You had a big win at work. But that was last month.

Praise peters out. Our phones and inboxes go quieter. We feel restless for the next triumph, or worry it’ll never come again. That thought sneaks in: Am I only as good as my last success? (Image: Pixabay)
Praise peters out. Our phones and inboxes go quieter. We feel restless for the next triumph, or worry it’ll never come again. That thought sneaks in: Am I only as good as my last success? (Image: Pixabay)

Summary

Bouncing back from failure is a familiar challenge. But how do you rebound after a triumph?

Lydia Fenet was having one of the best nights of her auctioneering career before the sinking feeling set in.

Decked in borrowed jewels and a designer gown, she cajoled the crowd at a celebrity AIDS fundraiser to keep the bids coming. Elton John played piano beside her. By the time she slammed down the gavel, she was buzzing. She’d raked in $10.8 million.

Then she got on the flight home, and the thrill faded fast. “Oh my gosh, it’s over," she realized.

A big win feels so great. Then there’s the comedown.

Praise peters out. Our phones and inboxes go quieter. We feel restless for the next triumph, or worry it’ll never come again. That thought sneaks in: Am I only as good as my last success?

The highs never last forever, it’s true. But we can get better at riding the roller coaster of our careers, learning to sustain our vigor and creativity no matter where we are on the track.

“What gets me that feeling again?" Fenet asks herself when she hits a lull. The answer, for her, is often something scary. Instead of attempting to repeat the last success, she says yes to a totally new challenge, like the car auctions she started doing a few years ago.

The first one—93 Porsches, Ferraris, Aston Martins and more in Monterey, Calif.,—was the most uncomfortable she’d ever felt on stage, she says. When it was done, she felt elated for weeks.

The science of the comedown

To head off a comedown, it helps to see it coming. We’re generally flooded with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol as we’re building toward a big moment, says Karen Howells, a sports psychologist who’s studied post-Olympic blues in athletes. We feel energized, wired.

Our bodies can’t maintain that heightened state for long. When the thing—be it your Olympic debut or that big PowerPoint presentation—recedes, your fight-or-flight response usually does too. It often leaves a feeling of loss and boredom in its wake, says Howells, a senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales.

“You’re going, ‘This is not stretching me. What is this? This is nothing,’ " she says.

The pressure isn’t all in our heads. The pace of business, and life, has quickened. Shareholders and executives alike operate on a “what have you done for me lately?" ethos. Many of us are steeped in an online culture of instantaneous clicks and swipes, where we see everyone else’s wins too.

“People take that behavior of scrolling to the next reel, they kind of apply that to their life," says Chuck Griffith, who lives in Austin, Texas, and manages a design team of 36 at a utility company.

He’s noticed that younger workers especially take a frenetic approach to projects at times. “It just seems like, ‘OK, what can we do next?’ "

He worries they’ll burn out, or that the work they produce will get monotonous. After a win, the 48-year-old urges his team to pause and reflect. He gathers them for improv-comedy exercises to loosen up or sends them to museums to gather inspiration.

When I caught up with Griffith earlier this month, he was wandering Paris with a journal in hand, on a solo trip meant to celebrate hitting last year’s goals.

“Take those breathable moments," he says.

Break out of a creative rut

A hard-fought win can consume so much energy that we feel depleted of ideas afterward or frozen by the expectation of pulling off another instantaneously.

To get to your next big idea, you have to be OK with bombing a bit, says Jeremy Utley, a general partner at a venture-capital firm who teaches at Stanford’s design school, known as the d.school.

“Most of life is not punctuated by win after win after win. Most of the time, it’s kind of painful," he says. Brainstorm 10 possible answers to a question or dilemma at a time, he advises. Focusing on quantity over quality takes off the pressure.

Use a bad idea as a jumping–off point. What else does it make you think of?

Or try taking what Utley calls a “wonder wander." Head off with your problem in mind, and relate everything you see to the problem. Spot an Amazon truck? Consider how Jeff Bezos might solve your quandary. Walk past a playground? Imagine the connection between your issue and play.

ChatGPT could help too, if you use it right. It isn’t going to pop out the perfect answer on the first try, Utley says. Kick off the conversation by describing the boss you want to impress. Then ask: What are three projects that could blow that boss’s mind? Keep chatting with it until you spark something great.

The downside of praise

Sometimes the kudos we get from the big win are part of the problem. We derive our self-esteem from external feedback, then feel terrible when the congratulatory notes dry up.

Manisha Thakor, a financial services industry veteran, spent a stretch of her career appearing on TV as a personal-finance expert. After each segment, she’d immediately pull up her email on her phone to check to see who’d seen her segment and sent notes.

Then the TV opportunities died down.

“It just felt like this empty quiet," the 53-year-old says. “I crashed and I needed the next fix."

That need had fueled her career, leading her to become a partner at a wealth-management firm. But the stress ruined her health and personal relationships, she found.

A few years ago, she left her corporate job and rethought her relationship with success, writing a book on the topic. Now a board member, she’s not totally immune to the post-achievement comedown. When it hits, she reaches for something unconnected to achievement: paddleboarding, or calling her aging parents to say hi.

“It pulls me out of myself," Thakor says. “It makes you see that there is more to the world than just that win you just achieved."

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at Rachel.Feintzeig@wsj.com

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