Moving forward after failure

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Anderson
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Director of Staff’s Office

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Our Airmen are hurting. Our Airmen are overworked, underappreciated and far too often seek permanent solutions to temporary problems. 

The blame for this appears to be from everywhere, toxic leadership, physical assessment tests, a flawed promotion system to a laundry list of items and systems that our senior leaders are fighting to fix. Adding to the problems are an increasingly uncertain world which demands instant access to the US Air Force’s services. We have been at war for 18 years. Let that sink in.  Eighteen years. None of our young Airmen, and very few below colonel, know what it’s like to serve in a military that wasn’t at war, I certainly don’t. 

Life in the modern military is difficult, being separated from extended family and having to constantly say goodbye to your immediate family to deploy is something 98% of America doesn’t and can’t understand. There are venues to address this situation, but ultimately, this choice comes down to the individual. Do you complain about systems in the Air Force and count down the days to when you can separate? Do you make a permanent decision to escape the difficulties in your circumstance? Or do you change what you have the power to change and begin to learn to bounce back from your challenges and failures?

“Why do we fall Master Wayne?  So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up.”- Alfred Pennyworth

The single greatest skill we can give our Airmen is the ability to recover quickly from failure.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to learn how to recover from failure and empower our Airmen to recover. 

Think about the last time you failed. How did you react? We learn early on that the only way to succeed in life is to be the best at everything and to stay away from anything that hurts or causes negative feelings. This is a normal human response to stimuli. We would not have survived as a species this long without having avoided highly dangerous activities. 

At the same time, we would not have advanced as a species if we never pushed through failure.  Famously, Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times at creating the lightbulb before finally getting it right. These days, the danger is mostly in our heads. We actively avoid things that hurt us emotionally. What we should do is acknowledge things are going to hurt and resolve to learn from the hurt. 

How do we do this? How do you learn to recover from failure? First, give yourself grace and forgive yourself. You must realize that everyone fails at some point in time. The worst thing you can do to yourself is engage in self-depreciation and abuse because you can’t forgive your own actions. It’s OK. Say that to yourself, “It’s OK.” Now, take a breath. Take another. And another. Now, repeat and move on to the next step.

Next, seek out someone to talk to. Whether that’s a wingman, spouse, significant other or a parent, talk to someone. The good news is the Air Force knows how important this step is and has enlisted a number of helping agencies if you need to talk. You have someone from the base chapel, sexual assault response coordinators, equal opportunity and mental health professionals, as well as the inspector general on call 24/7. Your leadership cares about you. If it’s not your immediate supervisor, someone in your squadron or work center does. If they truly don’t, or you feel that they don’t, see the options above. Someone is always willing to listen and you would be surprised at how effective it is to talk to someone who can simply listen without judgement. Allow yourself to get the help you need. It’s OK.

Finally, move forward. You may not be able to undo or put real distance between you and your failure, but even a single step is moving in the right direction. What does this look like practically? When the memory of your failure comes up in your mind, dismiss it or do something to take your mind off of it. Find another project or something productive to do. Nothing erases failure like success, no matter how small. We have become so accustomed to seeing the bad, we miss the good. Look for it and take the small victories. Maybe it’s just getting up on time, maybe it’s successfully completing a minor maintenance job or maybe you executed the approach and landed the airplane. If it’s a victory, celebrate it in your mind. This step is the hardest, but most crucial. The good news is you’re not alone. No one finds it easy.

It’s important as leaders for us to assist our Airmen with these steps. It takes a capable leader to be able to stress the importance of learning through failure while still getting Airmen to understand that certain failures are very serious. You can dispense punishment, when required, and then turn around and care for the individual to help him or her learn from their mistakes. It’s difficult and requires caring, but you owe it to your Airmen. 

These are difficult times for our Air Force and require us to come together as a family. You must choose to learn and move on from your failure and not focus on things you cannot change at your level. The only thing you can guarantee control over is yourself and your attitudes. Give yourself grace, reach out for help and talk to someone, and move forward, even if it’s slowly. Your leaders and wingmen are here for you. You are not alone and do not have to suffer by yourself.