and we recover from them, we will value the good things even more,” explains Clark. “It’s like golf. We need bad games to appreciate good games.”

Retain “positive thoughts” to the fullest extent possible, says Clark. He stresses it does not mean that exceedingly trying things will not happen. “Whether divorce, the death of a parent, or, heaven forbid, the death of a child,” there will be very tough periods.

“Relying on family, friends, and religion” helps us across such periods, says Clark. But we must find within ourselves the strength to bounce back into shape—to be resilient.

Clark laments he has observed people with a “negative mindset” so strong it affected their health. In life and in business, which is part of life, “positive thoughts” are a must, he says.

Never infer what’s going on with a customer or vendor who is suddenly abrupt. They might be dealing with a death or illness in the family or perhaps their own illness. Being polite even when another individual suddenly seems remote can go a long way to keeping all interactions in balance.

“You can’t dwell on the negative,” says Clark. Whatever happens, we must keep moving forward. “As a friend of mine once said, ‘stuff happens.’”

‘Carry on!’ is a signoff military leaders often give (at least in the movies) after consulting with troops about a very difficult situation. And carry on the troops do. It’s not just military personnel who keep going. Think about hospital staff. Intensive care nurses may themselves be undergoing chemo or caring for a terminally ill family member, but they do their job. They simply buck up.

When we need to find the strength within to get back into equilibrium, it can help to look at others and follow their example. Just walk down any busy street and observe the construction crews or police officers engaged in their work and meeting their responsibilities despite the tribulations that certainly fill their lives.

“I’ve been blessed,” says Clark. “There have been rough patches, but the ‘bad stuff’ has been that which almost everyone will encounter in a lifetime. I forget about the bad stuff and just have a positive attitude.”

Recall The Why

“It’s extremely important to be resilient in business so you keep moving forward,” says John Tornabene, owner of Clean County Powerwashing in Kings Park, NY. “Don’t let anything get you down because we all have a bad day or a problem that arises, but it’s how you handle those days that counts.”

Tornabene, too, believes we should focus on the positive. “I try not to dwell too much about the negatives that any business can have,” he explains. “Basically, I try to keep the thought process that the glass is half full instead of half empty.”

In the course of professional life, a business owner may have a younger team member overreact to something totally correctible, such as a missed delivery. That’s a good opportunity to give the team member some help with how to calibrate a reaction appropriate to the issue. What advice should the owner give?

“Look, we all make mistakes because no one is perfect,” says Tornabene. “My advice would be to always learn from your mistakes because if you never made one, then you never learn how to overcome from adversity that can happen to anyone. This is part of becoming resilient, which is what you want to be. This is what I have done going on my 23 year of owning my power washing business.”

Personal setbacks and professional setbacks will happen to almost everyone. Perseverance—carrying on—is a must. But the magnitude of some setbacks can make them seem insurmountable. One aid in finding a way to regroup in the business setting is to recall the why of being a business owner.

“When I have challenges or setbacks, I think to myself why I got into the business,” says Tornabene. “The easy answer to that is I wanted to be the one who calls the shots, and my business would flourish or fail based on my decisions, not those of someone else whom I would be working for in the corporate world.”

Tornabene explains he welcomes having both responsibility and accountability. “In other words, I wanted the buck to stop with me. This way I could live my life by my own rules, and my family could prosper from the decisions I make. To be your own boss—there is nothing like it because you can reap all the rewards or take all the blame. This is the control you have when owning your own business.”

Fortify Self and Business

There’s an abundance of free, public domain advice about how to become a more resilient person and how to structure a business so that it is as resilient as possible. Federal entities—departments, administrations, bureaus, agencies of all kinds—offer it. Here, we tap resources available from the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Economic Development Administration as we consider how to fortify self and business.

Personal resilience begins with perspective, as Clark and Tornabene emphasize. And it includes an acknowledgment that even in dire situations we have a choice about how to react. If there is a natural disaster and our neighbors are injured and we are not, we can sit down and cry, or we can immediately begin to render first aid to the best of our ability.

Avoiding an overly emotional reaction in favor of taking action is something that can be learned. Clark and Tornabene remind us of the power of positive thinking. There is also a true physiological basis for simply taking a deep breath—and counting to 10. (This applies not only in crisis situations. A deep breath and a long pause can go a long way to stop escalation of an interaction with another person that is not going well.)

Anger may be justified, but it consumes a lot of energy. Find a way to use the energy productively. There is always work to do that does not require a lot of mental engagement but does take a lot of energy. Identify it—from firming up organization inside a service van or cleaning the storeroom at work, to pulling weeds or mowing the lawn at home. Then, do it.

Do something. Starting somewhere to get moving—a small step—will allow for the next step and forward movement. Acknowledge that some things cannot be undone. Change must be accepted. If a tornado destroys a building, the building will have to be reconstructed. If an injury or illness reduces mobility, the reduced mobility will have to be accepted and made part of daily life.

We quietly prepare for personal tests by maintaining our connections to family, friends, and faith, all of which make us more resilient. We can overtly prepare a business for setbacks by some preemptive action.

Economic downturns—local, national, global—can hit a business hard. So, too, can a sudden change in a customer base—a big local client pulls up stakes, or a natural disaster occurs—e.g., fire, flood, hurricane, and earthquake.

The more diverse the customer base of business, the easier it is to move across a general economic slump. A team of employees capable of crossing over—sales to service, for example—can be important after a natural disaster when some employees may be unable to come to work. A plan for business continuity—with important records and computer backup at a remote location—makes it possible to reconstitute a business after a major setback such as the destruction of a facility.

Disaster planning and succession planning are two critical parts of doing business. If they have been done, a business should be able to rebound from the most serious setbacks, including the passing of an owner.

Setbacks will happen. Worry over what may happen will do nothing except deplete energy. Fortify yourself and your business. And carry on!

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