“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat.” These are the words from the former Naval Aviator and best selling author, Denis Waitley. Often times we all look at failure as the end of the road and when we fall down, we do not want to get back up again. However, Waitley goes on to say, “It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
If we ever want to be successful in life, we are going to experience failure. In fact, I challenge you to find someone who you consider a success who has not failed at one point. The simple truth is we all fail; the only difference between those who find success and those who don’t is the willingness to keep trying. We should not fear failure. Obviously we don’t want to start the task with the hopes of failing, but we need to change our mindset about it. Failure is simply an indication that we tried, but it was not enough effort in the right place. Move on and try again with a different plan; fail forward.
The main ways I have found that we fail are: failure to meet the standard, failure to reach the desired outcome, and failure to even try. None of these three are the end of the road, they are simply detours. All can be recovered from and there are vital learning moments in each.
Let’s look into each of these further, starting with failing to meet the standard. At one point in our lives or careers we broke a rule or the law. Sometimes it was on purpose and sometimes it was a chain reaction we let spiral out of control. Regardless, we deviated from the standard and need to suffer the consequences. Sadly, our military culture tosses a label on you as a “dirt bag” initially. This pushes those who want to be better to try extra hard to overcome their failure.
Trying extra hard is often going to get us into more trouble. We start to try and hit home runs with every swing to show the boss what we are capable of, but meanwhile we are misplacing our efforts. What I do when I get in trouble and what I advise those on my team to do is to start with the basics. Do the things you are required to do only. Do not go over and above seeking new initiatives; stick to the basics and do them well. When we swing for the fence, we tend to miss some things we are required to do and it is noticed immediately, because we are under the spotlight. Once you do well at the required tasks and the light isn’t directly on you, slowly take on new challenges. Do this and the spotlight will eventually fade or someone else will screw up and the light will move to them.
Failing to meet the desired outcome is the most common type of failure. For the most part, we strive to do great things for the mission and to help others grow; however, sometimes things do not go as planned. In all of the leadership roles I have had, I have failed more times than I can count. Most were minor, but several were major. I have made decisions or said things I wish I could take back, but I can’t; however, I can learn from them. Where we make the mistake is narrowing our focus too much. For example, I once made a decision to do a tail swap from one plane to another once I saw the aircrew was starting to have issues. We rushed to move all of the cargo, pump more fuel, move the people, and double our efforts to get the next aircraft generated. Meanwhile, the other airplane was fixed and we still had a late mission.
When we fail like this, we are tempted to blame the decision. I could have said that I will never do another tail swap again. However, tail swaps are sometimes the right answer. Where I failed was not taking a step back and thinking things through a little better. The technicians told me they needed some time to troubleshoot and I should have considered the time it took to swap over to the new aircraft would cause a late no matter what and giving them some more time could save a lot of effort and get an on-time departure still. I could have found a couple of technicians not doing anything and had them start to fuel the next aircraft and get it ready in case we had to swap. Even though these were not the choices I made, you can bet after this “fail” I learned to think things through a little more before pulling the trigger.
Sometimes we fall short of a personal goal like making rank or when we position ourselves for NCO of the quarter or some other honor our supervisors were pushing us for. What happens when someone else edges us out? Typically we get upset and adopt the “F- It” attitude and quit. In reality, we need to look where we fell short. What did they do better than us? What can I do better? If nothing else, the person who beat us out this time will not be competing next time and we move up a position by default. As a leader, I am looking to advance those who have a positive attitude and a desire to get better. These are the people I want leading my teams, not those who give up or point fingers at the first sign of adversity.
Knowing what to do when we fail to meet a standard or fall short of our intended goal is a vital piece of knowledge if we are ever going to be a success. It always comes down to seeking out the root cause and seeking to learn how to do things better. The last form of failure: to not even try, is the only way to truly become a failure. To try and fail is not a fail, but if we are not willing to take risks because we are afraid to fail, we have failed.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretzky.