Career Curveballs: 60+ Influencers on Overcoming Setbacks

April 22, 2014


career curveballs hero

This post is part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers share how they turned setbacks into success. Read all their stories here.

No career is a steady move from base to base — entry level to senior level to executive level — until you make it home and enjoy a well-deserved rest in the dugout. Even the most successful professionals have curveballs thrown their way and have to hit them, duck, veer, adapt. This week and next, 60+ LinkedIn Influencers – the top minds in business – share the stories of those moments when they've had to handle surprising career twists, how they've coped and how they've turned setbacks into success.

Of all the curveballs, maybe the most unexpected come at the end of a long and distinguished career, when one might have thought the straight run was indeed possible. For General Stanley McChrystal, then supreme commander of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, it came in 2010 in the form of a Rolling Stone article that pushed him to resign from the Army. "My very identity as a soldier came to an abrupt end. I’d been soldiering as long as I’d been shaving," McChrystal writes. "Suddenly I’d been told I could no longer soldier, and it felt as though no one really cared if I ever shaved again." Such moments can reveal you to yourself. The key for him was to figure out what to do next — and refrain from speaking out in public. "The bigger the curveball, the harder it is to see the high road – but finding and sticking to it is critically important in these moments."

BP Capital chairman T. Boone Pickens proves that it's never too late to reinvent yourself, and that a curveball doesn't have to mean leaving the field. "I once read that four of the main triggers of depression are losing your job, moving out of your home, divorce, and the death of a family member or close friend. In 1996, I was four for four," he admits. At 68, Pickens was diagnosed with depression but with medical treatment, he was able to bounce back. "Looking back on my past, things began to make sense. It wasn’t the world against Boone. It was Boone against Boone."

For personal finance powerhouse Suze Orman, the world was almost too kind and that turned out to be her blessing and her curse. In an Oprah-worthy moment when she was 30, the patrons of the café where she was a waitress donated the seed money to start her business. "As amazing as the money was, it was the intention behind the entirely surprising gift that continues to humble me to this day: Kindness. Support. Belief," she writes. "The curse? I assumed that those attributes were something I would encounter throughout my professional life." They were not, and as her career progressed, she learned not to rely on the kindness of strangers.

In youth, self-inflicted curveballs seem to be more common, if Influencers can be considered a representative sample. The now much more serene Deepak Chopra describes the moment when out of youthful pride and anger, he dumped a box of files on top of his medical fellowship advisor's head – and, on the spot, ended his promising career in endocrinology. At 23, Jim Citrin, now leader of the CEO practice at Spencer Stuart, thought nothing of showing what he was working on to a college friend – who happened to work for a competitor – until it cost him his reputation at Morgan Stanley. Citrin learned the value of contrition: "Everyone makes mistakes, but what you learn from it and how you recover is the name of the game."

The upside in being so down is that you can only go up. And when nothing is expected of you, you can only pleasantly surprise. "There's an odd freedom that (eventually) comes from starting the race so far behind the starting line," says Sallie Krawcheck, the business leader of the women's professional network 85 Broads and a former top executive on Wall Street. She recounts being publicly disavowed by her mentor when she started a new job. Not having to please him or satisfy expectations allowed her to take the business in a new (and eventually more profitable) direction.

Because eventually that's what curveballs do: free you – in a not always pleasant manner – from a past situation to launch you into something new. Doing away with the baseball metaphor for a bit (yes, please!), Redballoon founder Naomi Simson refers to "Sliding Door moments:" "one door closes, another one opens, and often we are not quite sure which door is next." Curveballs – for her it was having to quit a prestigious position... under a terrible boss – open a world of possibilities that never would have existed otherwise. Richard Branson understood this too when he closed a door himself, selling Virgin Records, to give a fighting chance to his new venture, Virgin Atlantic. "It was the right decision, but an incredibly tough curveball moment," he confesses. "I found myself running down Ladbroke Grove in London with tears streaming down my face and a $1 billion cheque in my pocket."

The final word must go to one Influencer with far more legitimacy than I in extending the metaphor: Peter Guber, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and more than a dozen other baseball teams in his lifetime. "Career success is all about hitting that curveball – not knowing when, where, or how the ball will drop, but anticipating the unexpected and then being nimble and agile enough to adapt to whatever is thrown at you – before you strike out," Guber advises. "If you don’t handle your curveballs well, someone else will."

Share the stories of your own curveballs by writing a post on LinkedIn, including the hashtag #CareerCurveballs somewhere in the text. (Don't yet have access to our publishing platform? Leave your info here.)