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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 sometimes, we need to scream, cry, or crumble before we can turn fury into fervor and fervor into action.

Be careful, though, not to spiral into endless negativity. Call a friend who appreciates your uncensored self, but also who will listen with empathy, help you balance gravity with levity, and encourage you to live your values. Try to end each conversation with at least one action you can take to progress.

If you’re not ready to do that yet, I have another suggestion.


A career setback, especially one that is driven by inequity in the workplace, is anything but a laughing matter. But just like you need to fully feel your difficult emotions, you also need to let yourself feel joy. For my health, I watched a comedy show every day for 15 months. Laughter is good. It relieves stress, boosts engagement, and well-being.

Give yourself a break. Laugh.

Think about what comes next.

Career advancement is gray with unspoken policies and hidden norms. Outcomes do not depend solely on your performance. Even if you have a great resume, and are driven, qualified, and likeable, there are other factors involved in the decision-making process that you have no control over.

Stop overanalyzing your shortcomings. Stop ruminating over your possible mistakes. Stop assuming fault. Stop doubting yourself.

What you have control over is what you do next. Once you have honored your feelings — screamed, laughed, cried, or all of the above — it’s time to move through self-recrimination. The best way to silence your inner critic, in my experience, is to focus on what you would like your future to look like.

What this really comes down to is living a life of integrity. You have the power to define your own limits and what you stand for.

Planning for the future may feel challenging when you don’t know what next month is going to bring. It’s easy to get caught up in titles and raises (I certainly did) because they are shiny markers of success. But these goals can be a distraction from what you should really be thinking about: What do you want your legacy to be?

For me, this meant thinking about the kind of leader I wanted to be. I wanted to be respectful to my teammates, build meaningful connections, and lead with purpose. I wanted to be inclusive, fair, authentic, and empowering. I wanted to inspire feelings of peace and joy as opposed to feelings of injustice or turmoil.

Grounding yourself in your values and your vision is a powerful way to climb out of the dark hole. Work with purpose will offer fulfillment for years to come, and not just temporary happiness. What this really comes down to is living a life of integrity. You have the power to define your own limits and what you stand for. When you attach yourself and your worth to a value as opposed to a title, a rank, or a salary — even if you want to continue to fight for those things — you empower yourself to craft your own narrative around what success looks and feels like.

Redefine your metric of success.

You might not know what your “purpose” is. You might not even be clear on your values. If that’s the case, try this exercise:

Take a few moments at the end of your workday to reflect on the work that has made you proud. Write down your top five moments or “professional highlights.” When I did this, making tenure (twice) didn’t make my list. My moments were all related to other people: my spouse, my kids, my students, my collaborators, my friends, and the children that my non-profit, QuanTâm, serves.

I realized that, to me, success involves improving the lives of other people by building their confidence and making sure they feel supported. I believe we need to take intentional action when we see one another hurting, when we see injustice, and when we see opportunities to interrupt or prevent bad behavior from spreading.

What’s on your list?

Read what you wrote down. Now think about how success is measured in your industry. How do these two things align? You may find that your organization is benefiting from work you are tasked with but that you don’t find fulfilling. You may also find that what you do find fulfilling is not being rewarded by your organization.

In academia, many institutions fail to mentor women through the ranks. Women of color leak out of the tenure pipeline at every stage, and yet, are often asked to serve on high-level committees. While our experiences and inputs are essential, and our visibility on these committees “looks good” to the public, this invisible labor goes unrewarded. What is rewarded? Having the time and energy to publish research.

Think about your situation and try to redefine your metric of success. It should include two things: Work that aligns with your values and work that is recognized and rewarded by your organization.

Change the behaviors that are not serving you.

Now that you have an idea of what success means to you, it’s time to put that knowledge to action.

If you are determined to climb the ranks, say yes to tasks that fit your new metric of success and say no to the ones that don’t.

When we say no, we are really saying, “Give credit where credit is due.”

There are going to be tasks you find personally rewarding that are not rewarded by your organization. Hold strong. The more we say no to service that goes unrecognized in the promotion process, the more pressure we put on leaders to update their reward models. Work that has historically benefited the organization and not the worker should be added to the reward model if leaders want it to get done.

When we say no, we are really saying, “Give credit where credit is due.”

In the past few months, I put this idea to practice. I declined multiple invitations to serve on labor intensive committees at my institution. Truly, I would have found great value in sitting in those rooms and using my voice to advocate for students. But I knew that my efforts would not be valued in the same way by my employer — at least not on paper.

This doesn’t mean I stopped doing the work. I just found other ways to get it done. I shifted my service commitments to working with nonprofits, helping at-risk high schoolers reintegrate into classrooms after a year of remote learning.

By my own metric of success, this was a win — and it was a choice that reserved my physical and mental health.

Lean on people who believe in you.

Having an ever-present audience who is deeply influenced by your words is invaluable throughout this journey.

At times, it may feel like no one is cheering you on, but there are people who are on your side and know that you are good at what you do. We often don’t realize our biggest supporters are hidden inside the woodwork of our own organizations and networks.

I met several people on LinkedIn who had been through worse setbacks than I had, people who relocated their entire lives because of abrupt terminations, but still had the courage and confidence to be the hero and not the victim in their narratives. It put things into perspective.

Once we own the good, bad, and ugly parts of our stories, the only person who has the power to define our worth is ourselves.

At work, take a closer look at your peers and colleagues. Spend time nurturing the relationships with the ones who lift you up, share your values, and appreciate your contributions to the future of your organization and to society (and stay away from the ones who don’t).

It’s also worth seeking out colleagues on different career tracks than yourself, who can offer you an entirely new and refreshing take on your situation and organization.

Finally, at home, let your loved ones remind you of your many achievements. When they do, listen and be grateful. When I added gratitude to my daily journaling routine, my awareness and appreciation of the support I had been receiving from everyone heightened, and I was happier.

I want to encourage us to normalize these conversations. You don’t have to face a career setback alone. You may not want to immediately share disappointing news, but when the time is right for you, know that there are people who will listen with compassion.

Once we own the good, bad, and ugly parts of our stories, the only person who has the power to define our worth is ourselves. And that is powerful. That is what will allow us to move forward, challenge the status quo, and be daring.

About the author

Lan Nguyen Chaplin is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also the Founder of QuanTâm, a nonprofit that gives young professionals opportunities to expand their networks and sharpen their professional skills while serving their community.

Find out more about Lan on LinkedIn


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