12 Rules For Dealing With Disappointment

I’ve wanted to write about how to deal with disappointment for a while. Today, I have a good reason to actually do it.

We just had a very disappointing election in the United States. *Even if your candidate won, you have to admit that the campaign and process was full of disappointments. There are a lot of adjectives to describe how you may be feeling, and how I’m feeling. I’m not going to list them. You know how you feel.

So, now what?

Most importantly, remember that progress rarely happens in a straight line, and anyone who is constantly striving for progress will inevitably face disappointment. That goes for you experimenters who are always pushing yourself to be better, too.

You will have setbacks. You will face disappointment. The harder you push toward your potential, the more likely you are to run into disappointments along the way. It’s part of the process. And what you do about disappointment will determine your fate.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” – Frederick Douglass, August 3, 1857

(Side note, if you’ve never read the speech this quote is taken from, you absolutely should. It is especially stirring and timely right now.)

OK, ready? This is how to deal with disappointment, in 12 simple rules.

1. Accept the situation.

There have been whole books written on acceptance. It’s not easy. Disappointment is cousin to disbelief. I am particularly bad at accepting things that disappoint me. Acceptance is hard because it requires being radically honest with yourself, and it hurts when you don’t get what you hope for.  Still, you can’t improve any situation until you accept it.

2. Do Not Be Cynical!

This is probably the most important one to me. I’m ashamed to say it, but I used to be cynical all the time. There can be something satisfying about cynicism. Some kind of embedded assumption of superiority and contempt that can make it feel like your disappointment is actually just a reflection of the failures of other people. But of course, cynicism is really just a manifestation of pessimism and selfishness; and it’s an unproductive trap you should avoid at all costs.

One of the strangest things that changed my life was watching Conan O’Brian’s last episode of The Tonight Show. Everyone watching knew that it was his lifelong dream to host that show, and he had to feel incredible disappointment about being forced to give it up after such a short run at it. But instead of being bitter, he gave one of the classiest and most inspiring speeches I’ve ever seen. I literally remember watching it and immediately knowing I would never be the same again.

It’s been 6 years since that aired, and I still think about it all the time. That’s it. Simple. Don’t be cynical, and don’t surround yourself in an echo chamber of cynicism, no matter how comforting it may feel in the moment.

3. Focus on what you can control.

This post is turning into a list of lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way. This one was harder than most, but learning how to do it can make you much more powerful and effective in everything you do.

There are only two things in the entire world that you can control: your thoughts and your actions.

That’s it. Two things. You can’t control other people. You can’t control elections. You can’t even control your own feelings! Your feelings are a result of your thoughts and actions.

The more you focus on making your own thoughts and actions positive, the better off you will be. Everything else is about acceptance and coping. There is always an action or thought that you can improve when you are disappointed. Your job is to find it, focus on it, and make it happen.

4. Look for lessons.

I guess that’s what this post is for me: looking for lessons in disappointment.

Yours may be different. Examine your situation. Ask yourself how it happened, and how you could have effected it differently. Answer those questions and write the answers down. Your job is to learn from them.

5. Look for new opportunities.

OK, this one is more fun because it’s all about focusing on the future, and you can make a sort of game out of it if you want.

There are opportunities in every setback. It can be a kind of creative challenge to find and create those opportunities, but do it anyway. Then write them down. See how many you can come up with. I call it the Optimist Game.

Former Navy Seal Commander Jocko Willink just calls it “GOOD.”

6. Make a new plan.

Remember those lessons and opportunities you wrote down? That’s the start of your new plan.

Go back to the drawing board. Start with a blank page, and reimagine what you want. Focus on your goals. Focus on the things in your control. Focus on the things you want. Write them down. Turn it into a plan of action. This is a huge opportunity.

7. Commit to working harder.

Sometimes disappointment happens because of things outside of your control, and sometimes it happens because we didn’t do everything we could. The best way to have no regrets is to commit to working harder and fighting for what you care about.

“Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it!” – Hillary Clinton, in her concession speech.


Did you notice that every single rule on this list starts with an action verb? Accept, Do, Focus, Learn, Look, Make, Commit, Take, Try, Use, Be.

Dealing with disappointment effectively is all about taking action. I’ve talked a lot about this before. If there’s something you want to achieve, break it down into some kind of daily action, and then do it every single day as an experiment. See what happens. When the first month is over, refine and repeat.

This post is an example. I was disappointed about the election, so I focused on what I could do to deal with that disappointment. I focused on how I could be helpful, and I sat down to write this post. Boom. I can tell you it’s definitely made me feel better to take this action.

Another example is an experiment I did earlier this year when I was struggling with some mild depression. I made a rule for one month: Every time I had a negative emotion, I would write it down in a notebook and then immediately do 10 pushups. I know that sounds like a really weird and random experiment, but it was incredibly helpful for me. At the end of the month, I had a clearer understanding of the power of positive action to overcome negative feelings. I also got a fair bit stronger at doing pushups. Win, win.

9. Try something new.

For a while, this rule was in the banner of this website. Try something new. I believe trying new things is important for everyone who wants to keep growing and learning as a person. It’s also important when facing disappointment because there’s a good chance some kind of old thinking led to your disappointment. Embrace the mindset of a scientist. Treat your situation like an experiment and try something new.

10. Use disappointment as motivation to do better.

Disappointment can be an extremely powerful feeling. You can feel hopeless and afraid and frustrated. You can also use those feelings as motivation to do better and work harder.

I injured my shoulder pretty badly about three years ago. I wasn’t able to keep doing my normal workouts or physical training afterward. I had to go back to the basics and start over with physical therapy and rehab. That was disappointing, and so was seeing a photo of myself and how my body had changed after the injury. I know that may sound shallow, but it was still disappointing.

I decided to use that disappointment as motivation to work harder and do better. So, I took that photo and posted it at the top of a fitness log that I used to keep track of my workouts. Every single day, I still look at that workout log, and that photo, and I make a note of the physical training I do to get stronger. It’s been a while since I started doing that, and I’m now very happy with the progress I’ve made on the path to recovery. There were times when that photo was the thing that motivated me to do my workouts when I didn’t feel like it.

11. Be courageous.

I wrote a post earlier today about the definition of courage. It’s natural to feel fear associated with disappointment. Fear for the future, or even of the present. It’s important to remember that the definition of courage is to go TOWARD your challenges and fears, not to go away. The more you can focus on taking those challenging actions and pushing through your fears and resistance, the more successful you will be.

12. Never give up.

This just goes without saying, but never give up. If you care about something enough to feel disappointed about it, you can never give up on that thing. Ever.

13. Bonus: Baby animals are pretty great.

OK, last rule, this one is kind of a bonus.

It’s ok to feel sad and shocked and frustrated and disappointed. Don’t try to block out or escape your feelings. Notice them. Watch them. Be compassionate to yourself. Focus on the rules above. Read this post. Hug someone. If you must escape negative feelings, don’t engage in harmful or self-sabotaging behavior. Do something positive instead. There are no wrong feelings, only wrong actions.

Finally, we live in a world with ZooBorns. That’s literally a website that gets updated every day with pictures of baby animals. Go there. You will be ok. Take the time it takes. And never give up.

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  1. #3 really sticks out for me as it was the foundation of a book I just read (The Obstacle is the Way) where Ryan Holiday talks about stoicism. One of the foundations of stoicism was not to spend (i.e. waste) time and/or energy on what you cannot control. The simplest example is the weather. You can’t control it. But you can wear a coat or get an umbrella. See? Simple.

    I agree with your perspective on #2 as it’s just plain more fun to be cynical. But is it? When I worked for a branding company, we had a rule at client presentations that no one was allowed to say bad things about the names unless it was (very) constructive criticism. Also, it’s easier to be cynical. It takes effort to come up with a new plan or better idea. Let the slackers be cynical and you rise above it and move on with your life … and your presentation.

    Great work, John and excellent timing. We can all use it, no matter what “side” we’re on.

    • Dear John, After the election results came in I was extremely disappointed and frustrated, your advice about dealing with these emotions gave me some incite about dealing with things. I suppose at my age I should have a better idea of how to do this.
      The problem with that is that the tings I am dealing with change. Of course your ideas apply to all situations, its just a matter of me getting my head around things in a somewhat different direction.


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