How do you overcome setbacks?

The audience gasped as he suddenly shuddered. The Prime Minister of Singapore stopped mid-sentence while delivering his annual address to the nation this past Sunday (20 Aug 2016).

After about an hour, he came back on stage. He continued his speech, though truncated. Us common folk would have put ourselves first and just headed straight home to rest.

What is it that makes people like him arise above setbacks and trudge on?

He had a goal bigger than himself.

He pressed on with the speech not for himself. He had to assuage an anxious audience and placate a panicked populace who was watching it live on TV. He probably also did not want to give the world press a chance to sensationalise the incident and rattle confidence in the leadership.

His mental resolve trumped his physical frailty because he has a cause bigger than himself.

He wanted to and had to finish the speech. Yet, he needed to take care of both himself and public perceptions. He persevered by conserving his energy. He prioritised the remaining points. He cut short his speech and returned to conclude it.

When the key driving force behind our goals is bigger than ourselves, and not for us alone, we will find that we have a greater ability to overcome setbacks.

This is most evident in why Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling was able to rise above the setback he faced in the 2012 London Olympics. He had sunk to his lowest point after he had to scramble for new caps and goggles when they were deemed to have flouted competition rules just moments before he was about to race. He was rattled and did not do well in that race. He even hated swimming after that. However, he was surrounded by a strong support network who knew of his passion and goals. They rallied behind him and lifted him out from the doldrums. He clawed back and overcame. He won against three world’s best swimmers including Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly race in the recent 2016 Rio Olympics for he had “(raced) for people greater than (himself)”.

What also perhaps helped Schooling succeed was the positive mindset he had developed. He practised positive affirmations, a technique that I teach. He said, reflecting on the epic race: “I had some doubts. Everyone has doubts. It’s all about how you turn those doubts into positive moments. And I’m really glad that I could do that.”

Note that even the greatest of us have moments of doubts. Rarely are we born with 100% pure positivity. The two key points are awareness and action – we have to first be alert to when and what we are thinking about. If these thoughts are negative, then take a conscious, deliberate step to flip it to a positive thought that uplifts.

Both the Prime Minister and Schooling exhibited two similar traits that served them well. They do what they do not only for themselves, but for a purpose beyond themselves. To do that, they developed a positive mental capacity that they could tap into when they were depleted or defeated.

Where they differed, we could also learn. I am certain the Prime Minister would have wanted to continue the rest of his address as is. However, the conditions changed. He faced up to facts, was flexible and adapted his speech by prioritising the key points. He finished what he most wanted to say while sparing his own health.

As for Schooling, he had a strong support system. You would think he is a lucky guy to have family, friends and coaches who were willing to put up with him and pull him up. However, he had to be the one to first identify what his own deep-seated driving goals were. He then made it known to people who can help him that these were his aims in life. He built himself that support system. Being flexible, prioritising and creating a support system around us will help us complete the course.

The Prime Minister and Joseph Schooling are mere mortals. If they can overcome obstacles, we can too by learning from them. What are your aims and passions in life? Do they serve both yourself and others? Go within to search and if you need help, I am here to help.

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