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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Stevens

Embracing Failure

An Essential Building Block For Success When I was growing up, a favorite song of mine was “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. It was a somewhat goofy song—like many songs of that era—but the main chorus resonated with me:

“I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down.”

At the time, I’m sure that I viewed this song as any angsty 90’s teenager would have: an outcry against the “man” that forced everyone into the “system.” So, in the ultimate rebellion against said man, I joined the military to chart my own course and join a group where no one would tell me what to do. Oh, the naiveté of youth. It’s quite humorous to look back upon my initial thought process all these years later.

During my high school years, I was quite the nerd, with the physical build to prove it. I initially weighed 118 pounds at the Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS); I had to weigh 120 pounds to attend Basic Training. Standing at 5’8”, I struggled with the physical aspect of military life for some time, especially as a Light Infantryman. I didn’t struggle as much as some, and I never came in last place, but I had to work much harder—because of my size—to achieve success as an Infantryman. In the Infantry, you aren’t a success unless you exceed the standard. This means that the maximum score one can achieve isn’t considered an achievement, but rather the baseline that one should build upon.

This “exceed the standard” mentality is designed to create extremely competitive and highly motivated Infantrymen, that will outperform everyone else. The Infantry’s ultimate goal is to produce soldiers that will consistently beat any opposition they face. On the battlefield, we are (ideally) without equal and can easily dominate any fight we might find. Naturally, not everyone in the Infantry fits this “extremely competitive and highly motivated” mold. Still, everyone we considered a “real” Infantryman possessed this overachieving mentality. As a young man, I aspired to be one of these “real” Infantrymen, but with little natural athleticism and even less muscle mass, achieving this goal was quite the struggle.

Eventually, however, I feel that I became a “real” Infantryman. In my years before medically retiring, I would routinely outperform junior soldiers with both youth and natural size on their side, based mainly on the lessons I learned through my own failure. As I struggled to make it as a “real” Infantryman, Chumbawamba’s words would ring out in my mind as my own personal anthem.

Prior to becomining an Infantryman my body type was anything but athletic

Training to Fail

It’s a little-known fact, but most military training works to make the soldier or group of soldiers fail. This tactic seems counterintuitive if you want to create a force that can beat all opposition. This method doesn’t make much sense at first. In many ways, our initial disbelief in this approach to training comes from our American culture. As Americans, we have a negative view of failure; it’s seen as the ultimate shame. We view failure as a worst-case scenario that should be avoided at all costs rather than as a valuable learning experience on the path to success. The idea of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” has devolved into “nothing ventured, nothing lost.” This cultural issue is a sad state of affairs and utterly contrary to the philosophy a successful military must possess: taking one’s failure and learning from it.

In developing a successful military doctrine, it becomes readily apparent that you can never prepare for each specific scenario a military will encounter. Every conflict is different, and the Tactics, Techniques, and Protocols (TTPs) constant change. All three of my combat deployments were different. I had to continually remind myself to keep an open mind and adapt to my environment because there are no constants in war. For example, a reliable tactic on one deployment could be useless on another because the enemy had discovered effective methods to counter it.

In the constant state of flux during wartime, savvy military instructors will train their students to be mentally adaptable and flexible and adopt a “never quit” mentality. An easy way to reach this goal is to place soldiers in situations where they will be forced to fail since failure and adversity are constant in war. This “failure training” starts early on in Basic. One of the lasting memories a young soldier possesses is their first “shark attack.”

After in-processing, new soldiers are sent with all of their new gear to their new quarters to meet the Drill Sergeants that will train them. The busses pull up to the new quarters, and a lone Drill Sergeant casually walks on the bus. The terror and anticipation in the air are palpable as the Drill Sergeant's boots echo up the steps: the calm before the storm.

Depending on their personality, the Drill Sergeant calmly—or loudly—announces that everyone has ten seconds to get off the bus; they then count aloud from ten to one. This is the new soldiers’ very first lesson in failure. Not everyone can or will get off of every bus in ten seconds, and the slow ones will be the first victims of the “shark attack.” Everyone will rush off the bus in a panic right into a mass of waiting Drill Sergeants that seem to appear out of thin air. The whole area descends into a writhing mass of controlled chaos. The new soldiers run around, completely unaware of what’s going on, suddenly immersed in a situation where it’s impossible to win.

This image from the Army website shows the beginning of an experience no soldier ever forgets

During these “shark attacks,” two Drill Sergeants may approach a soldier and tell them to do opposite things, for example placing a bag on the ground or holding it above their head. Following the directions of one Drill Sergeant will incur the wrath of the other. This is another essential method in the military’s “failure training.” Failure has consequences in real life, so it also has consequences in training. Otherwise, the lesson would lose its sting and, therefore, its value.

This lesson is important because, in learning to fail, one discovers the negative consequences of failure. This then conditions the soldiers to not fear failure and instead trains them to try their best regardless of the end result. Soldiers also learn the importance of acceptable failure and priority management. As long as X, Y, and Z are accomplished, it’s okay for A, B, and C to go unaccomplished.

Learning from Failure

The end state of a military is always victory. While soldiers need to grow comfortable with failure, it’s even more critical that they learn how to build on failure and create success. The military uses an After Action Review (AAR) process to facilitate that success. The military conducts the AAR process as often as possible to reinforce positive actions and identify negative ones. Typically, an AAR covers what should have happened in the training exercise, then discusses what actually happened. The group as a whole then observes the positive things they did and the negative things they did. This way, failure serves as vital instruction, and the effort put into training is never wasted. AARs negate the consequences of failure because every mistake becomes a lesson. The soldier is now able to self-correct negative actions and adapt to any environment over time.

This lesson translates well to everyday life, even though it seems to fly in the face of the common social understanding of failure. We often have the misconception that a failure is a defining event. However, the reality is that a single failure—even multiple failures—define no one. People are defined by their reaction to failure: one can shrug failure off and accept it the cost of experience while trying to learn from the incident, or they can allow it to break them. Far too often, we see people who let their failure to dominate their life. My challenge to anyone reading this is to not view failure as the end but to view it as a stepping stone on the path to success. There is always a path to victory: a good soldier wouldn’t quit a mission unless they achieved their objective or death occurred. Why, then, do we often allow defeat so easily outside of the military?

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