Struggling With A Work Setback? Reflect On Your Childhood (Yes, Really)

Growing up might not have been an entirely happy experience, but you can tap into moments that instilled a sense of purpose in you.

Struggling With A Work Setback? Reflect On Your Childhood (Yes, Really)
[Photo: Flickr user Kumar McMillan]

Lost your job?


“You’re fired.”
“I’m sorry, but we have to let you go.”
“I’m afraid we’re not going to renew your contract.”

Lost the pitch?

“We felt the fit just wasn’t right.”
“Yours was one of our favorites. It was a hard choice, but . . .”

Dealing with a mean boss or a bullying coworker?

“I could easily have you replaced.”
“What’s the matter with you!? You don’t listen! I’ve told you a million times!”

Or maybe you’re just under-employed, bored, or feeling lost professionally. When you’re dealing with a setback at work or undergoing a slow slide into disillusionment, struggling to find meaning or purpose in your work, things can feel pretty hopeless. It’s in times like these that many of us make rash career moves, desperate for any change in our work lives.


But as a coach, as well as somebody who’s experienced these low points firsthand, I’ve found there’s one mental exercise that helps me reconnect with what matters most to me and figure out how to move forward. Strange as it sounds, my trick is simply to deeply about my past.

How Tapping Your Memories Can Help In Hard Times

Reflecting on my childhood and young adulthood isn’t just daydreaming–the point isn’t to avoid my present challenges by indulging in escapist nostalgia. Instead, it’s to try and remember the sequence of experiences that led me to where I am now. I try to reach beyond the fear and constraints of the moment so I can reconnect with something deeper and more permanent.

When I work with clients who are struggling with professional difficulties, I ask them to do the same–to remember what inspired them to move along the career path they chose, no matter how frustrating the circumstances that path has led them into right now: What was in their work that originally gave them the feelings of pleasure and fulfillment that they’ve built their career on? What was an early moment of discovery and delight that first got them excited? The stories I hear include nuggets like these:

  • A photographer who still has the photos she took with the camera her dad gave her when she was 4.
  • A writer who remembers magical trips to the library with his mother.
  • A designer who can still visualize and describe his first-grade volcano illustration.

Time and again, these memories hold revealing clues about where to go to rekindle that fire. They’re the recollections that show us where to look for sustenance when our professional lives demand it most.

Finding Meaning In Unexpected Places

And best of all, this exercise in self-reflection isn’t predicated on having had an exclusively happy childhood. Here’s one of my defining memories:

I was about 8 and living in the home of a woman who took in foster children. I spent much of my time there by myself and felt terribly lonely. I wasn’t allowed to leave the fenced-in backyard except to go to school. And I don’t remember ever having friends over. After school if the weather was nice, I played by myself in the yard. My caretaker didn’t talk much. At night I slept upstairs in one of the two bedrooms, alone.


Then one day another boy was boarded there. I think his name was Kenny. I don’t remember much about Kenny except that his dad drove a bus, I loved the uniform he wore. Kenny was a year or so younger than I. He often seemed afraid––afraid of being separated from his father, afraid of being alone, and afraid of the dark. At bedtime we were sent upstairs, and the woman would turn out the light and shut the door at the bottom of the stairs. Kenny would cry sometimes at night. I remember how his sobs would dig a hole in my chest. To stop the pain I’d talk to him. As time went by and he felt more comfortable with me, our banter took on something like a routine:

“Teddy, would you tell me a story?”

So I’d make up a story. Or he’d ask . . .

“How do they make paint?”

And I’d make up a story about how they made paint. As I talked, Kenny would slip into sleep.


With Kenny, I didn’t feel so alone, either. But more than that, I felt–probably for the first time–the comfort that I feel today when I find myself helping somebody else. The reason I do what I do now is because of how it feels when I know what to say and how to help somebody step forward, tap into their passion, and gain the confidence to take action.

I think I must’ve started developing the empathy this requires much earlier than when I met Kenny at around age 8. Maybe it was from my own loneliness. This wasn’t my first foster experience, after all. I’d been in and out of strange homes and had felt the deep pain of loneliness for years. I knew it well by then. But it wasn’t until Kenny began living in that foster home that I found an outlet for those feelings–and noticed myself developing real skills based on them: Tapping into my empathy, learning how important listening is, and encountering the great pleasure that comes from hearing someone else’s stories. And understanding how powerful and helpful an objective, outside voice can be.

These are all skills that I must’ve become aware of through interacting with Kenny, and they’re skills that I use everyday now. They still help me attract clients, build a design business, and support myself financially. More than that, they’re the same skills that have continuously helped me reach past my fears in moments of self-doubt to remember that–most of the time, anyway–it’s the constraints and obstacles we face that keep us humble, just as long as we don’t let them defeat us.


Ballast, Not Baggage

Today as a coach, I don’t always know exactly what to say, of course, and there are times when I don’t succeed in helping someone through their personal or professional tribulations as well as I’d like to. But by thinking back to my childhood, and reconnecting with that moment where I first began tapping into the experiences that still motivate and sustain me–that’s how I eventually overcome the worst professional setbacks. It’s what keeps me committed to my work, no matter what happens in my workday.

I have all kinds of reasons to feel unworthy and discouraged now and then, and so do you. For me, many of those nagging insecurities are rooted in my childhood no less than my deepest sense of purpose is–from being fostered at birth to flunking the fourth grade and making countless bad decisions along the way. But I now know that what sustains me, and always has, is the empathy that I discovered with Kenny so many years ago.

We all bring more than we think into our working lives–all the things we’ve experienced, the places we’ve been, the people we’ve encountered long before entering the workforce. So the obstacles and defeats we inevitably face as professionals can’t help but carry their added weight. But our successes plumb the depths of those experiences, too. When things are going sideways at work, taking a moment to remember that can help steady you.


What’s your story? What’s your source of passion? Who are you at your core? When you find yourself struggling, think about what led you down your path to begin with, and you’ll be sprinting down it again in no time.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on It is adapted with permission.


About the author

Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. He is the publisher of NAIL, a magazine for creative professionals