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


Amy Shoenthal is a journalist based in New York who covers women entrepreneurs. She sat down with Jessica Abo to talk about her work and what she’s discovered about the setbacks we face.

Amy, you’ve interviewed hundreds of founders and leaders. 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 about what obstacles they may have faced along their path. That often ends up being the most interesting part of everyone’s story. In almost every telling, it appears that what they learn at that moment is the thing that leads them to figure out their purpose. That’s where the most brilliant ideas and often, the most successful ventures come from.

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

I wondered the same thing. Do we just love drama or is there something more scientific happening here? My hunch was right. Psychologists have found that people undergo a transformation called post-traumatic growth, which leads to innovation. There’s a fundamental process you need to work through that generally leads you to that brilliant idea. Those who really work through that properly are the people who come up with, in my opinion, some of the most brilliant ideas.

From founders who are destigmatizing the conversation around things like menopause and sexual health, to those working on solving the caregiver crisis – these all stemmed from setbacks. It’s not just about finding a gap in the market. It’s personal for a lot of these people, and that’s why they’re so driven to come up with solutions.

What do you plan on doing with all of this information?

There’s a lot here, and I can’t fit it all into one article. So I am turning all of this into a book proposal that I’m working on with my literary agent. That’s why I’ve gone on this path of interviewing psychologists and executive coaches and career coaches to really help me create the framework that can guide people through that necessary process. And it’s not just for founders and leaders. It’s for you and me and those of us going through everyday setbacks. I want to find a way for us to get to our creative rebirth, whatever that might look like.

Given your research, what can someone do if they are facing a setback right now?

This may seem obvious, but it isn’t always. The first thing you need to do if you think you’re embarking on a setback is to really establish that you’re in one. Sometimes we sleepwalk into a setback. You can go for months and years not even realizing that you’re in one. Think of someone you know who gets out of a relationship or gets a divorce and you’re like, “finally.” And they say, “Wait, you knew?” It’s easier for other people to identify when you’re in a setback. So number one is you need to establish. Therapists always say name it to tame it, and that’s essentially what we have to do to start the process.

Let’s say someone has identified that they are in a setback phase right now. How do they move through it?

Unfortunately, there’s no fast-forward button. I really wish there were. And let’s acknowledge that this is scary. I do not want to glorify pain at all here. But the research does show that this actually can be an opportunity. At this moment, we find ourselves with either unlimited choices because we’ve abandoned whatever we were working towards, or maybe we have no other choice. But at either end of that spectrum, we have the building blocks of creativity, and that moment is really what most founders and leaders I interview cite as the catalyst for whatever great thing they’ve created.

What do you want to say to the skeptics out there who are wondering if we need to have setbacks in order to be successful?

I am absolutely not saying you need to have a setback to find success. Let’s be very clear about that. It’s just that inevitably as humans, we all have setbacks, whether it is personal or career, or societal. If you draw a line through your life, you can almost see that your setbacks may have been very pivotal moments for you. I just want to prepare people to work through that moment.

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

Well, hindsight is always different than when you’re really in it, right? It probably does not feel very good while you’re in it, but it can eventually lead somewhere great if you do the work and you go through the process. When things are going well, you don’t really do a lot of thinking about what could be better or how can I improve here. But when you’re forced to really rethink everything, that’s when you’re more likely to take risks and make bold choices. That’s where the fun begins.

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