Reflecting on Failure

I heard one of my new favorite quotes this morning. I don’t know who said it, but it went something like this:

“Just because you failed, that doesn’t make you a failure.”

This is an important distinction, and one that has been helping me deal with my failure as healthily as I can. I’ll start with a bit of background.

I’m currently enrolled as a cadet in my college’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. It’s an outstanding program, one that opens the doors for countless opportunities. However, like anything worth doing, there is always the risk of failure.

My failure began about two months ago, when I entered the program as a Cadet Third Class. Now most of you know that to be in any branch of the military, you have to be physically fit. In fact, there is a specific officer whose job is to make sure you are physically fit. This fitness includes a fitness test that you must pass each semester. Being a high school athlete and very active person, I assumed this would not be a challenge for me. I muscled through the required pushups, then zipped through the run, easily beating the required time.

But then I started the situps.

If you are not aware, the Air Force requires that males under the age of 30 complete at least 42 pushups in one minute. My first time, I only managed to crank out 35. I was fairly disappointed, mainly because I thought it would be easy. Situps were just situps, right? However, as I continued to take the test on a weekly basis, I still struggled. My pushups and running improved, but my situps were going nowhere.

Then the critical deadline approached. “You need to pass this test tomorrow,” said my squadron commander. If I didn’t, it would delay my progress in the program and I would have to stay in college an extra year (which nobody wants, right?) So I came in bright and early on wednesday morning, ready to pass with flying colors. A few minutes later, I found myself cranking out situps, listening to the proctor say “20…30…35” and then I hit 41.

One more, I said to myself, one more and you’ve got it.

Then my muscles froze.

They wouldn’t pull me the rest of the way up.

My elbows were three inches from my thighs.

Three inches from acheiving my biggest goal of the year.

“Time,” the proctor said.

I flopped back onto the floor, staring at the ceiling, at a loss for words. I panted for a few seconds, then it began to sink in. I had been staring at my goal, had been three inches from passing, moving on, getting the opportunity to progress into the next level of the program. But I had failed. Failed.

Of course, I realize that people face bigger challenges than situps. There are people fighting every day for survival, water, food, shelter, and countless other things. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. As I lay there on that mat, catching my breath, I reminded myself that this was not the worst thing to happen to anyone, or even to me.

But still, I had failed.

A few minutes later I was taking a couple cooldown laps around the track, and I started thinking about how I was going to take this failure. Then I realized that there are things we can (and should) keep in mind when we fail. The first one is perspective. Unless your failure is fatal, chances are you will recover from it. The second is giving your all. Did you give it your absolute best? If not, then try that next time. If you gave your all and still failed, think about how you can push yourself even more in the future. Put in your best effort, but remember that that’s the most you can ever do.

Finally, I just want to leave you with this. If you fail (at anything, not just an excercise or a test), process your failure in a healthy way. Be angry/sad/disappointed for a little while, blow off some steam, and distract yourself with something completely unrelated. Give yourself some time, and once you’ve accepted your failure, come back with a clear head and try again. If you keep things in perspective, do your best, and always keep calm in the face of adversity, you’ll always be able to fail and get up afterwards.

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