In February of 2009, the one-month culmination exercise known as Robin Sage stood between myself and the coveted Green Beret. I had spent the last two years suffering at the hands of battle-hardened Green Berets, who made it clear that we would be tested until the last minute of training. With two months left, the light at the end of the tunnel burned brightly. However, this training iteration would prove to be the most difficult and enlightening month of my life.
From the first day, it seemed as if the stars were aligned against me. I was the youngest and least experienced man on my team, so I was chosen for numerous leadership positions. It snowed multiple times, with temperatures frequently dropping into the 20’s. Every night I shivered underneath the stars, literally wondering if I might freeze to death. I suffered through a terrible case of gastroenteritis. At one point my team ran out of food for three days, and when we did eat, it was no more than 1,000 calories a day. Between the elements, physical exertion, illness, and lack of food, I lost almost 30 pounds during Robin Sage. Even after getting shot, I still use this period as a barometer for what a bad month looks like.
If these extrinsic factors were not enough, I was also plagued with self-doubt. I had made it through 22 months of training; however, I was untested and unsure of my ability to perform the duties of a Green Beret. My lack of self-confidence was apparent in my first two weeks. One day my instructor pulled me aside and asked me a question, “Flike, how do we learn?” I stared at him dumbfounded, afraid to answer the question. After a few seconds of silence, he said, “We learn by failing. We do. We fail. We learn. It is not about being right all the time, it is about going out there and making the best decision possible given the circumstances and then learning from the experience. Don’t be worried about making mistakes, those are inevitable – just don’t make the same mistake twice.” This three-minute conversation was not only a turning point in my military career but also my life.
The next two weeks were brutal but my instructor’s advice brought about new self-confidence. The pangs of self-doubt were replaced with conviction. When I stopped worrying about making mistakes, I made more sound and timely decisions. When I did have the occasional snafu, I learned lessons that ended up paying dividends on future combat deployments and I became a better leader in the process.
The fear of failing can paralyze both individuals and organizations. When you fear failure and mistakes, your ability to make timely decisions is thwarted and your creativity is subdued. However, a culture of “We do… We fail… We learn,” will empower your organization and give individuals the self-confidence to reach their highest potential. I am no longer worried about making mistakes or failing because I know the road to success is paved with setbacks that present me with a unique opportunity to learn and better myself.