We train, study, and prepare day in and day out while dreaming of what we will do with all of our successes and glory without a passing thought of the potential of failure. After all, winners don’t think this way, they don’t allow negative energy to flow into their thought process. Failure is NEVER an option! That is, until it becomes a reality.
In the instance of this failure, we watch the mightiest of warriors crash down into darkness and sometimes lose themselves. I should know, I am kind of an expert in the field of failure.
Considering the potential I showed, physically and intellectually, coupled with the swell of confidence that I radiated, I never could have imagined that I would fail more times than anybody I know. I have failed BUD/s (Basic underwater demolition/SEAL Training) twice. I switched over to the Army SFQC (special forces qualification course) and was there for 3 years, recycling many of the courses several times for different reasons. I failed and had to re-do the SOCM (special operations combat medic) course 3 times, which typically doesn’t happen. While I was still active, I had failing businesses that crippled me financially. Hell, the whole reason I even joined the military was because I was kicked out of the Dallas Police Academy for having too many traffic violations.
Over a decade of my life was spent training, then suffering, then failing, and repeating. However, I was not the only one in this situation. There is a large population of service-members who can relate on at least a partial level. Many of these men and women go on and serve honorably, happily, and with no regrets. Yet, there is another percentage of them who did not fulfill their ambition, and they will live years trying to finish what they started. Though often still top performers in whatever capacity they are serving, they are not happy, they are not content, and sometimes they become a sort of self-appointed outcast. This situation exists in all planes of society, whether a SOF trainee or a Corporate office worker. When a person’s drive, ambition, capability, and confidence seem indestructible, it is no wonder why they fall so hard when they fail.
Considering the amount of commitment and ambition in many SOF trainees, the drop-out process is far from perfect. Most are treated as if they simply failed out of any other standard military course. Instead, many get ridiculed and called a failure, a quitter, or weak, often by those who would never even attempt such a venture. Many have invested their entire identity into becoming this special person. Failing is devastating and can make some perfectly strong individuals question the value of their own lives. I have had friends lose themselves in this darkness we call failure. I, too, have almost lost myself. I knew people who have literally drank themselves to death after failing and I know people who turned to drugs to escape the prison of their shame.
Everyone talks about how hard completing Navy SEAL training is, but nobody talks about the one thing that’s harder – failing it. As the only Petty Officer in the BUD/s holding company at the time, it is no wonder the Navy wanted me to track and escort the BUD/s dropouts, which they deemed “high suicide risks”. So often we hear about the mental fortitude and sheer willpower of those who wear the coveted pins, hats, and patches that we desire. Obviously, nobody talks about the guy who went almost all the way and then failed.
Nobody sees the 23-year-old SFQC washout climb through regret, anger, or depression for another 10 years to finally restart and earn their Green beret at 33. There is, no doubt, something to be said about men and women who struggled, fought, and bled their way through 6 months to 2 years of training to earn their place, but there is something truly unique about anyone who fails, only to rise up and continue to claw forward for a mere opportunity to try again before being subjected to the same course all over again. Due to the attrition rate of many of these courses, there are far more of these individuals out there looking for the opportunity to prove themselves than people realize. After all, anyone can succeed once; It is not what we do in our successes that define us, but what we choose to do after we fail.
“The Gift of Pain” is a book written by Paul Brand and Phillip Yancey that illustrates an interesting concept. It is about Dr. Brand, a surgeon who travels to India to Study Lepers. Until recently, it was believed that leprosy caused infections, loss of limb, sores, blindness, and much more. Dr. Brand discovered that Leprosy did not cause any of these things. It was not a disease of the tissue, but a disease of the nerves, the loss of a pain response. This, consequently, led to the afflicted failing to blink and ultimately going blind, Whereas, the healthy would feel a burning sensation to do so. It led them to walk on broken legs, to neglect open infections, and even fail to naturally shift their body while sleeping-leading to horrible pressure sores. Aside from the obvious medical breakthrough regarding those afflicted by leprosy, there is an even larger revelation that can be applied to those afflicted by life. We fear and resent pain, when in reality, it is a gift.
Naturally, we humans want to control every aspect of our lives. We feel helpless without knowing where we are going and when we are going to get there. We feel ashamed when we never arrive. We feel like failures if our perfect future didn’t pan out exactly how we had planned. These thoughts tend to cloud our minds and we fail to see that life is a whole lot larger than the titles we seek to feel self-worth. We fear and resent failure like we fear and resent pain. Every time I failed, I found myself in a dark place asking “why?” It took me almost a decade to truly answer that question.
Like the unpleasant pain signals that we were blessed with failure, too, was gifted to us. Unlike pain however, Failure triggers no immediate subconscious muscle reflex to keep us from burning ourselves or going blind. The ability to adapt to failure is on a conscious level. It differs because it creates pain in our minds instead of pain on our flesh. The only absolute failure in this life is the inability to manage failure.
I write this as a plea to everyone who has ever experienced failure. in this darkness you cannot see the light. You cannot see the doors waiting to open. You cannot see what the future holds for you. You can only stand back up, acknowledge that it is all still there, and put one foot in front of the other while your eyes adjust -like every great hero in history has had to do. With a little patience you will start to see again, this time even clearer. Weeks, months, years, and decades from now we will look back and see why life molded us the way it did. We will control what we can control, and the rest isn’t up to us. We can, however, choose whether we stand back up or let that dark pit consume us. After the disappointment in yourself passes and you start to move forward again you will come to the realization that the trident, beret, scroll, or (whatever MARSOC gets) isn’t what you genuinely coveted anyway, it was simply the channel that you thought you needed to forge you into the man or woman you see yourself being. Fortunately, a velcro patch has no say in that.
One night in BUD/s the cadre kept the class up all night writing an essay about why they wanted to be Navy SEALs. Many gave the standard “I want to be the best,” response. Others said it was to “prove something to themselves” and so on. One gentleman, a top college athlete who succeeded at virtually everything he did, wrote his piece: “I want to feel like I belong because I EARNED the right to belong. I want to do something special. My life won’t be complete unless I become a Navy SEAL.” As Hellweek approached, tensions and anxiety grew. The student was nervous but knew what he wanted. He knew that failure was not an option and he would become a Navy SEAL. Besides, there was nothing to worry about- he didn’t know how to fail. About a week later, full of regret from quitting coupled with his lack of experience in the failure department, he rode an elevator to the top of a hotel in downtown San Diego and jumped off. He was right. His life wouldn’t be complete… but only because he believed it to be so.
Jeff mitchell is a business owner/entrepeneur residing near Ft Bragg, NC. He is a former petty officer in the Navy Seabees and then served as an Army special operations combat medic.