How to Turn Stumbling Blocks Into Stepping Stones

It is easy to feel defeated during times of turbulence, but when we give ourselves the space to process, we can maintain perspective and come up with a new plan.

The Good Brigade/ Getty Images
The Good Brigade/ Getty Images

Charting your own course isn’t easy, but breaking down the problem and seeking support and accountability can be the secret to long-term success.

Sanyin Siang long called herself “the girl with a plan.” She graduated as the valedictorian of her high school and won the prestigious A. B. Duke Scholarship, which Duke University awards to only the top few applicants each year.

From a young age, Sanyin wanted to be a doctor, and she worked toward that goal her whole life. During her junior year in college, because of her slipping grades, she lost her scholarship, and her dreams of becoming a doctor disappeared overnight. While her future had once been clear, she now faced a yawning void. Her disappointment in herself over the loss of her dream devastated her.

So “the girl with a plan” now had to come up with a new one. Sanyin turned that failure into the catalyst to write her next chapter. Now free to explore all her options for the first time, Sanyin regrouped and decided to explore a different path. This eventually led her back to Duke to get her executive MBA from the Fuqua School of Business. She then founded and became executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, a role she has held for nearly two decades.

Today Sanyin coaches CEOs, well-known athletes, and military leaders. She has over a million followers on LinkedIn who learn from her experience. She sits on the board of multiple companies and nonprofits. This was all possible because of that stumbling block when she was twenty-one, which became her stepping-stone to success.

We all fail at one point or another. The only decision we can make is whether to let that failure define us. When I was in business school, I wanted to work abroad during the summer between my first and second years. I took an internship at McKinsey & Company in Hong Kong, which allowed me to live out my dream of spending time with my grandmother and explore working abroad. But at the end of that summer, I didn’t receive an offer to return to McKinsey full-time. To not be invited back to a prestigious firm after a summer internship signaled failure and was deeply crushing. I haven’t talked about it until now. Looking back, I realize now that it was also the reason I didn’t fall back to the safety of consulting and instead took a risk joining a startup, PayPal, in Silicon Valley. This opened the door to the rest of my career.

Career paths are not linear. They don’t always go up and to the right. When we encounter failures or obstacles, we can allow them to knock us down or use them as catalysts to grow stronger and seek a different way around. Even if your ultimate goal is no longer possible, your detour may take you to wonderful and unexpected places. In many ways, the greatest failure in Sanyin’s life turned into the best thing that ever happened to her. She allowed herself to trade her original dream for a new one. Rather than giving in to despair, she found freedom.

Setbacks and frustrations are inevitable. There will be moments when you feel you have reached a dead end, when just on the other side of the next hill is a new opportunity. I interviewed over two dozen women for this book, and despite the success they each achieved, every single one faced significant challenges. What they all had in common was their resilience, their ability to look beyond failure and build a new future for themselves.

Many women get stuck on their first failure, but rather than letting your first “no” turn into the end of the road, see it as the beginning of something new. The moment you hit the wall may be the impetus you need to change direction. Turn it into the jumping-off point to create an even better future.

Katia Verresen is known as the “Tech Exec Whisperer.” She is a prominent executive coach in Silicon Valley, and her practice has helped shape the people who build products that much of the world uses. But this career was not her original plan.

Born in France, Katia had roots in many cultures. Her maternal grandfather was Chinese, and her maternal grandmother was Scottish-Canadian. Her paternal grandfather was French-Belgian, and her paternal grandmother was Italian. Many of them left their homes, and even their countries, to seek out opportunities in new places and reinvent themselves. At sixteen, Katia followed in their footsteps, leaving France for America. There, she put herself on the path to becoming a lawyer. After interning at the most prominent law firm in Silicon Valley, she felt her career was in motion.

Just after she graduated, Katia was rear-ended in a terrible car accident. This led to over a year of physical therapy and a struggle with her new profession due to her inability to sit for more than a short period. Being a lawyer meant working in front of a computer for hours, and this setback forced her to rethink her plans. Katia realized she couldn’t continue on her current path and heal her body at the same time.

This realization led her back to Europe, where she joined the well-known investor and venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki to build out his investment marketplace. There she learned the ins and outs of technology investing and settled into a job that she loved in a space she enjoyed. That all changed once more after September 11, 2001, when the whole world was shaken. Katia was laid off and without a backup plan.

Deciding to reinvent herself again, Katia started her own coaching firm. She decided to coach her own way, not through formulas or to-do lists but by understanding the deep wounds that hold people back and helping to heal them, allowing them to move forward. Katia went on to coach founders, executives, and investors across startups and large tech companies. Her services are in such high demand that she takes new clients only by referrals and keeps a months-long waiting list. She told me the first time she met me that I would be CEO someday, and I laughed at her suggestion. Now, looking back a decade later, I know it was her wisdom and encouragement that got me to where I am today.

Though she did not plan to, Katia charted her own course and redefined what success looks like for both herself and her clients. If it weren’t for that car accident, she would never have ended up at Guy’s firm. If she hadn’t been laid off, she wouldn’t have become the coach, writer, and podcaster that she is today. If it weren’t for the pandemic, she would not have scaled up her one-on-one coaching to create a new Foundations of Inner Power class that has touched thousands of executives. Each stumbling block in her life could have stopped her. Instead, they brought out Katia’s inner resilience and drove her to seek out something new. These challenges were the push she needed to pivot and reinvent herself, and they led her to help others find that same strength in themselves. Katia lives each day by her mantra: “We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we are born creators and can create possibilities from anything.”

In 2019 two professors from the Kellogg School of Management, Dashun Wang and Benjamin Jones, published a study of more than one thousand junior scientists who applied for a grant from the US National Institutes of Health between 1990 and 2005. They focused on scientists who were just above and below the cutoff where funding was granted. Unsurprisingly, those who missed getting that specific grant had a 10 percent higher probability of leaving academic research, but for those who stayed, something unexpected happened. Those who persisted, despite not receiving the grant, ended up having as much impact as those who received it—if not more.

If I had gotten an offer at McKinsey & Company during business school, I would likely have taken it and missed out on the chance to explore a career in the technology field. While failure is often seen as a negative, it can be leveraged as the springboard toward something new, an opportunity to try something you’ve previously left unexplored.

For every “no,” there is an opportunity for a different “yes.” That “yes” may be something you never considered. Three times during my career at Facebook, the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, asked me to give up large portions of my team to other parts of the business. Each time I was devastated. I had built many of the products and teams from scratch, and being asked to hand them over to other leaders felt like being told I was failing. I was angry that he would ask this of me when I had put my heart and soul into them. Each time I contemplated leaving the company.

In the workplace, we often equate scope with career advancement. Owning more means being more important or impactful. But sometimes the opposite is true. Doing too many things means giving too little attention to any single thing, which creates a struggle to keep up with disparate areas that don’t align.

I couldn’t see that, but Mark did. He asked me to give away Facebook platform, including Facebook Analytics, Games, the Audience Network, and App Install Ads to multiple other teams. I loved the products, the people, and the communities we served. My role had become a big part of my identity. The ability to reach over a billion people through more than a million apps allowed us to be more than a great product; it allowed us to be an enabler of many other great products. The chief marketing officer of a company that would later be sold for nearly $2 billion told me they existed only because of the impact of our developer platform, especially App Ads, which helped them scale at a time when they were almost shut down. I recently learned of a developer in India who leverages our tools to connect moms who would otherwise not have a community to rely on, especially where their access to the internet is extremely limited.

But none of this impact changed the fact that the worlds of Facebook platform and Facebook commerce were pulling apart, and the moment came for me to let my previous work go in order to nurture my next product. I remember the day I was told about the reorganization and how the work of over 150 people would be moving into five organizations. I barely ate and slept for those three weeks as we figured out how to execute it. I struggled with how to say goodbye to teams, people, and products I loved and had invested so much in.

I saw this shift as a major career failure, a sign that I wasn’t good enough. I felt angry, even at times betrayed, that what I accomplished wasn’t enough, that I didn’t prove my worth. But six months later, I realized that by closing that door, Mark had forced me to focus my attention on something new. I had already started to slowly build what would later become Facebook Marketplace. Over the next several years, we built it into one of the most widely used websites in the world, supporting millions of sellers and over a billion visitors each month. That wouldn’t have happened if Mark had not cut me off from my other distractions.

During times of turbulence and uncertainty, it is easy to feel defeated. When you are overlooked for the promotion, when your idea is shot down by your boss, or when you are passed over for the project you wanted to work on, allow yourself to mourn. Give yourself space and a specific timeline to process, then come up with a new plan. The best way to avoid getting seasick is to look toward the horizon and seek what lies ahead.

Excerpted from TAKE BACK YOUR POWER: 10 New Rules for Women at Work by Deborah Liu (Zondervan Books; August 9, 2022) https://debliu.com/
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