North Carolina, USA

A Setback is Just a Setup for a Comeback

First Published on LinkedIn on June 11th, 2014.

Life. It is full of twists, turns, plans and the unexpected. Everyone believes in life that they are in control at some point. We think we know what are doing. We know where we are going. We have it all figured out. Regardless, few of us escape some sort of personal setback in life. Whether financial, emotional, spiritual or otherwise, I have found that most of these setbacks strike when we least expect. Many noted figures in business and life also reference personal tragedies or setbacks in their biographies as a catalyst for their own move from good to great.

I choose this topic as my initial long-form post on LinkedIn today for a reason. My own life “setback” occurred six years ago today when I lost my father to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). Diagnosed in April 2008, he was gone just two months later. I had heard of leukemia before but there was no family history. I had never given it a possible thought of being something I should worry about. My father was always a strong, healthy person and I expected him to live a long natural life.

The Unexpected Shift

When I learned of his condition, I was in the midst of starting my own business in Florida and had just slaved to a point of freeing myself from endless ramen noodle meals. Quickly bringing everything to a halt, I packed up and went home to help him. When the leukemia had finished its work, I remember vividly the sleepless nights that came over me. Yes, I had built a pretty good career in media but I had never finished my undergraduate degree. In all honesty, I didn’t really have a future plan at the time. What was I to do with my life? Who was I? What were my true passions? Was I good enough to stand on my own two feet after all or had I just free-wheeled through life taking everything for granted? Was I fully prepared for anything and everything, not only for myself but for my mother and others important to me? I was an overweight smoker, stressed out with debt and spiritually lost.

The First Step is the Hardest

In a setback moment, everything is grey. It is very difficult to gain clarity. Yet, it is also the very moment where you will likely face a pivotal point in life. Embrace it and you can turn a setback into a comeback. Avoid it and you will stagnate or dwell in the past. You can choose to shrink into mediocrity or stand up and push forward to a better place.

It takes a lot to pick yourself up. It takes an unusual combination of mental and spiritual strength combined with a heightened sense of humility. Many cannot do it. I seriously doubted if I could even do it. Regardless, you can do it if you focus on the first immediate step. One day, I decided to join a local gym. After months of focused effort, I lost almost 100lbs. As a natural byproduct of this effort, I also quit smoking.

Once my health started getting better, I began putting energy into additional freelance work and eventually paid off my immediate debts over that same period. Finally, I picked up the phone, swallowed my pride and called the dean of my undergrad alma mater (Wake Forest) after 15 years away, begging “please open the door and give me a way back in to finish my degree”. His help and mentoring led the way for other accomplishments to come (here’s a link to a story I wrote for Wake Forest about the appreciation I have for his role in my comeback).

Create the Conditions for a Comeback

Because I chose to embrace the setback, I began creating the conditions that staged my comeback. Now, I have positive answers to the many questions that kept me awake those nights. Not only did I go back and finish my undergraduate degree, I kept on going. Nothing could hold me back. I went on to get an MBA at William & Mary, served as class president, worked harder than ever, made the grades and continued on to graduate Beta Gamma Sigma with a second Masters in Global Management at Thunderbird. I’ve attended conferences and traveled to other countries to network with high level executives in a variety of fascinating industries and cultures. I recently re-incorporated my prior freelance business from 2008, rebuilding my client roster and engaging in a variety of exciting partnership projects.

Letting the Path Find You

I recently discovered that my father’s leukemia may have originated from excessive water contamination while working as a civilian aboard Camp Lejeune, NC. Last year, I started a non-profit (www.civilianexposure.org) to raise awareness for those exposed. This year, I was recently selected to serve on a CDC Community Advisory Panel for the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry) to help evaluate ongoing research for this issue.

Six years ago today, I felt loss, confusion and lack of purpose. With a lot of personal conviction and the help of countless others along the way, I embraced the setback and pivoted. Today, I have my health, three degrees and the beginnings of several marketing, consulting, voiceover and journalism projects. Plus, I now humbly serve in a critical role to both increase awareness and drive environmental policy changes for water contamination aboard military installations. Through CivilianExposure.org, I now look to raise funds for scholarships in honor of my father. I want to help others become architects of their own personal comeback.

Remember, a setback is just a setup for a comeback. Life goes on and so should you. It’s in this moment that you shape your future. Don’t shrink from it. Embrace it. If you are willing to take the first step and stay in the positive, then hold on tight. It can be a great ride!

Thanks for reading.

Gavin P Smith initials


PS: I look forward to posting frequently on a variety of my personal passions – music, media, marketing, entrepreneurship, leadership, social causes and international business. Please feel free to visit my personal website, follow me on Twitter @Doctor_G, and contact me on LinkedIn at any time for ways that I can be of service to you. Thank you, also, for visiting and supporting www.civilianexposure.org.

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