Not getting into my dream university was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it taught me a valuable lesson that I have applied throughout my personal and professional life.
I could easily have wasted my college years wallowing in self-pity and regret. Instead, I worked out another way to achieve my original goal. It was a different and, in many ways, more challenging route. This meant attending a technical university and a business school at once for a couple of years and then combining work and study. The experience taught me how to prioritize, focus and be resilient – qualities I may not otherwise have learned. On reflection, I do believe the ultimate outcome, for me and my career, was even better than it would have been had my original university application been successful. So what was the crucial lesson I learned? Setbacks are only setbacks if you choose to perceive them that way — instead, always find a way to reframe the situation, and you can use it to create new kinds of success.
Later, when my career as a senior HR leader was well underway, I learned another impactful lesson about reframing. I finished working on a project where I thought I had failed, even though my superiors didn’t view it that way. By taking on too much and not asking for help when I should have, I felt I did not do it well enough as per my own standard. The regret gnawed away at me, taking chunks out of my self-confidence and causing me to become more reticent about putting forward my ideas.
Eventually, I had to sit myself down and say: ‘It happened. You found a way to get things done. Now, take forward everything you learned from the experience, and next time you face a similarly complex challenge, think about all the parallels you can draw so you do not make the same mistakes again.’
And that was that.
The lesson this time? You cannot afford to over-indulge in self-criticism. Spend too long dissecting what goes wrong, and you risk getting stuck in a negative loop that will slow you down and compromise the success of people around you.
At such times, you need a quickfire mechanism for unlocking positive thinking. It’s about taking a step back and viewing the situation more constructively before rapidly moving on to the next challenge.
Another situation where I recommend applying a reframing approach is when you are surrounded by so much change and disruption that you start to feel everything spiraling out of control. During these moments, I think it helps to make a list so you can narrow the situation down to those elements you can impact. Cut out the noise. Create some order. Even if you don’t end up following the list to the letter, it’s an important first step away from avoidance and toward getting something tangible done. Just writing things down, starting on a presentation, or putting a kick-off meeting into your calendar helps you move on, gain clarity on what really matters, and take control over what you can manage.
Reframing strategies can help you with minor issues as well. Let’s say someone sends you an email that really upsets you. Rather than firing straight back and saying something you’re going to regret, this is the time to pause, reset, and reframe. What is this person actually trying to tell you? How can you constructively approach the situation?
Finally, I think there are times when you can benefit from reframing how you see yourself. When I was growing up, people close to me would say I was stubborn, and for many years I accepted this. Decades later, my ‘stubbornness’ is my dedication, commitment, and passion for accomplishing personal and professional goals. It means if I commit to something, I am prepared to put a lot of energy into getting it done. This is my strength, not a flaw. I could not have become the leader I am today without my determination. That said, now and then, I have to remind myself to pause, listen, reflect and adjust the course because, more often than not – it is not about changing the end game but figuring out how to go about it in an ever-changing context.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just stop what you’re doing, take a step back, and view the situation in a more positive light. In reality, however, we’re so tied up in our day-to-day concerns that it can be challenging to attain a clear perspective. Here are a few tricks I have learned to make reframing easier:
- Lean on other people I mean this in the best possible sense. Reach out for support. Seek advice. Borrow insights. Hearing other people’s perspectives can trigger a lightbulb moment where you suddenly see everything clearly, and the ideas start to flow. Unfortunately, asking for advice is sometimes seen as a weakness. Many people worry it makes them look ignorant or unprepared (I know I used to). I’ve learned that showing vulnerability is, in fact, a sign of strength. The best leaders are not defensive about their ideas, they are always inviting others to provide feedback and input, so they can make their solutions even better than before.
- Apply the rule of 5s When there’s something I’m particularly upset or frustrated about, I stop what I’m doing and ask myself how much of my time the issue really deserves. Is it important enough to spend five hours worrying about it? Five days? Five weeks? Five months? Or actually just five minutes? Applying the rule of 5s is a great way to get perspective on a situation and avoid wasting energy on stuff that doesn’t matter.
- Find a mentor For many years, I had a mentor I could rely on whenever I faced a challenging situation. I would call her up, give her my take on what was happening, and then ask her how she saw it. The benefit of getting another person’s view is that they can challenge your assumptions and help you see what you’re missing, especially if they have a little more experience and perspective than you. That’s why mentor relationships are so valuable and meaningful.
- Imagine the worst I always like to ask myself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ The conversation usually continues something like this: ‘I could fail. OK. Taking it to the extreme: I could lose my job. OK. In that case, could I land myself another role somewhere? Is there potential for me to pursue another role? Or a completely different career path?’ I find that thinking about worst-case scenarios helps clarify the challenge I’m facing. Shifting my thinking and diverting my energy away from a fear of losing puts me in a position to apply all effort to get things done at my best, proving to myself as well as people who trust in me and invest into me that it can be done!
- Give yourself breathing space As a senior professional, it often feels like you don’t have any time or space to think. But you must make time and space whenever you can. No matter how hectic things get during the working week, you must create moments for yourself where you can pause, reflect, and recalibrate.
Are you looking for ways to achieve more at work? Approaching challenges and setbacks with the right mindset is essential – but it also helps if you have an employer who will support you through the highs and lows. Here at Reynolds American, we offer our people a multitude of resources for building skills, broadening exposure, and taking their careers to the next level. If you want to see what goals my organization can help you achieve, join me at reynoldsamerican.com/careers or follow my page for future blogs.
Anna Dolgikh – SVP & Chief Human Resources and Inclusion Officer