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If At First You Don’t Succeed: Learning from Setbacks

Setbacks are a part of life. They can vary in size and intensity: a bump in the metaphorical road, or a large pothole; a tree blocking the path; or sometimes (hopefully not too often) the road is completely obliterated by an unexpected meteor. What do you do then? Do you wave the white flag in defeat?

No. You find a different route. You start over. You try again.

The ability to cope with setbacks, adapt, and then move forward in a productive way is key to having positive well-being and achieving professional success. Growth mindset (the belief that we are always learning and that intelligence is not fixed) can profoundly affect motivation, engagement, academic achievement, and the willingness to persist through challenges (Dweck, 2009; Yeager & Dweck, 2012; Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). This is why Learn from Setbacks is one of the Quest Forward Learning Essential Habits. It’s a habit of mind that shapes how we react to events in every aspect of our lives.

Setbacks and challenges should be seen as opportunities for learning and growth. Let’s face it: That’s really hard to do, especially when we’re frustrated, stressed, and short on time. As part of developing the habit of learning from setbacks, students in Quest Forward Learning practice a variety of techniques and strategies to help them cope with and address setbacks confidently. While our work in this area is in its very early stages, what follows are some of the behaviors and ways of thinking that will become familiar to Quest Forward students. Each of these is organized into four building blocks that make up the Learn from Setbacks habit: 1) Manage Emotions; 2) Seek and Accept Help; 3) Be Flexible and Adapt; and 4) Keep Trying.

Manage Emotions: Students practice identifying their own emotions and negative self-talk. They learn to express emotions calmly and effectively and experiment with a variety of stress-management techniques.  

Seek and Accept Help: Part of seeking and accepting help is first learning how to recognize when you need help, then reaching out to get it. Students learn to receive feedback well, even when it is critical, and seek feedback from peers, mentors, and experts.

Be Flexible and Adapt: In exercising flexibility, one must first recognize when they are unwilling to be flexible and what contributes to those feelings. Students practice modifying their thinking and behaviors in order to become more flexible. They learn to adapt to new situations or challenges.

Keep Trying: Students practice persisting and working through challenges. They change their thinking to recognize that perfection is an unrealistic and unattainable goal. They practice focusing on the journey, not just the end result.

Like most positive habits, students learn best from observing others who model these behaviors and ways of thinking. One of the best things we can do to help others develop this habit is to talk about it, to share our own experiences, and to create a safe environment that encourages taking risks, getting things wrong, and learning from one another.


Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Dweck, C. (2009). Who will the 21st-century learners be? Knowledge Quest, 38, 8–10.

Yeager, D.S. & Dweck C.S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychology, 47, 302–314.

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