Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Life is shaped not so much by the incredible accomplishments you achieve. Nor is it determined by the disappointments and failures you experience. Life is the product of your setback stories.
More than 10,000 athletes are expected to compete at this summer’s Olympics, but only 339 medals plan to be awarded. While our focus will be understandably on the incredible victories and surprising upsets of these games, the real action will occur in the days, weeks, months, and even years from now. Thousands of athletes will have to deal with the personal disappointment of falling short of their goals. The real value of the Olympics, or for that matter any event in life, is in what I call the setback stories. The accounts of how individuals handle adversity. In each setback moment, there is a choice about how to respond. It is in this choice that life is most profoundly shaped.
I entered UCLA in 1987 as a seventeen-year-old freshman. I was full of unearned confidence, having graduated near the top of my LA public high school, a school that I would later learn hadn’t fully challenged or prepared me for the academic rigor that I was about to encounter (or perhaps to put it more responsibly, a school where I hadn’t fully challenged or prepared myself). During orientation, I brashly decided to seek out the social sciences class that had the reputation for being the hardest. At the time, it was Political Sciences 20, a world politics class that incoming students were explicitly advised not to take in their first quarter. Undeterred, I signed up for the class, certain that I would be able to figure it out. “I mean, how hard could it be?” I thought to myself.
Like most lower-division courses, PoliSci 20 was a large lecture-style class. The four hundred or so students were divided into roughly forty or fifty sections, each one assigned to a graduate school teaching assistant. Sections would meet weekly, and it was your TA that would be the reader and grader of your papers and the decider of your fate. My TA was a Lebanese-American named Elie Chalala (note: I did a search for this writing and discovered that Elie is the founding editor in chief of Al Jadid, a national magazine published in English about Arab culture and arts). In the second week of our ten-week course, I turned in my first writing assignment. I can’t remember the actual assignment itself, but what I do clearly remember would shape my entire college experience. I received my first college grade. A C minus. Along with more red ink on the surface of a two-page paper than I had ever seen. Elie had completely ripped apart my writing, essentially declaring it sophomoric, unstructured, and unbecoming of a serious student of the political sciences. I was horrified. Embarrassed. Ashamed. My whole identity had been wrapped up in the belief that I was smart. Indeed, smarter than most. And here I was, rendered not just average, but well below average in my very first college endeavor.
I’m not sure I was conscious of it at the time, but I must have realized deep down that I was at a crossroads. I must have been aware at some level that how I responded to this setback would define my college experience, if not the rest of my life. I had a choice to hide and simply rationalize the experience. Or I could choose to address the situation head-on. I chose the latter. And it was this choice that became one of the many setback stories that lie at the source of my effectiveness in life.
I remember walking into the meeting I set up with Elie. I handed him the paper and somewhat sheepishly told him that, while I wasn’t used to such feedback, I agreed with it and wanted to learn. “Will you help me become a good writer?” I remember asking him. He didn’t hesitate. “Yes, I’d be happy to,” he responded. For the next eight weeks, I devoted myself to the kind of rigor the class and the school deserved from me. The grades on my writing assignments rapidly improved. The hard work paid off. I ended the course with the very highest grade in the class. As recognition for the accomplishment, I was chosen as the only undergraduate student representative to sit on a panel with the world-famous and controversial linguistics professor Noam Chomsky who was set to deliver a lecture at UCLA the next month. Here’s how a February 1988 article in the LA Times described that appearance: “UCLA campus police, riot helmets in hand, stood by at Royce Hall as the turn-away crowd of 1,800 passed through a security check one by one.” I can’t even remember the question I asked Professor Chomsky that evening while on the grand stage at Royce Hall blinded by its concert lighting. I just recall the pride of not just overcoming a major setback but having grown stronger for it.
Life is shaped not so much by the incredible accomplishments you achieve. Nor is it determined by the disappointments and failures you experience. Life is the product of your setback stories. Take a look at the moments in time where you suffered some setback. How did you respond? Perhaps there are setback moments in your life right now. There certainly will be many more to come. You may receive negative feedback about your performance at work. You may get passed up for a promotion. You may even be fired from your job. Your marriage may end. You may get news of a life-threatening illness. There will likely be another pandemic. And certainly, there will be another economic recession. Or some other event that affects us all and that lies beyond our control. How you respond to these setbacks is the game of life. It is your personal Olympics. I wish you the gift of many setbacks and the capacity to author your setback stories wisely.
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