Another Quick Story on Failure
Also known as more things in my life that I don't share that publicly.
I failed at some pivotal points in my career.
They didn’t quickly resolve into happy endings.
Life sucked for a meaningful amount of time afterward, but these failures did force me to get better. And that’s what got me on the right path.
I received a good amount of positive feedback on my last quick story on failure.
It seemed to resonate with people that sometimes you fuck things up and there’s no easy way to fix it and you just need to work and life is full of things like that. Who knew?
I guess probably David Goggins and the million people who have watched this video.
So I’m going to post a few more over the coming days because who knows? Maybe another one will help someone in the suck right now.
For those of you without context here, a lot of what I write is about what I think is the right answer to different situations.
Building a product. Leading a team. Speaking in public. Things like that.
I don’t normally spend a ton of time talking how I developed my opinion of these things because
It makes the essays super long and
There isn’t usually an acute event that “taught” that opinion to me.
My opinions are generally developed over time after reading a lot and participating in and dealing with multiple versions of the situation on which I am opining.
But I have some stories that are different.
There are some no joke things I just got absolutely crushed by and if I can I’d like to help you avoid getting crushed by them in your life too. Here’s one of them that’s been edited for clarity/simplicity.
Miles in the Sand
So after my Infantry training (where I failed in various ways, but none so disastrously as getting a heat stroke and almost dying), I was stationed in El Paso, Texas at Fort Bliss. I was slotted to be a Mechanized Infantry Platoon Leader and command Bradley Fighting Vehicles after finishing about a year of additional training beyond my four years of military college and ROTC.
And I was pumped. I was ready. to. go.
So I showed up to my unit and was put on the Battalion Staff. There wasn’t a platoon open yet and that was fine. I knew I’d probably have to wait a bit. No biggie.
So I put my head down and became a good staff officer, making powerpoints and plans and doing anything I could to become known as competent and help the unit.
Except it worked a bit too well.
I was selected to be my Battalion Commander’s Adjutant and be his personal aide for the next year. There’s a lot of stories from this time that are probably good things to reflect on, but the important thing to understand is that I wasn’t going to be a Platoon Leader anytime soon and my life was no longer my own (even more so than normal Army). I was now the general purpose point of contact for anything and everything related to the operation of the Battalion insofar as it concerned the boss of said Battalion.
So I nugged it out for about 6 months before I finally got my chance to do some fun Army stuff.
Our battalion was conducting maneuvers in the desert and a Bradley commander was sick. So they needed someone to sub in so the platoon could continue their training with a full complement of vehicles. My boss decided I would be a good fit to fill in and off I went. I wasn’t leading much and was just in charge of one Bradley (with a gunner and driver), but it was infinitely better than printing out papers and scheduling meetings. It was a good day.
So I arrived at the training site and we start operations. It was a defensive mission and while the platoon leader I was assisting totally lost (he was in charge of the plan/operations), my Bradley crew and I had managed to perform exceptionally well and “destroy” multiple enemy vehicles and survive to the end. It was now a great day. I had demonstrated I had demonstrated that I learned something about the Army which for a 2nd Lieutenant with zero track record is basically the only currency that matters to anyone that works with you. It’s hard to earn that credibility and ridiculously easy to lose it all with a boneheaded mistake…
And then came the after mission actions where we check our gear to make sure all important items are accounted for and nothing critical like classified GPS’s, weapons, or other expensive/sensitive equipment was lost during the maneuvering.
That’s when my gunner let me know he couldn’t find his night vision goggles (NVG’s).
I know all the veterans reading this just felt their stomach drop.
It was no longer a good day.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of losing Sensitive Item in the military, but it’s basically an overwhelming sense of dread and impending doom.
Losing Sensitive Items (SI) means all training stops and everyone in the unit has to come together and literally walk across the desert in a row until you find the lost thing. It’s a right of passage to go through the pain in the ass of a search for a lost item and it’s an absolute nightmare to be the human root cause receiving the combined hate of every single person who’s life you’ve derailed for the foreseeable future. No one can go home. No one can take a break. It’s just…looking around for the stupid thing. Sometimes it takes weeks to either find it or give up.
So I took the proper steps, we ripped that Bradley apart looking for the damn things, but eventually I needed to raise it up the chain of command. Which led directly to my boss the Battalion Commander. The boos who had just decided to let me take a Bradley for a spin for some training and I instantly screwed it up (and training for the battalion at the same time).
You see, you’re supposed to do SI checks throughout the mission. You’re supposed to regularly call those in so there’s a running record of when exactly something goes missing. I did this, but only partially. I had asked for the gunner to show me his NVG’s at all the proper times and I had let him just show me the bag they were in instead of actually checking if they were in there. Super easy choice to make in the moment. Most people do it that way and it usually works out fine. But it still was the wrong way and today was one of the days where it didn’t work out fine. So none of us had any clue of when it had actually gone missing which I had to raise that up the chain of command too.
So it got relayed up the chain.
And we got word back down the chain (after some agonizing waiting) that the NVG’s had been found. In the Tactical Operations Center. Which was miles away from where I was sitting. And that they’d been there for at least 12 hours. Which meant I had been giving false reports (another huge No No) for half the day.
So the training could continue, but my fun would not.
I had to report to my boss that night and got absolutely destroyed (rightly so). I was his representative to the rest of the battalion and I just made a complete fool of myself and set a terrible example as well. So my punishment?
I got to memorize the formal Sensitive Item procedures and needed to recite them immediately (in person) to every officer in the battalion. The battalion that was spread across miles and miles of desert rolling around in tanks and bradleys.
And so I did.
Lots of walking for the next few days. Lots of embarrassment. Lots of time back doing aide duties (AND ONLY aide duties) waiting for a platoon to open up. Lots of mental pain. Rough time period for sure.
But I learned another good lesson.
I’m responsible for everything my organization does or fails to do.
That means enforcing good, but annoying standards and best practices. That means being the example for productive behaviors. That means owning any mistakes that happen under your watch even if the root root cause isn’t directly your job to do. The gunner failed their part, sure, but it was my job to make sure they were doing the right thing at all times and I screwed that up.
Note for those wondering: the gunner dealt with his own misery from his NCO chain after that and we maintained a good relationship for the rest of the time we worked together.
Also, as a bonus lesson economics lesson, if you can pay a small fixed cost (physically opening a bag 6 times a day) to avoid the risk of an asymmetrically large cost (months of pain and embarrassment), then pay the small cost every time.
I hope this added value to your day.
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