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

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