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How Career Setbacks Can Lead to Success

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

At the age of 48, Luther left a safe corporate job with the Marriott hospitality firm to chase a longtime dream: Running his own restaurant chain. It would grow quickly, like the next Friday’s or Hard Rock Café, showcasing Luther’s talent for branding and marketing and earning him a generous windfall.

But like many people with big plans, 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. At the age of 48, with one child in college and another on the way, Luther realized he probably had just one more chance to fulfill his ambition. “I never had huge doubts in my ability,” he said. “I had huge doubts about whether the rest of the world would recognize it.”

American culture celebrates success, especially the meteoric breakthroughs of prodigies like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. But most accomplished people take a longer, ruttier path to success than we’d ever guess. While researching my book Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, I learned something surprising about the strivers we tend to admire: Most have overcome some kind of failure or setback on their way to prominence. More than that, the lessons learned through failing often turn out to be key factors in their success later on. Getting better at overcoming setbacks, it turns out, can be the very thing that makes breakthrough success possible.

In Luther’s case, he realized there were gaps in his business know-how that he’d have to fill if he ever wanted to run a company. So instead of blaming his unreliable partners for the flameout, or wallowing in regret, he took classes, asked friends for free tutorials and began a decade-long career comeback. First, he went to work for a concession company that managed airport restaurants, replacing dilapidated dining counters with name-brand outlets and upscale eateries. Then he led a turnaround of the Popeye’s fried-chicken chain, and after that he did the same thing for Dunkin’ Donuts as the firm’s CEO. When Dunkin’ went public in 2011, Luther’s stake was worth more than $40 million.

Rebounders tells the stories of several other late-blooming successes, detailing the qualities that allowed them to turn setbacks to their advantage. Here are four vital things just about anybody can learn from the rebounders I profiled:

We can all 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 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 when needed with his skills as a carpenter. Ratzenberger became comfortable with discomfort, which gave him the freedom to improve his talents and broaden his ambition, until he ultimately won the role of a lifetime: The know-it-all postman Cliff Claven on the hit sitcom Cheers.

Real success takes time. We all love the idea of shortcuts, but for most ambitious people, it
takes lifelong learning and the insights that can only come from surmounting challenges to attain what they’re after. Most people would agree that Steve Jobs was a genius, but he also got fired from the company he created, Apple, 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.

There are good and bad ways to fail. People who deny that they’ve failed, externalize blame when something goes wrong, or simply feel bad about it tend to learn nothing from the experience and stay stuck in a rut. Acknowledging failure, putting emotion aside, analyzing what went wrong, and applying what you’ve learned is how rebounders learn from their setbacks and get better. When Jack Bogle got 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 instead of acting on that impulse, he realized that getting fired provided the opportunity to act on a vision he had long sidelined, and created the Vanguard mutual fund company, which ultimately changed the industry and became an investing powerhouse.

Optimism is overrated. When I asked the Rebounders I studied if they consider themselves optimists, many surprised me by saying, not really. They know a lot can go wrong, because it’s happened to them before. So they don’t expect everything to 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 without much to show for his efforts. The turning point came as he began to realize that his own naiveté and unrealistic expectations had contributed to his downfalls. He took a new approach in his next venture, in which plenty went wrong--but he anticipated it better than before. That project became the famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California, one of the most highly regarded restaurants anywhere. The long wait for success, it turned out, came with rich rewards.