The Bounce: Overcoming Setbacks in Your Life

By Thomas K. Varghese Jr., MD, MS | September 2, 2021

"The test of success is not what you do when you are on top; Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom." ― George S. Patton Jr.

It’s been more than 500 days since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. We’re watching yet another surge of cases—this time in mostly the unvaccinated—shatter the fragile bed capacities in every health system. There are hints of normalcy and, yet, there are reminders that things will never be the same.

You’re a high achiever. You’ve taken great efforts at cultivating your professional skills and trajectory of growth. Your career was set to take off.

Outreach talks, Visiting Professor events, regional and national CME meetings, collaborations, workshops to incorporate new surgical skills, and networking turned into: Canceled. Canceled. Virtual. On Pause. Rescheduled. Don’t even think about it.

“Work from home” is the circle of Hell that Dante couldn’t even imagine. Maybe we should reserve some space for the mandatory wellness modules, as well.

So, what do we do? Every single fiber of your being cries aloud to suffocate yourself with self-pity. Or there may be active thoughts about walking away from it all.

This is not a blog article about mental illness, a serious condition that requires support and help from professionals. This is an article about what steps you can take to establish stability in a seemingly uncontrollable situation, with a specific focus on your professional career. Let’s get started.

Step 1. STOP being so hard on yourself

We all do it. We are our worst critics. That inner voice is often more brutal than even the worst critics can come up with. The problem is that it doesn’t help when faced with an unforeseen situation. There is no good role for impostor syndrome at this time in your life.

You are worthy. You alone are enough. You have immense value

In the history of humankind, a worldwide pandemic is more than enough reason to have any type of setback in your professional career. Give yourself the benefits of grace.

Step 2. Get back to the Basics. Reflect on your Why.

In Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, he notes that very few people or companies can articulate clearly why they do what they do. Why is all about purpose.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning? Clearly the opportunity to help your fellow human being is one of the reasons that you are in health care. How do you do that? Is that enough? What can we do to make the world a better place than it was before? Write it down: Make a list. Reflect. Modify. Iterate.

Your reasons why can evolve over time. But take the opportunity to reconnect with your purpose.

Step 3. The Three Personal Circles – Skills, Mental Health, Physical Health

My career clinical, operational, and research work focus on the optimization of patient health before surgery, surgeon performance and health system outcomes. I’ve been blessed to have the abilities and opportunities to build programs locally (my cancer institution and health system) and nationally (American College of Surgeons [ACS] Strong for Surgery Quality Program).

What I’ve found in every domain is that it all comes down to the people you have on your teams, the environment, and that we are “optimized” professionally when there is a balance among skills, mental health, and physical health.

My kids hear the same three mantras over and over each day:

  1. “Are you better today than you were yesterday? Will you be better tomorrow than you are today?”
  2. “It’s how you do the small things that determines how you do the big things.”
  3. “Are you helping anyone today?”

Numbers 1 and 2 directly correlate with the knowledge, attitudes, and skills that you have and cultivate and attain over time. Number 3, however, cannot occur unless you have sound foundational mental and physical health. And you need all three to be at optimal professional performance.

Do you have balance among these three spheres? Have you taken the time to seek best practices in any of these spheres? Where are the deficits? What needs to be done to restore and achieve better balance?

Step 4. Planning

In our ACS Strong for Surgery campaign, we have the creed – “Raising Awareness, Changing Practice.” Raising Awareness is the assembly of best practices in a format that is easy to learn and disseminate (optimization bundles that include education, processes, protocols, and checklists). Changing Practice is the deliberate steps you take to enact change for the better. In the book Measure What Matters, John Doerr describes an amazing goal-setting framework of objectives and key results (OKR). It is illustrated by the following:

“I will [objective] as measured by [this set of results].”

The sentence highlights that it is not just the objective that you set. Equally important is the realistic time period that it will take to accomplish. The objective should be concise. The key results should be 2-5 measurable achievements.

“If it does not have a number, it is not a key result.” ― Marissa Meyer, former CEO of Yahoo!

Step 5. Launch

Leaders want their mentees to succeed. Great leaders want their mentees to be even more successful than they are.

Once you have organized your “why,” taken inventory of your personal spheres, and clearly identified and documented your OKRs, share your findings with your circle of mentors or advisors. Let them know what you are planning. Solicit feedback where necessary. And then share the final product broadly. Transparency itself has the benefits of reflecting organized thought, as well as builds in accountability.

Additional Step: Celebrate the Wins. Celebrate You.

Amidst the seemingly never-ending onslaught of world events, comes this reality: There has never been a better time to be alive in the history of the world. Digital technology, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing have transformed every single industry. Whereas the 20th century (industrial age) was about standardization, the 21st century is one of the knowledge worker. Where those who can learn, unlearn, and learn again are poised for success. It doesn’t matter where you came from or where you are. There are numerous opportunities at hand to advance your skills and advance your field.

Take the time to celebrate any and all success. Human connections rejuvenate the soul. As one of my close friends, Dr. Amalia Cochran, is fond of saying: “Find your people, love them hard.”

Setbacks are inevitable. Never minimize serious health conditions, whether they be mental or physical. When professional setbacks occur, go through the five-step process outlined above. And as the brilliant CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health, Dr. Julie Freischlag, points out in response to setbacks: “Don’t just bounce back, bounce up.”