Setbacks: the seeds of future success

Van Gogh painting of cypresses
What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? Vincent van Gogh

Setbacks and difficulties contain the seeds of our future success.

As they hold the clues to what went wrong, they also contain valuable information about what could be done differently next time. Successful people often claim that they learnt more from their failures than from their successes.

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. Thomas Edison

Apparent failure often brings us face-to-face with realities that we otherwise try to avoid. Setbacks can make us pause and take stock, follow new paths, meet new people, learn new skills and try things out that we wouldn't otherwise have done. They also tend to build personal qualities such as resilience, coping skills and empathy.

Many successful people can point to a critical experience when they were dismissed, belittled, ignored or suffered a serious setback. Dealing with such events, whether at the time or later in life, can become the driving force that leads to unexpected successes.

The same applies to students. Mature learners with multiple responsibilities and students with serious health conditions find ways to complete their degrees and develop their careers, when those with fewer difficulties turned back at lesser hurdles. Typically, they learn to convert the apparent disadvantage into an advantage - developing skills in managing time, prioritising and using technology along the way.

Anybody can work through difficulty in order to emerge stronger - but not everybody does.

Turn setbacks to your advantage


  • What things might make it difficult for you to achieve your goal?
  • How could you turn these setbacks on their heads, so they become sources of strength, inventiveness, motivation or contact with others?

More from Bloomsbury

Skills for Success book jacket

Enjoyed this blog? Find more helpful guidance on overcoming setbacks in Skills for Success, by Stella Cottrell.

Woman rock climbing

Are you able to keep a sense of perspective when things go pear-shaped? Rate your resilience on the page Resilience as a student.

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