Dealing with Setbacks and Obstacles

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe strategies to redefine or overcome challenges to achieving goals
Detour sign

Your priorities and goals may shift throughout your time in school. At times, unexpected events and challenges can get in the way of best-laid plans. For example, you might get sick or injured or need to deal with a family issue or a financial crisis, which might cause you to have to take time away from school. Or perhaps you may realize that you need to change your major, which would require a reevaluation of your goals and possibly spending more time in school. We can’t predict the future, and while goal setting is an important part of life, we also need to understand when we should reevaluate.

When Your Goals Get Sidetracked

Goals can become sidetracked. Other events in your life might distract you from achieving your immediate goals, even if they are goals that are really important to you and that you’ve worked hard to achieve. Consider the following scenario in which a student is challenged to reexamine her goals, priorities, and timetables:

Janine had thought she would be an accountant, even though she knew little about what an accounting job might entail. Her math and organizational skills were strong, and she enjoyed taking economics courses as well as other courses in her accounting program. But when one of her courses required her to spend time in an accounting office working with taxes, she decided that accounting was not the right fit for her due to the higher-stress environment and the late hours.

At first she was concerned that she invested time and money in a career path that did not match her disposition. She feared that changing her major would add to her graduation time. Nevertheless, she did decide to change her major and her career focus.

Janine is now a statistician with a regional healthcare system. She is very happy with her work. Changing her major from accounting to statistics was the right decision for her.

Janine could have stuck with her original goal to become an accountant, despite realizing that the job wasn’t a good fit for her. Instead, she didn’t allow the fear of changing her major or adding additional time in school prevent her from changing course once she knew being an accountant wasn’t right for her. Let’s take a closer look at how Janine may have worked through reprioritizing her goals and timeline.

Janine’s choice

decorative imageJanine’s original goal: Get a degree to work as an accountant.

Janine’s new information: She didn’t enjoy the actual work of being an accountant.

Possible paths forward for Janine

  • Become an accountant anyway
    • Pros: No more additional tuition money or time in school than she originally planned
    • Cons: A life in a career she already knows she won’t enjoy
  • Change her major to follow a different career path
    • Pros: The possibility to follow a career path she enjoys
    • Cons: Potentially more student loan debt and more time spent in school
  • Drop out of school
    • Pros: She won’t have to decide what she wants to major in now that she’s decided she doesn’t want to major in accounting.
    • Cons: She won’t have her college degree and may be no closer to understanding what career path she’s interested in pursuing.
  • Take time away from school and come back when she knows better what she wants to major in
    • Pros: She’ll potentially have more time to think about this big life decision and try out some jobs or internships that would give her a better idea of other fields of work she might be interested in.
    • Cons: It might be hard to get back into school after taking a break; she may not have a plan for how she’s going to support herself during her break from school.

Janine’s choice and the result: Janine decided to change her major once she realized that she didn’t like accounting and that she wasn’t going to be able to apply her accounting major to a career outside of accounting. She ended up in a career that she’s happy with and realized that changing her major was the right move for her.

This scenario represents some of the many opportunities we have on an ongoing basis to assess our relationship to our goals, reevaluate priorities, and adjust. These opportunities exist every day—every moment, really! Remember, you can’t predict the outcome of every choice that you make, but if you take the time to really evaluate the options that are available to you instead of continuing on a path that isn’t working, or giving up all together, you never know what options and opportunities may come your way.

Problem-Solving Strategies

When you’re facing an unexpected event that forces you to change your approach or your goals, there are some helpful questions to consider. Below is a simple list of five problem-solving strategies. They can be applied to any aspect of your life.

1. Define the Problem

What is the problem? Define it in detail. How is it affecting you and other people? What is the cause of the problem? Why is this relevant to your life and the people in your life?

2. How Are Other People Dealing with This Problem?

Are there other people who have dealt with this same issue or issues like it? How are other people dealing with this problem? You might find information about this issue either from the people you know in real life or from articles on the Internet, podcasts, books, or other media. Ask yourself,

  • are others making changes to their own behavior, such as adjusting their time management skills?
  • can they still complete their responsibilities on time?
  • are they accessing outside support and strategies to help them navigate this situation?

3. What Solutions Are Available to Me?

After examining how other people have dealt with this issue, you might want to come up with some of your own solutions (whether or not you incorporate aspects of other peoples’ approaches). It can help to make a list of possible solutions with pros and cons (the benefits of each choice and the drawback of each choice). Write down every solution you can think of; no option is too strange or impossible at this stage. You just want to get all your ideas down on paper so you can evaluate them later. Ask yourself,

  • what is my range of possible solutions?
  • how might these solutions help me reach my goal/s?

4. What Needs to Be Done?

This is the part where you evaluate whether or not your solutions are realistic. Ask yourself,

  • what do I need to do to implement each possible solution?
  • is it possible to do those things?
  • what would it cost me, in money, time, effort, and other ways?

Make sure to think about how each solution might affect the other areas in your life, and what the pros and cons are for your current and future self.

5. Talk It Through with Someone You Trust

Once you have a list of possible solutions, you will probably know deep down which solution you’re most interested in pursuing first. If it helps, talk it through with a trusted friend (this could be a peer, a parent, or anybody in your life that you trust with making decisions). You might be surprised what perspective they bring to the situation that you hadn’t considered.

Try It

Change is Normal

No matter who you are, unexpected things are bound to happen that will disrupt your plans. Remembering this fact might help you feel more at ease when your plans get disrupted. Reevaluating and changing course is a normal part of life. Feel confident that you can return to your intended path in time, and remember that there can be learning opportunities even in the unexpected. Take some time to acknowledge the ways in which you need to regroup. If it helps, seek advice from people who have faced adversity. Line up your resources, be resolved, and proceed with certainty toward your goals.

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

–Henry David Thoreau, author

Student Story: Burnout

This student story was written as part of Lumen’s College Success Student Contributors project. The story student stories are written in collaboration with real college students and college graduates to reflect real student experiences.

This year I returned to school for my postbacc to prepare myself for a master’s degree. I was working really hard in a department I hadn’t taken any classes in before. I had some background knowledge from my undergraduate degree in linguistics, but condensing all the communication disorders and sciences undergrad requirements into one academic year was really difficult.


I was really struggling to feel that I was successful. I viewed my grades as a direct reflection of my intellect, which I know isn’t true. Still, it really wasn’t easy to challenge that idea while I was in the thick of taking classes.


I found myself having to decide which classes I needed a minimal grade to pass, which is something I never had to do in my undergrad. On top of that, my partner was also in school pursuing a degree and I had a really hard time not comparing my academic performance to his.


While I was working on my postbacc to apply for my master’s degree, I felt a lot of imposter syndrome. I felt like I didn’t belong in school and wondered why I was even there trying to prepare myself for a master’s degree.


My career has been centered on working with children, but I know I get burnout. I was worried that I would hit a wall with my burnout and I wouldn’t be able to move past it to complete what I need to complete. In the past, I worked as a teacher’s aid for only two years and I burned out. To me, two years is not a long time.


I’ve changed a lot since then, but I’m still nervous about burnout. I’m worried about putting all this time and money into something like a master’s degree and then burning out on what I went to school for. I know it still might not be the right path for me, and that would be okay.


I had to take a reality check after my midterm when my burnout was making me apathetic about my grades. I saw the grade I received on my midterm and thought “I just don’t care.” I realized I shouldn’t think like that, but I had a hard time shaking the thought. I talked to my instructor and boss about it and I ended up joining a study group with some classmates.


I feel a lot more confident in my academic performance after sitting in that group study session. I know I wouldn’t have the motivation to study without somebody else there with me, but if somebody is depending on me to be present at the study session, then I can do that.


reevaluation: the process of honestly assessing the relationship between our values, goals, and sense of enjoyment, which may require us to change our action plan

sidetracked: getting derailed from our action plan, often as the result of an emergency or unexpected obstacle