Zibby interviews Forbes contributor Amy Shoenthal about THE SETBACK CYCLE, a guide with revolutionary strategies for working through life’s toughest moments, supported by research and personal stories from today’s most prolific leaders and innovators. Amy discusses the four phases of the setback cycle (Establish, Embrace, Explore, and Emerge), emphasizing how setbacks can actually lead to the best opportunities and growth. She also explores the intersection of personal and societal setbacks, noting the role of community and support in overcoming challenges. Overall, the episode offers invaluable insights for anyone facing adversity—personal or professional.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amy. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss The Setback Cycle.

Amy Shoenthal: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It's my pleasure. Tell everybody what your book is about. Was there a setback that spurred you to write this book?

Amy: I was mostly inspired to write the book because I spent the last decade or so interviewing some of today's most incredible founders and leaders and innovators and people who are really doing the work to solve some of society's biggest problems. I noticed a pattern. When you do something enough, you notice patterns and trends. I kept seeing that every time I interviewed someone, the part of their story where they really lit up and started getting really excited to tell me how they built the thing they built that I was interviewing them about was when they came up with the idea for it after climbing out of their own personal or professional or career setbacks. It went beyond just, oh, I learned from my mistakes. Fall down seven times, get up eight. It was more than that cliché. We know that. It wasn't the Silicon Valley, fail big, and go make mistakes. It was something different. I couldn't quite articulate what it was, and so I started asking around. I couldn't quite figure out, what was this thing that wasn't necessarily as dramatic as post-traumatic growth? Not every setback is a trauma, but it wasn't as simple as learning from your mistakes. I talked to executive coaches and neuroscientists and psychologists. What I realized was no one had really gone and done a thorough exploration of what a setback is and how transformative it can be, especially when it comes to business and careers and transformation.

Zibby: It's so true. Some people, they hit a setback, and then they stop. It's the people who get through the setback that end up having the success. Why do some people stop and some people push through? What is it? Is it something you're born with? Is it something you learn? Where does it come from?

Amy: The answer is yes to all of that. You are born with it. You also learn it. Frankly, the understanding of how to work through it comes from having worked through it before. There are four phases of the setback cycle. The first phase is Establish. That sounds really obvious, but it's not always obvious when you're entering a setback. Some people, and some of the people I interviewed, didn't realize that it was a setback that brought them to where they were today until forty years later for some of them. Once you start talking about it and you start seeing things through this lens, you kind of understand these experiences for what they are. It casts a whole new light on it. Yes, some people get stuck in the establish phase because they want to deny that they're in a setback. That's where I think you're asking. People get debilitated. They freeze before they know how to move forward because they don't want to admit that they're having a problem or that they're having a setback. People who recognize setbacks for what they are can more easily identify them, can more quickly work through the establish phase, and move on to complete the cycle and emerge from whatever setback they're in, whether it's a big, dramatic one or a more subtle one.

Zibby: Interesting. It's really crazy for anyone to think they will not have a setback. Who doesn't have a setback? If you don't have any setbacks, it means you're not trying things, right?

Amy: Yeah. I think it's paramount to the human experience. It depends on what you do with it when you encounter them.

Zibby: That's what they say about parenting too. Teach your kids to fail.

Amy: Parenting is its own form of setbacks. Any parent who tried to get their kid out the door to school today has already encountered at least, I would say, a minimum of three to five micro-setbacks today.

Zibby: A hundred percent. We've had tears today. By the time eight o'clock rolls around, I've had an emotional roller coaster like no other.

Amy: You've been through a battle.

Zibby: You talked about Establish. I know you have four phases. Go through the other phases.

Amy: First phase is Establish. That can last a very short time or a very long time depending on how long it takes you to admit what you're in and what you're experiencing. The second phase is Embrace. That's when you've acknowledged what you're in, but you kind of have to deal with it. This is the phase I actually hate. I can't stand it. [laughter] You have to go through it to get to the next phase. Embrace is really just taking stock and doing an evaluation of where you are, why you got here, what may have led here, why you're feeling a certain way about it. If you got laid off from your job or you didn't get that promotion you were going for or you didn't get that big grant you were hoping to get, yes, of course, there's the logistical and financial implications of it, but is it a level deeper? Does it bring up some sort of self-doubt or insecurities that you faced at another time? Why are these setbacks so impactful? You have to do the "feel your feelings" thing in Embrace. It's not that fun.

Zibby: We should get a bottle of wine, and you should do a special label that says, "Step two: Embrace." [laughs] 

Amy: Oh, my god. I think you just figured out what I'm going to do for my mailers. 

Zibby: Alternatively, you could put it on a pack of M&M's or something, whatever you're going to drown your sorrows in. 

Amy: Totally. CBD gummies. Whatever. Whatever it is.

Zibby: Something. Whatever your thing is. I got it. One is, we're having a setback. This is when you email someone and be like, this just happened. Step two, we're embracing it. We're coping however. Okay, next one.

Amy: We're dealing. The third phase is my favorite, actually. Once you've gotten through, okay, we're dealing with it, it's like you're collecting the data. You're just trying to understand why this is what it is. When you get to the third phase, that's Explore. If you just collected the data, now you're able to go and beta test. Sorry, I worked in tech for a long time.

Zibby: Totally fine.

Amy: You're now able to go and say, I understand why that happened and why I felt this way. Now let's go see what's possible. Let's play with different options and talk to people. Maybe, if you're considering a career pivot because you're just disengaged with your career, which by the way, is a setback that you kind of sleepwalk into -- many of us do that. Maybe it's time to explore a career pivot. Go talk to people in those other fields you're interested in. If you're thinking of leaving the corporate world to go start your own business, talk to people who have done it. Start to figure out what it would take for you to walk away. We're here on this podcast. If you're thinking about writing that book, what's preventing you from starting? Is it the self-doubt? Is it just getting caught up in the day-to-day? You talk about this with a lot of your writers. This is just the Explore phase where you get to have fun, but you don't really have to commit to a path forward, so it's kind of nice. It's like dating.

Zibby: What am I going to do next? Surveying the options.

Amy: Exactly. Take the pottery class. Do the paint and sip. Just figure out what's lighting you up and what you're getting excited about. Have conversations. Then the fourth phase is Emerge. It's when you emerge from your setback. The beginning of the Emerge phase can be surprisingly difficult. You've made all these plans. You know what the path forward looks like. Now you have to get up off the couch and go do the thing that you planned to do. That can be its own challenging situation. The end of Emerge is when you work through your setback and you get to look back and say, wow. That's the part where you're going to light up when you go tell that story.

Zibby: I'm literally living out your cycle right now. This is my first massive -- not my first. One writing world massive setback was trying to sell a novel when I was twenty-eight years old and having it get rejected everywhere that my agent sent it out and realizing it wasn't going to sell. I think it has taken me twenty years to go through all of that process. Now finally, I've gone through everything. Should I do this? Should I do that? The setback cycle can be a long one, right? You don't have to do this in twenty minutes. This was a twenty-year cycle.

Amy: Totally, because when you look back or when you're trying to sell your second book, for someone who has been through this and maybe pivoted away from it, you're trying to do something that sent you into a setback another time. All of a sudden, you're dredging up those learnings and those not-so-pleasant feelings of rejection that came up the first time around. By the way, getting a book deal or writing a book is a process that is so rife with setbacks no matter where you are, from the author first starting out to the most accomplished author, just because I think the stakes get higher.

Zibby: You should really just try to get bulk sales by going to all the different literary agencies and saying, you need to buy all these books. You can give them to your authors when they start pitching. They should know what's coming next and all of that.

Amy: Every time you send out a rejection letter, please accompany the book with that rejection.

Zibby: Exactly. Refer to page seventy-three of this book, and you'll see.

Amy: Please do this exercise.

Zibby: It's all good. You're all good. [laughs] What about setbacks that are totally random or not your fault or setbacks in the world, like things that are going on now which are completely out of our control or trauma-type setbacks, things that we don't expect? It's not because we worked hard and couldn't achieve something, but more like our life has taken a setback by something out of our control.

Amy: Setbacks are generally out of our control, whether it was a societal-level setback, a professional setback, or even a personal setback. I feel like the last few years, we have just seen one societal setback after another. It's almost to the point where we're getting desensitized, but we're also sort of like, okay, this happened. This is how the conversation's going to go. This is how the news cycle is going to go. It's almost like we can predict the cultural reaction to it, not obviously, the larger implications. We have an election year coming up. That's going to be a whole, probably, series of setbacks leading up to that. At least, it's going to feel that way for some people. When you start talking about societal-level setbacks, think of the some of the more divisive issues, like abortion. The overturning of Roe v. Wade so many people saw as such a setback to women's reproductive rights, but then other people saw it as a huge step forward in what they were pushing for. You and I probably agree on certain societal-level setbacks. Other folks might be like, oh, no, that was a win. That was progress.

Zibby: You never know.

Amy: You never know. Exactly. You can apply that lens to a personal setback. Think of a relationship ending, a divorce. That is one of the most common personal setbacks. Again, the definition of a setback is a reversal in progress, so whether it's the traumas, the dramatic ones, or the subtle ones, the getting your kid out the door. We've made progress. We've moved forward. Then we were unexpectedly bumped backwards. That can happen on any level, personal, professional, or societal. You know what? They're all connected. They're all intertwined. How many women do you know who created incredible businesses after going through a divorce because they saw what they needed in the moment and what other people needed? I know. [laughter] There's a reason I'm using that example.

Zibby: This is so funny. My kids had this assembly or whatever today. They were reading The Fox, the Mole, the Horse. You know that book? The Fox, the Mole -- who was the other one? The Boy, the Fox, the Mole, and the whatever. The famous book. Anyway, there was a part where they've been going on this journey the whole time. Of course, they did it so nicely in school with music and whatever. Basically, they get lost, this group of unexpected friends. They're like, don't you feel like we're all the way back at the beginning? They said, no, we're not lost because look at how far we've come already. Even at the end, they were like, this is just a step on the way. It's sort of just another way of being like, don't get discouraged. This is all on the path. These are just concrete things.

Amy: Totally. I think about women who have created businesses at forty, fifty, sixty. So many women, when we get to these ages, think, oh, it's too late. I can't start over now. You're not really starting over. I couldn't have gotten a book deal at twenty. It had to be when I was closer to forty because that's when I had the connections. I had the understanding of what more I could possibly do because of all the setbacks I went through in my twenties and thirties. Again, it's the knowledge and the recognition of when you're going through the setback cycle or people around you are going through it and then identifying what those people need.

Zibby: What was a professional setback for you?

Amy: I had a very common, very undramatic, but very commonly experienced professional setback when I became pregnant. I was working in the corporate world. I was at a marketing agency that valued bougie lunches and all the happy hours. This is pre-pandemic when there was a lot more in-person socializing. Also, there was a lot more drinking going on. I feel like our culture has sort of stepped away from drinking, but this is before all that. They always said business is done at the bar. I was the most senior woman on my team in my department. I got pregnant. I had all the literature. I had all the articles. I had all the friends who had done it. I even had people at other departments at my agency who had done it and succeeded. They were still on a very good career path. I thought, okay, I can probably overcome this. Yet I still waited such a long time to tell anyone that I was pregnant because I kind of knew. Sure enough, I shared my news, which everyone knew because I was already showing by the time I admitted it --

Zibby: -- I shared my news as I bumped into the doorframe.

Amy: I know. They were like, yeah, we know, Amy. There was a reason I was so hesitant to share my news because sure enough, I was no longer invited to the bougie lunches. I was no longer invited to the happy hours, so I was cut out of conversations. Then of course, I go on maternity leave. I think that I'm going to come back, and everything's going to be exactly the same. I come back. I'm so excited to dive back into my accounts that I had spent however many years building before I went on leave. Sure enough, my workload was reduced by more than half. All the business that I ran before I left was given to other non-parents to run. Look, they had done a great job in my absence. We wanted to give them all the opportunities that they very much deserved, but there was no consideration to what I might have energy to do upon my returning. There was a lot of coddling. There was a lot of, oh, no, no, no, take the time. Be at home with your baby. Take a lighter workload. That decision wasn't discussed with me. It was made by other people based on assumptions. What happens when you sideline an ambitious woman? She turns her energy and ambitions elsewhere.

Zibby: She writes a book. She writes this book. [laughs] 

Amy: Exactly. It's not a coincidence that my freelance writing career took off the same year my daughter was born. It's not a coincidence that I started really focusing on the setback stories of founders and leaders who I was interviewing because I was obviously a little more in tune to that. My Establish phase lasted for years because I didn't realize I was in a setback. I just sleepwalked into it. I didn't really realize how far aside I had been cast at my agency until two women on my team came to me separately. They weren't really friends. They came to me separately. They said, "We saw what happened when you came back from maternity leave. I'm very afraid to become a mother here." That knocked the wind out of me. Not only had I not done a good job of advocating for myself in that moment, I hadn’t made it better for the women who came after me. Talk about a reversal in progress. I started talking about it. I let my boss know. I let other people know. Hey, this happened. It wasn't cool. No one was pumped to talk to me about that. No one liked hearing this, but I at least raised the awareness of the issue at this one agency in this one department at this one time. In the meantime, I wrote the book. Here we are.

Zibby: There you go. What about a personal setback that you don't often share?

Amy: That's a really great question, one that I have never been asked. A personal setback, I think that as women and apparently -- people who have really close friendships and relationships -- friendships really take the form of strengthening and weakening through different seasons of our lives. I think sometimes it's really easy to maintain these friendships, and sometimes it's really hard. I think when people move far away from each other, you experience a little bit of a loss of connection, a loss of community. Especially becoming a parent and then being sort of surrounded by just the people who live near you and the people who your kids are playing with, that becomes your community, which is great, but then you feel a little bit of a distance from other communities. Those, to me, are relationship setbacks and personal setbacks because you're like, oh, I wish I could tell this person what's going on, but they don't have the context for all the other stuff because they moved across the country. I haven't caught up with them in three months. All of a sudden, you kind of feel that loss of friendship, of relationship just because of time and life seasons. That's a personal setback that I think we all [indiscernible/crosstalk].

Zibby: That was not personal enough for me, so you keep thinking if there's another one. [laughter] Keep digging into your traumatic past. Feel free to volunteer.

Amy: I will. I'll bring my therapist to our next discussion.

Zibby: That would be great. You have all this expertise in marketing and branding and strategy. People come to you. You're the consultant. This is your jam. When you think about releasing a book, which is another product, it's another brand, how have you approached the marketing of your book?

Amy: I have a handful of clients that I work with to help shape their narrative and organize their thought leadership and really focus on the areas that they need to lean into and the audiences that they want to reach. I just treat my book marketing as its own client. I'm thinking through, who wants to hear me talk about setbacks? which hopefully is your audience and other similar ones. How do I get to the right folks to get the message that they need to hear? That happens a lot on podcasts focused on women, focused on writers, focused on people in creative fields. When the presale went live, it hit number one in midlife because I think midlife is an area ripe with setbacks. A lot of the people that I talk to now are like, wow, I reached this incredible pinnacle of my career, this thing that I have been working towards for ten, fifteen, twenty years. Is this all there is? Everyone's kind of like, am I in a setback? I can't tell you how many people, just friends of mine, are like, I reached this thing. I did the thing. I need your book because I don't know what to do next. I think I want to start all over again. Again, back to my point of, I think that's why so many forty, fifty, sixty-year-olds come up with incredible business ideas. It's because they're ready for a change.

Zibby: Can you give me the two-second version of your -- where did you grow up? What jobs did you have to get to here? How do you pick -- this is a totally separate question, but I don't want to forget. How do you pick all the women for your ForbesWomen column? You can start with that. Either way.

Amy: I could do my origin story.

Zibby: Origin story, please.

Amy: Origin story is, I grew up in New York in the suburbs. Then I went to college at the University of Maryland where I majored in journalism. I got a job my senior year doing public relations for a technology institute that had an entrepreneurship incubator as part of its programming. They had students in their dorm rooms creating businesses. I was the one that went and crafted their stories to tell their stories to the press to get press for this incubator. It was called the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute. It's bored into my head. One of the people I interviewed in his dorm room was Anthony Casalena. He was just a fellow student. He went on to create a little company called Squarespace. He was the first entrepreneur I ever really interviewed and wrote about when we were back in college. Then I graduated. I always had this big career in marketing and public relations, marketing, social media, digital, but I never stopped doing freelance writing. It was just this little hobby. It took me so long. I don't even think I called myself a writer until a couple years ago because it just felt wrong to call myself a writer when it wasn't my full-time job.

Zibby: I get it. Been there.

Amy: That's something I know we all struggle with. What does it take to actually call yourself a writer? I was already writing for Forbes for quite a while before I felt comfortable introducing myself in that way. That's a whole other story. I'm a formally trained journalist, so I don't know what it takes to call yourself a writer. I really, really struggled with that for a long time. That's my origin story. I'm always freelance writing. How do I pick people to write about? I guess my guardrails, if you'll call them that -- that might be marketing terms. Sorry to be annoying and jargony. The guardrails that I put into place when choosing who to profile are, what obstacles did you overcome to get to where you are? What are you doing to further society in some way? When I get pitches from publicists about some great new beauty product -- I mean, I want to know about it. I'm a consumer of beauty products, but I'm not going to write about a beauty product. There's plenty of journalists that do that. That's not me. I'm always very candid with people. I say, I don't write about this. If you have a great founder story of someone who -- I want to know the messy middle of your story. I don't want the kid whose parents gave him three hundred grand to go start a coffee company. That's great for that kid, but that's not an interesting story to me. Who was successful despite the odds, despite what they had to overcome? Tell me your story. Tell me what you had to deal with because that's the relatable piece. That's what people care about. Then how are you using what you learned to benefit society and further culture in some way?

Zibby: Very cool. Is there anybody on your wish list of women, some famous person that you haven't had a chance to profile yet but want to?

Amy: Oh, my god, there are so many. I really wanted to interview Whitney Wolfe Herd for so long, and then I just got to. That was very cool. Gosh, I don't know. I'll probably think of someone as soon as we get off this podcast.

Zibby: Don't worry about it. Sorry, I put you on the spot.

Amy: Anyone who has had to overcome something, barriers, obstacles, setbacks, and found success despite the odds, those are the people I want to talk about, whether you're famous or not.

Zibby: You should interview this woman, Jenn Drummond. I just read her book called BreakProof. She was in a car accident, but she's also a big consultant and motivational speaker. She does all these things. She has seven kids. She decided after her setback to climb all the seven mountains of the world.

Amy: Oh, I've heard of her. Yes, she would be a great [indiscernible/crosstalk].

Zibby: Could be a fun story. I don't know. Not like you need help. Any advice to aspiring authors?

Amy: Don't let the setbacks get you down. I can't tell you how many times I was rejected by agents, by editors. In those rejections, there was feedback. Take the feedback. When I first came around with this book, it was just a collection of stories. Almost every single agent and editor I shopped this around to said, we don't want to publish an anthology. That's hard to sell. We don't want to sell an anthology, but there's something here. I heard back from a lot of people. They said, there's something here, but right now, it reads as a lot of different stories. I had to make that thread, that connective tissue so much stronger. I spent a year doing that. That's how I strung these stories together and realized that they were all going through the same cycle. That's what led to this book. Take the rejection with the feedback. Use it to fuel your next step.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books." I hope that there are not too many setbacks in your near future.

Amy: I hope the same for you.

Zibby: Thank you.


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