Getting bad news, and learning how to move on

“Your family’s broke.”

When I heard these words, I was 28 years old, making $35,000 a year, and tending to a 55-year-old father who was dying of fourth-stage lung cancer. Our attorneys told my younger sister and I that the financial tides had turned for our self-employed father, a self-made millionaire. Suddenly, there were more liabilities than assets. I was scared.

Statements like this can be so sudden and so seemingly out of the blue that their effects at first are entirely physical: they spike your heart rate, make you shake all over, and leave you so anxious that you feel like you’re trying to swallow a cotton ball.

The news about my father’s illness and the devastating circumstances was the worst, but it prepared me for every single one of the subsequent setbacks in my life, both personally and professionally.

Like a good number of you, I’ve been in business long enough and have taken risks that were big enough that I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of body blows. I’ve taken them all very hard, and yes, very personally.

1. “I’m sorry, we decided to go with another candidate.” It was my dream job. I had rehearsed for it, told all my friends about it, eagerly anticipated it, and was led to believe I’d get it. My heart sank.

2. “We’ve decided to terminate your position.” Or, as Donald Trump says, “You’re fired!” How could it be? I was in love with this gig and got amazing feedback from colleagues, but the big boss had other ideas and felt that I was disloyal to him. I was stunned.

3. “We’re offering you a severance package.” I knew the agency I was working for had lost a lot of clients, yet how is it that they’re offering me a nice incentive to leave while Joe Blow down the hall got to stay? I was hurt.

4. “You’re being audited.” Really? Me? What did I do wrong? I sat with my accountant when he then opened the books to the IRS auditors. I was concerned.

5. “You’re being sued.” How dare she? I knew that this lawsuit was totally frivolous, fiction not fact. I vowed that I’d never settle and would rather pay big legal fees than submit to blackmail. I was mad as hell.

6. “You need to walk away from this business.” I was pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into an early-stage video company I had started in 2003. After much self-flagellation, I ended up cutting my losses and selling it on the cheap. I felt ashamed.

7. “We’ve decided not to renew our contract with your firm.” We bent over backwards for this client, and suddenly they were “going in a different direction.” We got results for them that no one else could. I was pissed.

Could there possibly be any good news?

Certainly not right away, but there was in the long run. Nietzsche was right: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” From winning the court case with a unanimous jury ruling to passing the audit with flying colors to starting new ventures and getting new clients, I didn’t just survive each and everyone of these painful setbacks. Each of them became a springboard of inspiration and growth.

I also soaked up life experience from friends, rabbis, and therapists. One told me to look at the lawsuit and audit as a “success tax.” Another said that getting laid off was a sign I should run my own business.

In the end, each and every one of these experiences were necessary rights of passage, or as the title of a must-read book suggests, Necessary Losses. These setbacks led to a surge in resourcefulness, creativity, independence, and, in retrospect, gratitude.

Easy for me to say. If you’re currently going through similar setbacks, I feel for you. I know it’s frightening, often humiliating, and can lead to much anxiety, creating a huge ripple effect on your life—everything from guilt about letting your loved ones down to snapping awake at 3 AM wondering how you’re going to pay the bills.

As a shrink once told me, suffering is overrated. So get outside help, talk with your closest confidants, and keep the faith. I assure you that one day—if you’re truly able to learn from the experience, reframe it, and make tangible adjustments—both you and your career will move on to a better place.

Photo: Emilee Grace/Flickr

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