For most people, life is not an unchecked climb to the top. That's generally true at work, where even the best of us sometimes suffer a career setback.

How we handle defeat can be much more important than how we deal with success. It's easy to be gracious when things are going well. It's a much bigger challenge when something goes wrong -- especially if you don't think what happened was fair to you.

There are, however, ways to set yourself up for future success in the face of a current setback. That's not always easy, but the opportunities for learning and growth are huge.

The three Motley Fool contributors below have all reached impressive heights in their writing careers. That does not mean they have not had setbacks along the way that you can learn from.

A woman looks frustrated and puts her hand on her head.

A work setback can also be an opportunity. Image source: Getty Images.

Find the hidden opportunity

Jason Hall: Whenever we face a setback -- whether in our personal or professional lives -- it's normal to question what we could or should have done differently, blame others, and to generally feel sorry for ourselves. And while all of these things can be perfectly valid -- see Dan's segment -- they can only help us move forward so much. Wallowing in self-pity or blaming others will do more harm than good if you can't move on.

Even worse, it may prevent you from finding the opportunity that is often hidden by a setback. And there's almost always an opportunity. 

In my experience, the most successful people I've worked with are the ones who bounced back quickly from a setback and found the best ways to move forward -- those hidden opportunities. For instance, the ones who pulled the team back together after a project failed and helped develop a new approach. Or when the company lost a big customer or got beat out by a competitor, invested the time to learn why, and implemented changes to make sure it didn't happen again. 

When you face a setback at work, take the time to get over it -- quickly -- and then find the hidden opportunity. Then grab that opportunity and make something positive out of a bad experience for yourself, and for your employer. It may not "fix" what happened, but it will put it further behind you, make your company stronger, and show your boss that you're resilient and dedicated to making the company better. 

Learn from it 

Selena Maranjian: Setbacks at work can sting, but they can offer a silver lining, too -- because you may be able to learn from them. Once the sting is hurting a little less, take some time to think about what happened, and why -- and do so in as unemotional a way as possible.

Ask yourself whether any ways you behave might have contributed to the setback -- perhaps habits such as not being a good team player, or not taking initiative often, or being late frequently. You may realize that you're lacking some skills or professional certifications that would help you advance, and if so, you can proceed to develop those skills or gain the professional credentials you need.  

Ask yourself whether there are things you can do differently from now on in order to avoid similar setbacks in the future. For example, maybe you can communicate more often and more effectively with your boss. If your boss knows what your career goals are and that you're open to guidance and suggestions, he or she may be able to help you move up.  

You might also tap the thoughts and experiences of your colleagues to get their perspective on what went wrong. Some of them may have had a similar experience, and they may be able to tell you how they did or didn't deal with it effectively. 

Cry, get angry, then get focused

Daniel B. Kline: When you suffer a career setback, it's easy to wallow in it. By not processing it, getting angry, crying, or doing whatever you need to do, you actually make the situation worse.

It's OK -- even human -- to process your hurt either privately or to loved ones outside the office. Deal with how you feel about whatever went wrong. Embrace the pain, then let it go, and become focused on making sure you're in a better position next time.

Failing to do that can allow your negative feelings to linger. That can take a one-time setback and turn it into something bigger. Don't let something bad happening change who you are. Do whatever you need to do in order to go back to work ready for the next day.

Once you get past the career setback, it's time to show your bosses that the experience made you stronger. Dial in on your work, continue to be a good team member, and focus on doing the best job possible. That's the best path toward avoiding the next setback.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.