Turn Letdowns Into Leadership

When somebody you care about lets you down, the easiest thing to do is to stew in your emotion. It’s only natural that we want to feel bad for ourselves, and it doesn’t help our case when we are right. Yes, your best friend really did forget to call you on your birthday — but what real benefits can you draw from feeling angry or sad about it? Few, if any.

The question is what can you do with that disappointment besides sit in it and daydream? For one, you can probe it. How much of your disappointment is even real? What’s the other person’s fault, and what is really one of your own shortcomings in disguise? When a notorious slacker at work fails to submit a report on time, that’s just another link in a very long chain of unmet expectations. Why didn’t you see that coming? Perhaps you just didn’t feel like looking for it this time.

Habitual letdowns are one thing, unrealistic expectations are another. We often expect miracles just because. We can’t plan for the worst everywhere, and sometimes, our hopes run high in places where they have no chance of ever being fulfilled. Why should your first submitted manuscript be accepted by the first publisher you send it to? Mostly because you’re excited about having completed a hard project — but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any further obstacles around the next corner.

Only once there is an objective improvement you can see to be made should you voice your concerns. There are plenty of times we can better our relationships this way — by sharing our feelings, suggesting a new communication habit, letting others know how we hurt and why — but for every one scenario when speaking up matters, there are three, five, or even nine when it doesn’t. Most of our problems happen in our heads and should be managed there.

The best use of disappointment I can think of, for now, is to turn letdowns into leadership. Rather than lower your status relative to the disappointer by taking a hurt-victim-stance, rise to the occasion. Rise up high and well above, making new fuel for a better future from a batch of sour grapes.

When your team doesn’t come through on an important deadline, salvage what you can, then rally them into succeeding on the next project with a pep talk for the ages. When your spouse forgets the milk, make up a new recipe that doesn’t require any. And when your best friend bails on you at the last minute, change your plan to something that’ll ensure you’ll still feel that you had a great day.

Like any other emotion, disappointment is a signpost, and it rarely points at other people. Read the directions carefully, make the most of the journey, and be forgiving to yourself when you lose the way.