In Gratitude for Setbacks

When I say my layoff in 2002 was the best thing that ever happened to me, the reactions typically fall in one of these categories:

~ The person I’m talking to thinks I worked in a horrible job that I hated and I bounced right back to land a more pleasant and fruitful one.

~ The person I’m talking to thinks I’m a wacky Pollyanna sort.

Neither of those is true.

Last week while I participated in a spirituality discussion group at a local bookstore, the concept of dealing with setbacks and tragedy came up. The notion that the same incident could make one person grow and become stronger and throw another off course so badly that they never recover was a point of respectful disagreement among the participants.

Some seemed to feel that if you’ve experienced something most would consider awful that it was natural to have sustained anger, depression, dysfunction. Others in the group talked about taking those experiences and becoming better, more nuanced people because of them. It wasn’t a judgmental conversation, but a profound one in the sense that both sides – in a crowd of aware, smart and diverse people – seemed to be learning and opening up.

It was with that context that I opened my New York Times on Sunday and found a piece by Michael Kubin headlined, The Ponzi Schemer Who Changed My Life, and with a pullout quote stating, “I was swindled by Bernie Madoff. And I’m the better for it.”

This is my kind of story. Not because the writer is putting on a happy front start to finish, but because he isn’t. If something bad happens, there is typically bitterness, sadness, despair, confusion, all of it, and then, ideally, with some distance one can look ahead, see how things can be better, in some cases take responsibility or understand the setback.

“After Mr. Madoff’s arrest I was angry,” Kubin writes. “I was angry at someone who despicably stole so much from so many. I was angry at the Securities and Exchange Commission for not having uncovered his scheme sooner, angry at the family who put me in the investment, angry at my own family for not having talked me out of it. But ultimately I was angry at myself. A fool and his money are soon parted, and I was the fool.”

How mature and self-aware is that?

Sometimes when we get perspective, it floors other people. They find it remarkable. When I was laid off from Oxygen Media, a company that Oprah Winfrey once had a financial stake in, I had a family member wonder how I could ever watch her show again or buy her magazine. He felt he was being loyal, but it never occurred to me that it was Winfrey’s fault that the show I was working on was cancelled or that the network was to blame for feeling the ripple effect of diminished advertising dollars due to the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001.

My anger and panic were more a result of feeling helpless and out of control. I had never been asked to leave a job on any terms but my own. Intellectually I knew it wasn’t personal, but it felt personal. My mantra was “why me?” and I wore my victimhood on my sleeve. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true. Had anyone at the time suggested this was a positive time in my life in any way, I might have ripped their head off.

So for me to say now, in retrospect, that the very same layoff was the best thing that ever happened to me is a big deal. Once I worked through the initial angst, kept my nose to the grindstone, sought out books and loved ones for support, and stayed open to possibility, I started to see the redeeming value of what felt insurmountable at the time.

As I have written a few times in this space, I learned to simplify, to see what was truly important, to be kinder, to focus on abundance instead of lack, and to live in the moment. Working through stress by holding on to the gym membership, for example, was vital for me. So was cutting out expensive dinners and overall becoming much more aware of wasteful spending.

I live now rather than exist and it feels fabulous on most days. The fact that I was even participating in that spirituality discussion group last week is a direct result of the spiritual and emotional exploring I did after my financial setback.

Sure, I like my career track and the people around me are wonderful, but what feels best of all is the knowledge that I’m capable of turning things around when things don’t go my way.

In the words of Kubin, “For that I am, I dare to say, grateful.”

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is Please direct all questions/comments to