Key Tips from the ‘X-treme Setback Overcomers’!

When we are trying to develop or improve a skill, it’s useful to look to those who make it look easy, and see how they do it. Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with setbacks, the world has some extraordinary examples to learn from.

While all of us have overcome setbacks in our lives, some people take this to the level of an extreme sport. I’ve chosen a few people that inspire me, and have picked the element that stands out to me from each one.

We are all Masters of our own fate

Before Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa, he spent 27 years, in the prime of his life, in prison. A significant setback by anyone’s standards. In his account of these years in, Long Walk to Freedom, he explains how he was transformed from angry young man to measured statesman.

He talks about the impact the poem, Invictus by William Ernest Henley, had on him. At this time he was in prison doing hard labour, with no freedom or control over anything he did. This poem, including the lines: “I am the master of my fate, I am the Captain of my soul.” helped Mandela understand that regardless of how badly he was treated, no-one could control what he thought, or who he truly was.

He learned about people, including the guards in the prison, and gained incredible insights and wisdom, including an understanding that past wrongs could not be corrected or avenged, but that people had to be led towards changing, to achieve a shared future. What he did next in leading his country through the process of the dissolution of apartheid was incredible, and he is rightly revered for that.

In terms of overcoming setbacks, Mandela recognised that, even when he couldn’t control or change what was happening to him, he could always choose how he responded to it. How he thought and what he did was entirely his responsibility and always remained under his control.

Having that conviction that you are: ‘driving the bus’, ‘paddling your own canoe’, or are ‘master of your own fate’, makes an enormous difference to how you act in your own life. Of course, we can’t control everything that happens in the world around us, but if we accept what we are responsible for and are empowered to decide what we do about it, we instantly remove any perception we may have of ourselves as a helpless victim.

Being true to who you are and what you believe, combined with a recognition of your own responsibility for what action you take, is hugely empowering, and can give you immense motivation to overcome setbacks.

Having a clear purpose is a great motivator

Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist, neurologist and the creator of Logotherapy a form of existential therapy. Frankl, prior to World War 2 (WW2), was already specialising in working with depression and people at risk of suicide. During WW2 he spent three years as an inmate of a concentration camp. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning is an amazing account of how he used this dreadful experience to observe and learn about what made the difference between the people who did and didn’t survive this horrendous experience.

Frankl learned that an individual’s survival did not depend on how physically fit or able they were. He talks about seeing physically strong individuals getting rapidly sick and weak, then unexpectedly dying, while some physically frail individuals seemed able surprisingly to withstand the cruel hardships.

As he investigated what made the difference, he realised that the people who had a deep and personal purpose fared better. Sometimes this purpose was to see family members or loved ones again, or to finish writing an unfinished book about a subject they were passionate about, or a determination to share their knowledge and experiences with the world. Those who didn’t have something or someone to live for, were far more likely to give up mentally, and then deteriorate physically. He also speaks about how the people who coped had hope and how loss of hope could be quite literally fatal in that environment.

The book is fascinating, and I highly recommend it. What Frankl learned in the concentration camps became the basis of his new therapy, Logotherapy.

In our lives, where most of our challenges and setbacks are not so extreme, the same principals exist. Knowing why you are doing what you are doing, makes it much clearer to you what your priorities are when things go wrong. Having a clear purpose, and trusting that things will work out in a positive way for you ultimately is a great foundation from which to make difficult decisions and to conquer setbacks. Being clear and committed to your ‘purpose’ is a great way to stay creative in how you keep overcoming difficulties.

Setting manageable goals can get you through ‘impossible’ tasks

The story of Joe Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates and their disastrous climbing experience in the Andes is captured in the book Touching the Void, written by Joe Simpson. A documentary film was subsequently made of the book.

While climbing together in a particularly remote part of the Andes, Joe slipped and shattered his tibia into his knee joint. In order to get out of this life threatening situation, Simon attempted to lower Joe down the side of the mountain. When this went wrong, Joe was left suspended over the cliff attached to Simon, at night and in a storm, after they miscalculated their descent plan.

The story tells how Simon had to take the horrendous decision to cut the rope and save himself, as both would have perished had he not. Joe then fell down 150 feet, with a shattered leg, frostbitten hands and other injuries. Simon made a search for him the following morning, and assumed he was dead, before heading back to their camp.

The story documents how Joe crawled, in spite of his injuries, five miles over three days, with no food and little water. He tells how overwhelming he knew it would be if he were to think about how far he had to go to survive, so he didn’t consider that. Instead he picked a rock, 10 metres away, and gave himself 20 minutes to reach it. Then he picked another rock, and another 20 minutes, and so on, and so on. He would give himself rewards of a sip of water after achieving enough smaller targets. The account of the expedition in the documentary drama, where both climbers give their accounts, is gruelling, but compelling viewing.

Joe arrived in camp just hours before Simon was about to pack up and leave. He was delirious and exhausted, but alive. His survival is a testament to his exceptional determination and bravery, but he achieved it by focussing on what he could do, and what he could control, and by setting small, achievable goals.

It’s a living example of the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu’s, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” How many of us just look at the thousand miles and just pull the duvet back up over our heads, instead of taking that first step?

The motivation for Joe Simpson was clear, had he not taken each step he took, he would have died. Most of us are lucky enough not to have that level of motivation hanging over us, but it is still good to remember that when a task is overwhelming, it may be time to break it down to identify that first step. Then just get on with it, without thinking about the whole picture.

Focussing on what you can do may create opportunities you had never imagined

Martine Wright was running a bit late for work on 7 July 2005. The night before, she had been out with friends, celebrating the award of the 2012 Olympics to London. That morning she got a later tube than usual, and sat down opposite one of the London underground bombers. Martine was one of the last people to be rescued that day, having lost 80% of her blood and both her legs. She talks about how she tried to resume her life as it had been prior to the bombing, and how she found there were too many things she couldn’t do the way she’s done them before.

Martine’s response was to start looking for things to do, which she could only do without legs! She decided to take up a new sport, and tried sitting volley ball. She discovered she was good at this, and became a member of the British Sitting Volleyball Team. In 2012 Martine represented her country when she competed in the 2012 Paralympics sitting volley ball team.

Martine has actually said that she considers herself lucky to have been through all she has been through. Representing Great Britain in 2012 meant a great deal to her. In the process of her own recovery she saw and experienced many kindnesses in people, and has since had the opportunity to contribute herself in ways, she most likely would not have done, had she carried on the path she was on prior to the bombing.

In exceptional circumstances, Martine managed to focus on what she could do, and took the opportunities when they came along. Many people would have got stuck at ‘why me’, and, ‘look what I can’t do’, instead, Martine managed to take an inspiringly positive path through this awful experience. Martine gives talks about her experience and has actually said she feels grateful for the doors that have opened for her since.

Whatever happens in our own lives, it is always an option and choice to focus on what has happened, or to focus on what we can still do. Blog 1 on this topic speaks much more on this particular theme.

In summary

These are just some of the many inspiring examples out there, I’m sure you can all think of your own X-treme setback hero’s. While they are all exceptional people, who did exceptional things, how they did it is something we can all learn from, and tap into and use in our own lives.

So remember, when you next hit a setback in your own life:

  • You are in control of how you react in any situation
  • Be clear about why you are doing what you are doing, and why it matters.
  • Set yourself manageable goals
  • Focus on what you can do.

So if you find yourself feeling helpless after something has not gone to plan, just go through the list above, and see if you can’t think of something you can do about it!

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