On Setbacks and the 3Ps – Personalization, Pervasiveness and Permanence.

Normally, I am not the one who cares much for commencement speeches. They have all sounded the same to me with a common theme – reach for the moon and even if you fail, you will be among the stars. So when I clicked on Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech, among the many videos posted on my Facebook home page, I was struck by how much her message on resilience resonated with me and my recent focus on finding the positives in life.

By now, Sheryl Sandberg needs no introduction. A brilliant Harvard-educated business woman, Sandberg has always been among the elite of America as a former Google exec and a now a successful Facebook COO.  She is also the face of a recent movement that encourages women to reach their full potential and not be afraid to “lean-in”.  So many wonder why they would even care what she has to say about dealing with loss.  Just what does a woman with more than 7 zero’s in her bank account know about dealing with life’s difficulties? Sandberg lost her husband a year ago due to a cardiac condition, a tragic event that threw her world upside down and changed her perception about life. Just scrolling through the comments show me that many people write her off as another rich woman lamenting her loss. But I found her speech rather enlightening. Her advice at UC Berkeley’s commencement was directed at graduates, but it is equally applicable to all us from all walks of life.

An important take-away from her speech is the 3Ps that are used to process setbacks and define how resilient we are. The 3Ps are personalization, permanence and pervasiveness.   Personalization is the idea that whatever has occurred is your fault. Permanence means the sadness will last forever. Pervasiveness means the event will affect every part of our life. To bounce back from a tragic event depends on the degree to which we process these 3Ps.  Resilience means thinking that we are not at fault for the event. Do not blame yourself for something you have no control over. As well, none of this should be permanent and your life must be back on track. Lastly, a setback whether it’s a job loss or death should not hold you back from all the other beautiful things in life.

Every one of us has faced numerous setbacks regardless of our socioeconomic circumstances. Middle-income people have one set of concerns, but the wealthy like Sandberg also deal with setbacks. Maybe she is not going to the poor house any time soon, but she is a human being with concerns about protecting her now father-less children and importantly, protecting both herself and her family from the glare of the media spotlight due to her high profile. The concerns of different demographic groups are also real.  Students worry day in and day out about getting into the right college in an increasingly competitive environment. Adults deal with co-workers, jobs and career changes. If you have not faced too many setbacks, then you have been really lucky.

Another aspect of dealing with setbacks and one that was only alluded to during her speech is what lessons we can draw from these setbacks and we can do to prepare ourselves better for the future. Resilience is only one part of the healing process. Another overlooked part of this healing process is learning from the experience.   Getting rejected from jobs is a setback that many of us can relate to. We see ourselves as the most talented and most qualified.  However, after getting shot down by 20+ employers can be emotionally painful and physically draining because of the energy and time that we devote to these applications. We begin to question our value to society. I have been in this situation time and again and I remember the pain of it. It can also be degrading.  What lessons can be drawn from these setbacks?  We may be resilient from the lessons of the 3Ps, but what do setbacks teach us?  Sometimes, we should lower our bar of expectations and cast your net wider.  We have no control over the state of the economy or the arbitrary nature of the hiring process, but in the search process, only a few of us will land at a Fortune 500 company upon graduation without connections. You also have to be realistic with yourself; chances are, finishing short of a top notch GPA will not land you an interview at that prestigious law firm or consulting group.  Learning from your setbacks will certainly prevent disappointment down the road.

You must be thinking: how can I compare a job rejection to the death of a loved one? Both are setbacks that make you reevaluate your life. In the latter, you reevaluate what is important to you and how to make each day count.  In the former, it is about reevaluating your strengths and weaknesses.  Setbacks, major or minor and as painful as they are, are the guiding posts of life.