Let’s talk about our career failures

Written by Lan Nguyen Chaplin (Originally published on HBR Ascend)

After working in academia for more than two decades, Lan Nguyen Chaplin was denied a promotion to the rank of full professor. Based on her experience, she offers advice on how to regroup and grow after experiencing a setback at work.

I was denied a promotion to the rank of full professor after working in academia for more than two decades. The application process, from the initial conversations to the final decision, took 15 months — spanning the entire pandemic.

The news was delivered to me through a screen without the prospect of an in-person follow up. It was debilitating. During lockdown, I had already been re-examining the relationship between my work and my purpose. I journaled daily to work through my thoughts.

Earlier in the year, I published a piece about how to disrupt a system that was built to hold you back. Readers from all over the world wrote to me to ask for advice on how to speak up and be heard. While different populations were inviting me to present on breaking through barriers, I was too upset to compose an uncensored sentence about my own setback at work.

We need to talk more about what it feels like to go through a major career setback.

Privately I felt like a failure. I told myself I failed in my field. I failed the people who had supported me. I failed my immigrant parents. I failed my first generation students. I failed the women who wrote to me, asking how to advance their careers. I thought of the countless times I have spoken up and was made to feel less worthy, times when my ideas were not valued, when I feared retaliation and pushed anyway, only to be belittled or ignored.

When we are let go, let down, or told we have not earned the right to a promotion, we don’t usually go around sharing the news on social media. It’s easier to talk about our successes than it is our failures. We don’t want to spark discomfort or ask others for their grief when the year has been filled with tragedies much worse than a setback at work. We fear we will be labeled as “disgruntled” or “complainers.”

So we keep quiet.

The problem is that, when we do, we present an incredibly skewed view of what our journeys look like.

We need to talk more about what it feels like to go through a major career setback — specifically for women of color in today’s workforce. Together, Asian, Black, and Hispanic women make up only 10% of management roles in corporate America, and just 3% of full professors (the highest rank in academia) are female and Asian.

If we give voice to the setbacks that contribute to these inequities in the same way we do our achievements, we can save ourselves from suffering in isolation and gain the support we need to, slowly but surely, rebuild confidence and take back control of our careers.

Based on my own experience, here’s how to regroup and grow in virtue after experiencing a setback at work. I hope that my story can be someone else’s survival guide.

Feel your feelings.

Keeping up with what others think of you is emotionally draining. It is exhausting and dehumanizing to spend an exorbitant amount of time legitimizing your work and your worth to your organization. It’s also a major piece of the puzzle when you’re trying to climb the ranks.

When you are denied that rank, this makes the let-down all the more painful. If you are like me, you may turn inward and blame yourself before looking outward at the system that might have failed you.

If you feel anger or despair, as I did, recognize those feelings as a deeper need for something else.

The demoralizing truth is that, in every industry, there are workers who have to jump through hoops to secure a promotion. The system fails us, however, when one group has to do more work and provide more evidence than another group to secure the same opportunity. Career setbacks show up when, even after providing that evidence, the disadvantaged group is denied the chance to move up in rank.

The numbers show that women of color experience this kind of setback often. It’s not right or just, which is why my first piece of advice is: It’s okay not to be okay.

After a career setback, you’re going to feel a lot of things: outrage, exhaustion, sadness, and disappointment. Those emotions are valid and deserve to be honored. You deserve time and space to process them, and when I say process, I mean reflecting on what really matters to you to better understand why you are hurting.

This is not the same as dwelling. Dwelling will not serve you — it will leave you resentful and stuck.

If you feel anger or despair, as I did, recognize those feelings as a deeper need for something else. It could be growth, change, or a new challenge or purpose. You may not be able to control whether those needs manifest in the form of a pay raise, promotion, or job title, but you can control other aspects of your journey. Recognizing this is the first step to recovery.

Do it at your own pace. It took me more than a year.

Scream, laugh, cry.

Don’t mistake my optimism about “processing” and “moving forward” as rose-colored glasses. During that year of honoring my feelings, I also allowed myself to vent. I recommend it. Add venting to your “to-do” list — and timebox it.

Give yourself 30 minutes every few days to call up a close friend and yell about all the things holding you back. Get angry about systemic injustice. Shout about the work that needs to be done. It can cause more harm than good when you keep these feelings locked inside, and