It’s a slip and not a fall

How to recover from setbacks

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln lost the Senate race to his main political rival, Stephen A. Douglas.

Just two years earlier, he was already lamenting his place in the world compared to that of Douglas.

In fact, in 1856 he said that, while they were both ambitious, “With me, the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success.”

Think about that. At the age of 49, only a few years before being elevated to the presidency, Abraham Lincoln considered himself a flat failure.

And on that evening in 1858, after watching the election results come in at the telegraph office, he walked home defeated. A few years later, though, he told the story differently.

He recalled that he slipped on the rainy walk, “but I recovered . . . and I said to myself, ‘It's a slip and not a fall.’”

What he didn’t do was write himself off, or give up. He acknowledged he had stumbled, but that he had more progress to make.

He avoided the mistake that behavioral scientist Katy Milkman warns against in How to Change. “If you’re going to fail,” she writes, “research shows people often feel they might as well do it with a bang.”

So many of us, when we experience a setback, can feel like we might as well just give up on our goal completely instead of getting as close to it as possible.

Maybe we’ve made a big marketing mistake and wasted a lot of money or time. Or perhaps we’ve lost out on a major business opportunity we’d been counting on.

It’s easy to think that we’ve lost, we’ve screwed up, we’ve made a critical mistake. And we might assume the next best thing to do is stop trying and do something else instead.

But as Dan Sullivan wrote, “It doesn’t take any talent to react emotionally to bad news.”

No, the hard part is accepting bad news for what it is—a slip and not a fall—and moving forward anyway. Despite our pride and despite our desire to give up.

Because we simply do not know the final outcome of anything, even a failure.

Indeed, during his presidency, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, with its famous opener, Four score and seven years ago. And it was another flat failure.

The Chicago Times called it “filly, flat, and dishwatery.”

The Times of London said it was “ludicrous.”

The Harrisburg Patriot and Union wished of Lincoln’s words that the “veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

Even that greatest speech of all time looked like a setback in the moment.

Because, as Stacey Abrams wrote in Lead from the Outside, “Over the years, in every facet of our lives, if we are willing to risk, we will lose.”

But as we now know, that “ludicrous” speech would end up immortalized in stone and memory. And our own apparent failures are not where our stories are destined to end, either.

No, Abrams continues, “The most significant successes come from letting your light shine, embracing failure, and getting good at being wrong.”

Because every setback we encounter—in marketing, in business, in life—is an opportunity to learn, not a reason to give up hope. Our failures are part of our education—they make us better, not worse.

Not only do they show us where we can improve, they often teach us patience and humility. They teach us to accept that we cannot see the future or predict what happens next.

Because, like Lincoln, we simply have no idea whether our greatest failure of today will in fact be our greatest triumph tomorrow.

Lincoln assumed he was bound for obscurity and that Douglas was destined for immortal memory. But when was the last time you thought about Stephen Douglas?

The fact is, the future is out of our sight and out of our hands. All we can control is ourselves.

So we must apply ourselves diligently, try our best, and make reasoned choices that are most likely to lead to good outcomes.

But we must also acknowledge that we will experience problems, challenges, and embarrassing failures.

We need to be ready for them, and ready to learn from them, and ready to move forward anyway.

Because all we can do is keep making progress, certain that our failures are only a slip and not a fall.