Setbacks (not Failures)

Setbacks (not Failures)

Category : PROspective

Students often ask me how I found my way to public health – and while there’s a long and winding story that involves a knee injury and cigarette butts – it all comes down to a desire to use my quantitative skills to make a difference in the world.

Although I could not envision a more perfect job for myself than the one that I have, the reality is that this work isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, all the time. Among the successes of training the newest members of the public health workforce, shedding light on the importance of studying stillbirth, and breaking ground on a new stillbirth surveillance system, there are plenty of setbacks that have happened (and will continue to happen!) along the way.

It’s rare to hear about these setbacks (some might call them failures – I don’t love that term, and I’ll come back to why shortly!). I don’t know whether it’s a matter of pride, or simply wanting to avoid scaring those early in their careers or coming across as negative. But here’s the deal – no matter what field or sector you’re in, or how many years you have under your belt, we all stumble from time to time. Nothing goes perfectly for anyone 100% of the time

In the last few months, I experienced two setbacks related to funding for my stillbirth research. I knew that the application pools were competitive, and although I prepared myself for either outcome, I took the news much harder than I thought I would. As I reflected on why I was so upset, I came to realize that although I was disappointed that we wouldn’t get to do the research that we had proposed, I couldn’t help but think about all of the families that we wouldn’t be able to help this time around. I felt as though I had let them down. It all came back to why I got into public health in the first place – I wanted to make a difference – and these setbacks had gotten in the way.

I don’t like to think of setbacks as failures – first, it’s just not good for my mental health; but more importantly, the word “failure” sounds so final and evokes imagery of a dead end, where there’s little hope to move forward. It helps me to think of these setbacks as speed bumps, rather than closed roads. Sure, they’ve slowed me down, but they have not, and will not, halt my progress.

After a family trip to my favorite ice cream shop, and sitting in my disappointment for a few days, the first question I asked myself was: what can we do better next time so that we could achieve a different outcome? As I read the reviewers’ comments, I realized that there were no concerns about the science. In fact, the reviewers were convinced that the proposed work was really important. The sticking point, though, was concern about whether the results could be used to secure future funding. Truth be told, funding for stillbirth research is hard to come by, and in light of these concerns, I spent the last few weeks strategizing about how to fund the work in innovative ways. During this time, I identified a few new leads, but I have also channeled some of my frustration into an op-ed with the goal of garnering some more attention for this important topic.   

As you work through your own setbacks, or speed bumps, I would encourage you to consider the strategies outlined in this article (replacing the word failure with setback!), along with the following additions:

  • Remove the word failure from your vocabulary, and reframe those bumps in the road as setbacks – words carry weight, and how you think about these things matters


  • Share those setbacks! If we normalize sharing the things that don’t go as planned, we can support one another, offer suggestions for the next steps, and realize that we are not alone in this experience.


  • Don’t compare your “behind the scenes” to everyone else’s “highlight reel”. I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase, but it really resonates with me. Until we all get comfortable sharing our setbacks, we have to realize that we mostly only see the very best of what happens to those around us. Remember that you only have a sneak peek into someone else’s life, and you are likely unaware of many of the setbacks that they face.


  • Celebrate the little things. If we only celebrate when a manuscript gets accepted, or a grant is funded, those moments of celebration may be few and far between. That op-ed I mentioned before? As of this writing, it hasn’t even been submitted – but having a complete draft is something to celebrate in and of itself. I sure hope it will be published, but this is an important milestone along the way.       


While our work may not be constantly filled with sunshine and rainbows – remember that the rainbows only come with the rain. I hope that the rain motivates you to keep pushing forward to find those rainbows – and that you keep at it. I am certain that you, too, got into this field because you wanted to make a difference – let’s not let those setbacks, however large or small, get in our way.

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