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Overcoming failures

  • Published
  • By Maj. Eric Tucker
  • 509th Communications Squadron commander
You will fail. The question is, how will you respond? This reminds me of a parable of the carrot, egg and coffee.

A senior irman was distraught when he learned he did not make Staff Sgt. after his first time testing. His staff sergeant supervisor saw a teaching opportunity and the next day he filled three pots with water and placed each on the stove. After they came to a boil, he placed carrots in the first pot, eggs in the second and ground coffee in the last.

After 20 minutes, he fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then he ladled the coffee out into a cup.  Turning to the senior airman, the staff sergeant asked, "Tell me, what do you see?" "Carrots, eggs and coffee," the senior airman replied. Then he asked the senior airman to feel the carrots, which he did and noted they were soft and mushy. The staff sergeant asked the senior airman to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, the senior airman observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked the senior airman to sip the coffee. He smiled as he tasted the coffee with its rich aroma. The senior airman said, "Nice, but what does all of this mean?" 

The staff sergeant laughed and explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity - boiling water - but each reacted differently. "Which are you?" the staff sergeant asked, "are you a carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, becomes soft and loses strength? Are you the egg that appears not to change but whose heart is hardened? Or, are you the coffee bean that changes the hot water, the very circumstances that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases its fragrance and flavor. If you are like the coffee bean, when things are at their worst, your very attitude will change your environment for the better, making it sweet and palatable."

When you face failure, will you be the carrot, egg or coffee? I offer three suggestions when dealing with failure. First, own up to your failures. Don't explain failures away, instead deal with them head-on. Don't look around for other people to blame. That happens way too often today. Admit your failures and take accountability for them.  Being accountable for your failures shows responsibility. Accepting your failure will give you the courage to apologize, if that's appropriate to the situation.

Taking ownership of your failures enables the second step, learning. FAIL (First Attempt In Learning). This is how you need to view failures - a lesson on what didn't work.  While learning from your mistakes, don't expect a miracle recovery overnight. Take the time you need to learn the appropriate lessons. Don't short-circuit the process. Bouncing back is good, but you want to bounce back in a healthy way and not force it. Forcing it will only hinder your opportunity for growth. The beautiful thing about failure is it teaches you the resiliency needed to cope with future failures. Also, don't go in alone.  Ask for help if you need it. I like this quote from B.F Skinner: "A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying."

Third, with the wisdom gained from growing through your failure, thrive. Life isn't about luck. Life is about hard work - hard work that is born from failure, learning from failure and thriving from the growth you made to reach your full potential in life.

We never try to fail on purpose. But at the same time if you stay so far away from failure, if you don't ever push yourself to where failure is a possibility, you're probably not pushing yourself enough. Failure presents opportunities for personal growth. It also teaches you about willpower, persistence, self-discipline and hard work. I encourage people to be empowered, take initiative and move out. Step out of your comfort zone and take a chance. There are very few "one strike and you're out" failures in the Air Force. Be adventurous and try something new. If you fail, own up to it, learn from it, change your circumstances and thrive! Don't be a carrot or an egg.