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How Career Setbacks Can Lead to Success

The author of the new book, Rebounders, reveals how winners rebound from setbacks to achieve success

By Rick Newman | June 5, 2012
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Rick Newman is the chief business correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.

If you’ve ever eaten in an airport, noshed on fried chicken or sneaked away for a donut and a cup of coffee, chances are Jon Luther had a role in your meal. But it took a midlife comeback for Luther to leave his mark on America’s palate.

At age 48, Luther left a safe corporate job with Marriott to chase a longtime dream: running his own restaurant chain. But Luther failed to foresee what could go wrong — and plenty did. Within months, the economy turned sour, Luther’s partners backed out of the deal, and the whole scheme collapsed, vaporizing nearly all of his savings.

Instead of blaming his unreliable partners for the flameout or wallowing in regret, Luther took classes, asked friends for free tutorials, then began a decade-long career comeback. First, he went to work for a concession company that managed airport restaurants. Next, he led a turnaround of the Popeye’s fried chicken chain and did the same for Dunkin’ Donuts. When Dunkin’ went public in 2011, Luther’s stake was worth more than $40 million.

"I never had huge doubts in my ability," Luther told me. "I had huge doubts about whether the rest of the world would recognize it."

While researching my new book, Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, I learned something surprising about famous strivers like Luther: Most overcame some kind of failure along the way. What’s more, the lessons they learned through their setbacks often turned out to be the keys to their eventual success.

Here are the four vital lessons from the rebounders I profiled:

1. Everyone can get better at bouncing back. Unlike intelligence, which is generally fixed, resilience — the ability to cope with and overcome adversity — is a quality we can build on and improve. Stronger resilience helps us deal more effectively with setbacks, recover faster and be more comfortable taking risks.

Actor John Ratzenberger spent years as a low-paid improv performer in London, living rough and supporting himself with his skills as a carpenter. Ratzenberger gradually became comfortable with discomfort, which gave him the freedom to broaden his ambition, until he ultimately won the role of a lifetime: The know-it-all postman Cliff Clavin on the hit sitcom Cheers.

Here’s the stunning part: Cliff wasn’t even originally a character in the show. As Ratzenberger was about to leave his “horrible” audition, he turned to the producers and said: “Do you have a bar know-it-all?” He then began improvising as on, creating the Cliff Clavin character and its heavy New England accent on the spot.

2. Real success takes time. We all love the idea of shortcuts, but making it in your field generally takes lifelong learning and the insights that can come only from surmounting a series of challenges.

Most people would agree that Steve Jobs was a genius, but he also got fired from Apple, the company he founded, an ordeal he described as “devastating.” Years later, he realized that “getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Apple, of course, rehired Jobs in 1996, launching the transformative era of the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

3. There are good ways to fail and bad ways to fail. People who deny that they’ve failed, externalize blame when something goes wrong, or simply feel bad about setbacks, tend to learn nothing from the experience and stay stuck in a rut. Those are bad ways to fail. But acknowledging and analyzing what went wrong, putting emotions aside, and applying the lessons they learned are the ways rebounders fail wisely.

When Jack Bogle was fired as head of a mutual fund company in a boardroom coup in 1974, he fantasized about revenge against the rivals who had ousted him. But rather than acting on that impulse, Bogle realized that getting fired gave him the opportunity to act on a vision he had long sidelined. He then created the Vanguard mutual fund company, which ultimately changed the industry and became an investing powerhouse.

4. Being blithely optimistic is overrated. When I asked the rebounders I interviewed whether they considered themselves optimists, many surprised me by saying they don’t. They don’t expect everything to automatically work out just because it should. Instead, they prepare for things to go wrong, which helps them build a powerful belief in their ability to control what happens to them.

Thomas Keller was a brilliant chef, but at the age of 40 he was unemployed and didn’t have much to show for his efforts. His turning point came as he began to realize that his naïveté and unrealistic expectations had contributed to his downfalls.

Keller took a new approach in his next venture, in which plenty went wrong; he anticipated these mini-failures better than in the past. This project became the famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Calif., one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the world. For Keller, as with the other winners in my book, the long wait for success came with rich rewards.