GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Every success is a rewarding experience but we underestimate the value of failure and its frequency among successful people and organizations. A Columbia University study on 400 New York high school students found that many of them believe success is the result of a natural aptitude they lack. They also believe success is out of their reach and that failure is innately bad. Although this study concerns me, I am grateful to serve in an Air Force that fosters values such as strong work ethic, perseverance, resilience and lifelong learning.
These principles and our core values are essential to overcoming failure and failure is essential to success. For example, Apple invented the iPod after the Macintosh/NeXT strategy failed, Bill Gates’ first business failed before Microsoft and Albert Einstein failed school entrance exams before winning the Nobel Prize in physics. Even with thousands of examples available, many of us still fear failure. What is holding us back from embracing failure as the pathway to greater success?
The first obstacle is our own success. Many times, individuals become complacent in the status quo because it works well enough or it is comfortable. If your goal is to never fail, it becomes easy to form a habit of limiting yourself or preventing success out of fear of failure.
Transportation systems are an excellent example of challenging what has always worked and taking a risk in the name of success. The Wright Brothers knew the accepted theory of aviation at that time and the use of ground transportation alone were insufficient. Through all of their trials and errors, they embraced each lesson as their aircraft failed to attain lift or crashed. Imagine our loss if they had embraced the status quo.
Another obstacle we often face is viewing success and failure as a win-lose situation. Instead, it is beneficial to view each attempt, whether we succeed or fail, as a win-win opportunity. Many of the greatest innovations are just small improvements on past failures. The scientific method, a golden standard in science experimentation, simply views failure as an opportunity to change our way of thinking. It also recognizes that the lessons learned through experience can generate new insights or significantly increase the likelihood of success during the next try.
The last obstacle many individuals face is how to productively consider risk. As we know, our Air Force leaders are responsible for leading and helping Airmen execute our mission while simultaneously improving our organizations. The difficulty in this is that organizational improvement usually involves increasing short-term risk of mission failure to enhance long-term effectiveness. Exceptional leaders learn to recognize when the risk is worth the reward.
It is sometimes easy to become complacent, want to avoid risk, or view failure solely as a loss but it is our ability to overcome failure in the pursuit of success that will make us great. Remember to challenge yourself and encourage others to step outside their comfort zones in order to achieve their goals. We can all learn to appreciate and overcome failure if we consider these obstacles and continue to embrace our Air Force values.