Monthly Archives: September 2014

How Do You Keep Going After A Setback?












“Setbacks motivate me.”
— Lindsey Vonn, 4-time World Cup champion.

Perhaps it is time for you to consider the option of giving up.
— Dr. Ana Nogales, from “ The Wisdom in Giving Up”

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
― Mark Twain, American humorist

I still remember the terrible feeling I had many years ago when I was working as a music director and had to tell several people that they did not win the adulation for a solo part. It’s hard to deliver bad news that you know will sting. How was I going to deliver that news without discouraging them enough to quit singing all together?

We all receive bad news from time to time and all of us react differently. A disappointment, like a poor job review or some form of rejection, makes some people vow to work harder and others give up. Why? What’s the difference?

Two Parts of the Brain At Work

When people are faced with a similar setback, researchers in a new study* found that two different parts of the brain became engaged when a person determined to keep trying rather than give up. One part of the brain that was stimulated when subjects decided to try harder was an area of the brain that scientists know guides goals based on the history of decisions made in the past. Another area of the brain that was stimulated when the subjects decided to keep struggling on was the part of the brain which controls complex emotions and regulates those emotions in flexible ways.

In other words, the decision to continue on after receiving bad news is a very complicated decision and involves engaging two areas of the brain that otherwise would not be stimulated.

What Makes the Difference?

The researchers found that the difference in the stimulation of the different areas of the brain depended largely on how much the subjects felt they had control over the situation. If they felt like they failed because they didn’t try hard enough or didn’t do things the proper way, they most often determined not to give up and to try harder the next time. If they felt like the boss was just mean or things were out of their control, they usually decided just to give up and quit. The feeling of control was the key determiner.

What Does That Mean to Us and What Should We Do?

For ourselves personally, we should decided whether it is best to give up or not based on the situation and not our feeling of control. There are times when it is best to quit. We should not keep trying in those situations just because we feel like we have control and could do better the next time. Or, if it is actually best to keep going, we should not give up just because we feel like we don’t have total control in the situation.

When working with others, remember to shape the way you deliver the bad news and the total situation will determine whether or not the person you are informing keeps going or quits. When you have to give a poor job review to a co-worker, you might make the offer to help guide them to a better review next time. This will help give them the feeling of control and will help them persist.

So, when I was giving bad news to the would-be soloists, I should have given them a method of improvement at the same time. As is often the case, I wish I knew then what I know now!

Jamil P. Bhanji, Mauricio R. Delgado. Perceived Control Influences Neural Responses to Setbacks and Promotes Persistence. Neuron, 2014 DOI: 10.1016

Are You Making Good Decisions?

good decisionWhen I’m working with a client we will often talk about decision-making strategies and how to make better decisions. It is an important subject and a surprising one for many people.

For instance, did you know that as logical as you think you are when you make decisions, you mostly make decisions based on emotions?

If You Don’t Believe Me? Try This…

Make the best choice here.

  • Scenario One: You can choose between a free gift of $8 or $10.
  • Scenario Two: You can choose between a free gift of $8 (and a stranger will receive $8) or a gift of $10 (and a stranger will receive $12). Notice that the result is the same for you—in both scenarios you either get $8 or $10.

Which do people choose most of the time?

Well, as you might guess, in Scenario One, nearly everybody chooses the $10 option. However, in Scenario Two, there is a difference in what people choose.

Why would people choose to receive $8 instead of $10?

Alas, the answer is those pesky emotions sometimes make us settle on an illogical choice.

Experimenters* found that people who feel threatened or are concerned with their social status will often choose to receive $8 if the stranger will also receive $8 rather than receive $10 if the stranger will receive $12.

Here’s the bottom line: When people focus on security (an emotional need) they rely on “relative outcomes” ($10 to me, but $12 to a stranger) rather than “absolute outcomes” ($8 to me or $10 to me). Our decision-making brain is influenced that strongly by emotions. In the first case, people wanted to protect themselves from being assigned a lower rank. In the second, they were looking for the best and most positive overall result.

So What Should We Do?


Be aware of when we feel threatened and be careful about making decisions in that condition.
Try to focus on total value and overall growth.

As leaders and managers

Set an atmosphere of safety in the workplace so that coworkers and subordinates do not feel threatened and make bad decisions based on safety.
Be aware of you own feelings of insecurity and make decisions based more on growth and value rather than protection.

*Jun Gu, Vanessa K. Bohns, Geoffrey J. Leonardelli. Regulatory focus and interdependent economic decision-making. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.11.008

Wait For It…

Sad BulldogWe talked last time about the marshmallow experiment where children were tested for their ability to delay gratification. As you may remember, children who were able to wait a few minutes in order to receive a greater reward, also had higher social skills, higher emotional skills, were more self-confident, had higher IQ’s, and higher scores on the SAT test.

We also mentioned last time that greater success in relationships, business, and leadership is associated with the proper mix of time orientation. That mix seems to be a positive view of the past (without concentrating on past events), a focus on the present, with a moderately high focus on the future.

Today we will apply these insights and talk about how to better delay gratification and live in a better time orientation mix.

Delaying Gratification

As with most things, the ability to delay gratification is somewhat inside and outside our control. Two studies point to the fact that our personality and social setting can make it harder for us to wait for a reward. One study* found that extroverts have a harder time with delayed gratification and another study** found that nearly all people are less likely to wait for a reward in a negative social setting. That is, it is harder to wait for a reward if the person giving the reward is not considered trustworthy.

But, even if you are an extrovert and are in a poor social setting, there are some things you can do to improve your ability to delay gratification.

Three of the most important things you can do are:

1. Know what you want to do. Think of things that are important to you and may be difficult to achieve, then set a goal to reach that objective.

2. Make a plan. Figure out the best way reach that goal and write it down. The “writing it down” part is much more important than you might think.

3. Make decisions in advance. Before you get into a situation where you might want to trade something smaller now for something better in the future, make your decision ahead of time.

Here’s an example. I remember in the months before my wife and I got married, we wanted to make a downpayment on a home (#1—what we wanted to do—our goal). We figured out how much we would need and how much we needed to save each week in order to have enough (#2—our plan). Unfortunately, we had nothing to spare in our budget. We determined ahead of time to save what we needed for the downpayment each week no matter what (#3—made a decision in advance). I remember many times when I wanted to buy a candy bar on the way home from work or we wanted to go out to eat, but those things weren’t in our budget. We delayed many short-term goals in order to achieve what we really wanted—the downpayment on the house we would live in our first few years of marriage.

Achieving the Best Time Orientation Mix

Remember that the best mix of time orientation is positive view of the past without concentrating on it, with a focus on the present and a moderately high focus on the future. How can we do that better?

To keep this short, I’ll just list bullet points here.

To lessen an emphasis on the negative past:
Don’t blame yourself
Decide that it is in the past and done, and remind yourself of that when you start to think about the past

To live more in the present (if you think too much about the future):
Do less, not more
Waste time on purpose
Be spontaneous sometimes
Take time enjoy eating, drinking your coffee or tea, listening to music, or reading a good book
Play with children

To be more future oriented:
Wear a watch
Make a habit of delaying gratification
Make a to-do list
Make appointments and stick to them

So, wait for your marshmallows and enjoy the journey!

*Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2013, January 17). Understanding personality for decision-making, longevity, and mental health.

**Laura Michaelson, Alejandro de la Vega, Christopher H. Chatham, Yuko Munakata. Delaying gratification depends on social trust. Frontiers in Psychology, 2013; 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00355

Why Wouldn’t You Take Time To Read This?

Buying TimeDo you want to be happier in relationships, more successful in business, and be a better leader? Your attitude towards time has a lot to do with success in those areas.

Benjamin Franklin said that time is money. Actually, time is more important than money.

Here are 3 reasons why time is more important than money:

  • We are willing to give more money for better time. A consultant who receives $400 per hour is better than a consultant who receives $150 per hour. We are willing to give more money for time that is more valuable.
  • We can save money, but not time. You can choose to spend or not spend money; time is spent no matter what at exactly the same rate as everyone in the world.
  • Three of the 5 most commonly used words in the English language (time, person, year, way, day) concern time.

Even though we are technically forced to live only in the present time, we actually deal with the past, the present, and the future at all times in our attitudes and feelings. Scientists have studied this phenomenon a lot, and for more happiness, success in business, and better leadership, the best mixture of past/present/future seems to be:

  • A positive view of the past, but not much attention given to it,
  • A focus on the present, and
  • A moderately high focus on the future.

This attitude of living in the present but having an eye on the future was shown to be important even by young children by the famous marshmallow experiment. If you want to see a video of a modern duplication of the experiment, click here.

The experiment was designed to test the children’s ability to delay gratification. In the experiment, 4-year-olds were placed in a room by themselves and told that they could eat the marshmallow in front of them now, or could wait until later. If they waited, they could have another marshmallow and would have two marshmallows to eat instead of one. Only 1/3 of the children valued delayed gratification enough to receive the reward of the second marshmallow.

When the two groups of children were compared at age 18, the children who waited:

  • had superior emotional and social skills
  • handled stress better
  • were more self-confident, diligent, and self-reliant
  • had higher IQs
  • scored higher in verbal and math skills on the SAT by 210 total points.

I’m out of time for now, so I’ll take my marshmallows and go home. Next time, in Part 2, I’ll talk a bit more about delayed gratification and how to change your time perspective to be more successful in relationships, business, and leadership.