Fifteen years ago, I assessed for a special mission unit in the military. This was in the mid-2000’s, when combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were on-going and very intense. With so much need and limited resources, I thought that I was a guaranteed lock during the assessment. But, being selected to attend the training was only the beginning of the assessment phase. I knew the assessment period would be difficult, but I didn’t value enough that I still needed to perform above standards in order to be successful.
Up until this point, I was successful. I had graduated from one of the service academies and received my commission. I was selected for Special Operations and completed all of the training without injury or set back. I had deployed to Afghanistan and participated in combat operations. I had proven myself multiple times over on paper and by action. I was entitled to be a part of this organization, right?
I’ll cut to the end–I wasn’t selected. At first, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t selected and I was angry. I was furious! The Cadre didn’t give us enough information. The other personnel in the unit didn’t take time to mentor me. The rest of the team didn’t act like professionals. I blamed anybody and everybody for my failure.
Whatever the reason, it unfortunately took me six years to learn from the mistakes that occurred during those few months. That’s an unacceptable amount of my career time that I should have been growing from my mistakes. I let the fact that I failed get the best of me, instead of learning from my failure.
I don’t remember getting a thorough outbrief of why I wasn’t selected, but chances are I also failed to fully comprehend what was told to me during my outbrief. Some of the feedback I do recall revolved around failing to properly plan for our team training iteration, which led to failed objectives and busted time limits. Wearing the improper uniform during a joint training event. Overall, I had doubt on why I wasn’t selected and what I could do to fix it. Additionally, I was not asked to assess again in the future. I didn’t understand why I was the person not selected when the team as whole was failing to perform.
I know I was in shock. I remember feeling ashamed of myself and embarrassed. I also remember thinking what would others think of me. It was no secret that I was assessing for the unit. It’s not like I could hide the fact that I didn’t get selected. There were lots of unanswered questions swimming through my head, and I didn’t even know where to start.
I arrived to my unit after the failed assessment with three main thoughts: 1) I had a chip on my shoulder and wanted to prove “them” wrong. 2) What are others going to think? 3) Do I even have what it takes to be in Special Operations? Over time, I found the answers to my concerns.
Yes, I did belong in Special Operations. I had proven that already when I was selected. There is no reason that I should have questioned my abilities. Yes, I failed during the assessment, but I couldn’t have failed if I didn’t even assess. When you tell that to a person who was not selected, they don’t believe it. But, it’s true. You have to make yourself vulnerable during an assessment and selection. Not everybody makes it. I learned that not being selected isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me. Not assessing because I was afraid to fail would have been worse.
I’m sure there were people talking about me out of my earshot after my failed assessment. They could have been asking why didn’t I get selected. What did he do wrong? Or, that assessment must be hard if he didn’t get selected. The best thing that happened to me was that my new commander welcomed me with open arms and a “clean slate”. He knew that he was getting a person who was not selected. But, he recognized the fact that he was getting somebody who was capable enough to even assess who could be value-added to his unit.
I didn’t recognize I was good enough to be in Special Operations after the failed assessment. I was too busy being pissed off at myself. I hated the fact that I failed. It made me question my actions and decision making process. I poured hours of work into simple projects, just to make sure that nobody would question me. I let doubt consume me whenever I made a decision. It was an extremely unhealthy life to live. There was no way that I was going to fail again. I was more concerned about not failing, than I was concerned about succeeding.
For six years, I held an internal grudge and questioned who I was as a person. I didn’t think about it 24/7, 365; but I did think about it. It wasn’t until I came to the conclusion that the reason I failed was because of me, that I understood what truly happened. There was nobody out to get me. The Cadre were a professional group who knew how to do their job. Quality, not quantity. I knew the expectations. I knew how to be a leader. I just didn’t perform as required. Ultimately, it was my fault and I fully accept that now.
I know it took six years because I had a moment of self-realization while I was driving to work several assignments later. A day earlier, a colleague made a comment that they thought it was stupid I didn’t get selected. When I asked him why, he responded, “Because you always look out for your men and take care of them.” And there it was—that short comment gave me the clarity that I needed.
Ever since not being selected in my shock, doubt, pity, and anger phases; I never told myself that from that moment forward I was strictly going to focus on taking care of the men. While I over-focused on producing a superior product, or continuously questioned my decisions; I never once forgot or had to readjust my emphasis on ensuring the men had the proper time, resources, and training to accomplish their mission. I also ensured they were recognized for their efforts. At the end of the day; mission first, people always.
Yes, I had been good enough to attend the assessment; I just flat out didn’t perform as an individual or the right leader during that timeframe. That is the reason that I was not selected, and that is the reason why others were selected. It wasn’t the right time for me to attend the selection training. I was not professionally mature enough for the required responsibility.
I was finally able to move on and get past the failed assessment pretty easily. Yes, becoming a part of that special mission unit would have provided some amazing opportunities. However, when I looked back at everything else I had accomplished up to that point, I quickly realized that I didn’t need to be pissed off at myself anymore.
After the selection training, I almost got out of the military. I figured that if I didn’t make the assessment of the special mission unit, then there wasn’t anything left for me to do. I’m glad I stuck around. I continued my service in the military for what I, and many others in my career field, would consider a successful career. I learned from not only the mistakes made during the assessment, but others during my career. I grew, I worked hard, and I became the leader I was capable of becoming. I worked with some amazing people, deployed several times again into combat, and had amazing opportunities to lead correctly. However, it took me more than six years to recognize that the reason I failed assessing for that unit was because of me. It was my fault and my fault alone.
If I could go back and confront myself the day after not being selected, I know it would be a hard conversation. I’m positive that my younger self would have difficulty understanding and listening to my advice. I would emphasize that one failed assessment does not make a person’s career. It’s the work that a person does before, during, and most importantly after a failure that makes them successful. Get over the failure now, and start learning from the mistakes that you made. Your values are not in question. Don’t change who you are. You failed because you are young and still need to mature. Become a more confident and consistent leader starting right now.