Your Failures are What Make You

 

By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor

I used to constantly strive for perfection in my daily life. This behavior came from playing video games as a kid. Characters in role playing games usually start with minimal skills and equipment when they set off on their quest. In the beginning enemies are stronger and paths are often blocked requiring a key, or special skill, to access the next level. After getting stuck at some obstacle, and spending hours seemingly not making progress, I would hit the reset button. All the time spent struggling felt wasted and somehow tarnished my character’s progress.

After starting over I would coast through the earlier levels. My character would quickly level up as I navigated the familiar routes collecting experience points and equipment. The satisfaction of avoiding previous pitfalls was addictive, but it created an unattainable reality in my personal life. Unlike an unblemished save file my personal journey is littered with setbacks and disappointments. In real life there is no reset button or do overs, but achievements are still possible by using failures as reminders to perform better in the future.

I’ve come to embrace the indelible mistakes because they are reminders of my hard fought lessons learned. The following themes were most common to my failures and struggles:

  • Choosing comfort over a challenge
  • Ignoring assistance 
  • Arrogance

Choosing Comfort

A common cause of my failures was taking an easier path to avoid struggle. Senior year of high school I opted out of calculus for an easier math course. I paid the price for this decision in college when I struggled to grasp concepts in my undergraduate studies. Being exposed to calculus during high school would have helped me understand the formulas and equations instead of seeing it for the first time when I started my first semester. This experience encouraged me to take the opposite approach in graduate school.

During my final semester of my masters degree program I had the choice between two classes. One was an exercise physiology laboratory course and the other was an extension of a class I took first semester, and was reportedly less rigorous. I had previously played it safe academically and regretted it, so I opted for the more challenging and time intensive course. 

After the instructor returned my first lab report I thought I had made a mistake because of my poor grade. Through additional time and effort my grades improved, but more importantly I learned how to write scholarly reports. Ultimately if I had chosen the easier course I would not have learned to conduct laboratory research studies, and gain experience for future projects.

Ignoring Assistance 

Historically I would not ask for help because I was afraid of looking stupid in front of others. Video games encouraged this behavior because heroes did not usually need others for assistance. They either started with the necessary skills, discovered them through exploration, or earned them by beating a boss at the end of a level. This stubbornness contributed to me recycling Florida phase of Ranger School

I was feeling pretty confident when my roster number was called during the last field training exercise (FTX) in Florida. I passed my previous graded patrol in mountain phase and I believe that I had performed flawlessly after listening to the grader’s feedback. Graduation was more on my mind than the patrol. The first indication that I still had more to learn came when I conducted my leaders recon of the notional enemy objective.

I took my subordinate leaders to identify a support by fire position and direction of attack for the assault force. We made it back to the objective rally point (ORP) and I had time to spare until the scheduled hit time. The Ranger Instructor (RI) appeared over my shoulder and asked me when I planned on initiating the raid. I replied with the briefed no later than time from the operations order. He asked me if I was going to initiate early.

I was confused by his question. There was plenty of time left, so I figured preparing equipment and rehearsals would be more valuable than starting hours ahead of schedule. I responded “no,” thinking he was just trying to throw me off my game. 

The RI wouldn’t let it go, and asked me again. It seemed I was not picking up on his hints to conduct a daylight raid to increase the chances of maintaining control, and allowing the Ranger students in my platoon maximum time to get to our next objective. If I had paused to think I might have realized the RI was actually trying to help me. Eventually I relented and requested an earlier start time, which was subsequently approved.

Unfortunately, it was not the last time during the patrol that I disregarded the instructor’s subtle hints. He later asked me if my security was set after actions on the objective, which likely meant he saw gaps in our perimeter. I responded that the platoon sergeant had already confirmed security was good, but I never verified it myself. These were probably just a couple of the many cues I missed, but by the time I received my feedback at the end of the FTX I already knew in my heart that I would spend another three weeks in Florida.

The second time through the phase was challenging, but my leadership was not tested the same way. The next set of patrols were pretty uneventful, and did not seem like valid retribution for my mistakes during the previous FTX. Instead listening to other’s suggestions paid off years later on a real patrol in Afghanistan.

On this mission my platoon had limited Soldiers and weapons due to weight limitations of the aircraft that delivered us to a mountain top above 9,000 feet making security establishment even more critical. The platoon sergeant came to me with a recommended location to place our sniper along the likely direction of attack. I quickly looked at the terrain and agreed with his assessment. After we took fire from a rock outcropping and the sniper was in the right spot to engage the enemy I was thankful I had listened this time after receiving a recommendation.

Arrogance 

Achievements in my personal, or professional life, encouraged me to believe these events were destined to happen and future success was guaranteed. Similar to narratives in video games I have been in situations where I was quickly reminded that success is temporary, and I should always remain humble.

When I arrived to my first unit they were already deployed to Afghanistan. Like most fresh infantry lieutenants I wondered how long it would take to get a platoon of my own. Surprisingly my wait was relatively short based on circumstances that put me in charge of the battalion’s mobile reaction force platoon. During my time as the interim platoon leader we went on daily patrols, sometimes multiple times a day. I experienced combat first hand, which strengthened my confidence but also inflated my ego.

A few months later I moved to another company in the battalion. When I met my new company commander it was safe to say I thought I was a big deal. I had done everything I was told a young infantry officer should accomplish: graduate from infantry basic officer leader’s course, earn my Ranger tab and airborne wings, and lead a platoon in combat. My first interaction with this commander did not go well.

Since there was time between finishing with the old platoon and flying to my new base I asked my commander for a few days off. After considering my request he pulled me aside and bluntly informed me that my accomplishments were not special, and I should not expect special treatment just because I had a Ranger Tab and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

I arrived to my new platoon humbled. Instead of telling my new Soldiers and non commissioned officers how to operate based on my experiences in a completely different sector I was more receptive to their ideas and knowledge of the area. As embarrassing as the interaction with my commander was it subdued my ego and helped me transition into a new platoon.

Conclusion

Looking back at these failures makes me cringe, but I no longer wish to erase them from my memory. Now I realize those stumbles and setbacks were necessary for my personal growth. I will never know the disasters I avoided because of the terrible sense of anguish I felt when I experienced failure. Now when I fall short instead of wishing to wipe the slate clean I add it to my failure journal as a reminder to not make the same mistake again.

Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.

 


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