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When setbacks arise, you want to be prepared to handle them with grace. Explore some tips to help you recover from even the most unpleasant of circumstances.

The longer you work as a web designer or developer, the more failures, mistakes and setbacks you’re going to experience. You might get fired by a long-time client. You could accidentally lose all your files from a job and be forced to start all over again. You might get so bogged down with reworks that you blow a job’s budget, leaving you with no profit whatsoever.

Professional failures big and small never feel good. But rather than allow each of them to whittle away at your confidence, productivity or momentum, you can choose to instead grow stronger after each one.

Today, we’re going to look at seven things you can do after encountering a misstep that will help you quickly get back on track.

What to Do in Response to Professional Mistakes and Setbacks

When you run into a hiccup in your work, what’s your plan to deal with it? If you don’t have one yet, or the one you currently follow doesn’t work, then give these tips a try:

1. Take a Step Back Before Reacting

It’s easy to panic when something goes wrong or you encounter an unexpected outcome. Responding when you’re in an elevated emotional state will only make things worse.

Instead, give it some time. Putting some distance between yourself and the issue will give you the space you need to think through it logically and return to it with a cooler head.

Depending on what’s gone wrong, you might have more time to step away than with other situations.

For instance, let’s say a disgruntled client has gone onto your Facebook or Google page and left a nasty note about your web design services and they recommend that no one ever hire you again. You don’t want that note to be online and unaddressed for too long. At the same time, you don’t want to respond to it when you’re feeling heated.

Even something as simple as going for a walk with your dog or taking your family out to dinner can help you decompress, unpack the situation and figure out the proper response. Just be careful about encroaching on avoidance coping territory.

2. See It Through to Its Resolution

Whatever has gone wrong, don’t abandon it. That’s another way to make things worse for yourself.

There’s a concept in psychology known as avoidance coping. Essentially, when something bad happens, your body has to decide if it wants to go into fight or flight mode. People who use avoidance coping go for flight.

But it’s not simply about avoiding an issue. They procrastinate and occupy themselves with unhealthy and unhelpful activities—like binge-watching TV or overeating. This can lead to increased anxiety, according to Psychology Today.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you literally fight your way out of a problem by getting into an argument with your client. Nor am I suggesting that you keep working on something if it’s going to result in you not getting paid, having to deal with ongoing abuse from a client or anything like that.

But there should be a final resolution so you can close up the matter, tidy up around you and move on.

For instance, let’s say you’ve been let go by an employer or a long-time client. You could take it personally and burn that bridge. Or you could get upset and beg them not to let you go.

Another option would be to take the emotion out of it and help the client wrap things up. In this case, you could thank them for the opportunity and hand over resources you put together over the years (like a style guide, digital assets, notes on their preferences, etc.). And before you officially close up that relationship, you let them know where to find you online in case they ever need your help again.

These situations won’t always wrap up this positively or optimistically. Regardless, there should be an official end to each of these bad situations to alleviate residual stress and anxiety.

3. Accept Responsibility

Not every setback you encounter will directly be because of something you did. That said, at some point, you made a decision or took an action that increased the odds of this happening. So some of the responsibility is yours. Being able to accept it will help you learn something and grow from the situation.

I’ll give you an example from my business.

I prepare all of my copy and strategy work in Google Docs. All my projects are stored in the same cloud space. However, I have different rules for how long I retain those files. For long-term clients, I hold onto documents for two years before deleting them. For one-time gigs, I hold onto them for six months.

I made two mistakes here. The first is that I never informed clients about my content disposal rules. And that’s because of my second mistake, which is that I assumed that all of my clients use my content right away.

So when a former one-time client reached out wanting to know where their Google Doc was a year after I sent it to them, I explained my hosting process and told them the file was gone. I could’ve easily gotten into a fight and blamed them for not bothering to open the article they paid for a year ago. Instead, I chose to offer them the option of a refund or rewrite.

Whether you have to own up to your error to yourself or to someone else, it’s not going to feel good. But it’s the only way you’re going to learn and avoid those mishaps in the future.

Everything bad can and should be reframed as a learning experience.

4. Share the Story with Others

When you have a bad day or something goes wrong, you probably feel inclined to tell your loved ones and close friends about it. That’s not always the best approach if you want to move past mistakes.

There’s an old HBR article that talks about the tendency of many high-achieving individuals to take credit for all their wins and to attribute their losses to something outside themselves. Because of this, they seek out people close to them to confirm their bias:

“Some ask others for candid feedback, but most turn to sympathetic friends, family members, and colleagues who reinforce their self-image (‘You deserved that job’) and feed their sense of injustice (‘You have every right to be angry’). This prevents them from considering their own culpability and breaking free of the destructive behavior that derailed them in the first place. It may also lead them to ratchet back their current efforts and future expectations in the workplace.”

The more fruitful approach, according to these studies, is to get honest feedback from a wide range of people instead of seeking consolation from people you know and trust. That doesn’t mean you can’t vent to your loved ones. It’s just that, if you’re looking to productively move past the mistakes in your business, their advice might not be the best to follow.

If you don’t already have a group of designers, creatives or freelancers you turn to to swap stories, share tips and so on, find one.

They’re going to be your best resource when it comes to sharing your mistakes and learning from them. You’ll also have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, which can help you proactively put safeguards in place to keep them from happening to you.

5. Don’t Let One Mishap Define You

It might feel like the end of the world when something bad happens at work. While there might be some unpleasant consequences you have to deal with, there is most definitely a light at the end of the tunnel.

I know it’s hard to pick your head up and to stare down the tunnel at what lies ahead when you’re in the thick of it. But you need to. Otherwise, you’ll carry the weight of that mistake or failure with you in everything you do from that point forward.

Something you can do if you find yourself in this position is to do a search for “famous failures.” Trust me. Every successful person has a mile-long list of failures, mistakes and rejections.

For example, Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because they said he lacked creativity. In addition, his concept for the Disney parks was turned down more than 300 times.

You can’t let one or even a small string of mishaps define your career or stop it dead in its tracks. If success were easy, everyone would do it.

6. Reevaluate Your Processes

I mentioned avoidance coping earlier. The converse of that is something called problem-focused coping.This is a useful skill for web designers to master in general.

Essentially, when you encounter an obstacle, don’t just take a detour around it. While that might be useful the first time you run into it, what’s to say that it won’t happen again? Are you going to keep increasing the time and energy it takes you to do a task because you can’t be bothered to remove the obstacle?

Let’s take my example from earlier about the Google Docs management. The client ended up asking me to rewrite the post. It was a 6,000-word post that took me 12 hours to put together.

I could’ve walked away from that anomalous situation and tried to ignore it. But I didn’t. Although it’s the first time it’s happened to me in 10 years of writing, I most definitely don’t want it to happen again. So here’s what I did:

First, I edited my delivery email templates so that new clients must confirm receipt of their content and are made aware that the file will be removed from my storage within six months. Second, I updated my client contracts so that there’s now a clause letting them know about my document disposal policy. Third, I began informing all clients—even long-term ones—before I delete any files.

The next time something goes awry—whether it’s your fault or not—take some time to debrief. What part of that situation was in your control? Is there anything you can change to avoid that issue or failure in the future? It could be something as simple as watching for warning signs when choosing the clients or adding a new clause to your contract.

7. Make a List of Your Successes and Failures

I’m a huge list person. I believe there’s a ton of value in making handwritten lists if you want to make smarter decisions and better choices. The Pros & Cons list is my personal favorite.

I didn’t know this until recently, but it was Ben Franklin’s preferred manner of decision-making. In a letter to scientist Joseph Priestley, he advised the following:

“…[D]ivide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro and over the other Con. Then during three or four days’ consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives that at different times occur to me for or against the measure… [I]f after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly.”

He explained earlier in the letter that it’s often hard to see all the reasons for or against something all at once. It takes time. And, usually, our reality is distorted by how we feel.

Why do I bring up a pros and cons list when it comes to the matter of failure? Well, I think a similar technique applies here. When impostor syndrome starts to creep in and you’re beating yourself up about a recent mistake or failure, this method can give you some clarity and relief.

So the next time something goes wrong, grab a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil. Create two columns. One for SUCCESSES and one for FAILURES. Then start writing.

Leave the sheet of paper out for a few days, somewhere you’ll encounter it often. Add your wins and losses from your work as they come to you. I’m talking about all of your wins and losses—as far back as you’ve been working as a designer or developer. Then review the list after three of four days.

I’m willing to bet that your successes far outweigh any mistakes or mishaps that have occurred. In the grand scheme of things, what you’re going through now with the error or mishap means nothing. This list will give you a better perspective on that.


As I wrote this post, I realize there’s a common thread that runs through all of the tips:

If you want to persevere, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

While you can certainly fortify your business and processes to mitigate issues, you can’t avoid them entirely. Nor can you hide away from them when they arise.

This is why I firmly believe that resilience and perseverance are two of the most important soft skills for creatives. They teach you how to channel your pain, frustrations and discomfort into something good.

In the end, you’ll come out a stronger, more competitive and successful web designer. And, one day, you might even look back on your failures and be able to laugh about them.

About the Author

Suzanne Scacca

A former project manager and web design agency manager, Suzanne Scacca now writes about the changing landscape of design, development and software.

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