Commentary by Lt. Col. Oliver K. Leeds
92nd Air Refueling Squadron
7/9/2013 - FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. (AFNS) -- One
of the lessons I carry around with me every day is something I learned
from the jumping events in high school track and field.
I was intimidated by the high jump. Unlike the long jump, where every
leap into the sand pit could be measured and faults were not
embarrassing, the high jump presented a daunting binary challenge: clear
the bar or make an embarrassing spectacle. Knocking the bar down could
hurt if it landed between me and the mat, and the groans from spectators
could be ego devastating.
Some of my long jumps were better than others, but none felt like
failures. In the high jump, however, failure was certain. Every
competition has the same sequence: jump, succeed; jump, succeed; jump,
fail. It was always there, stalking me. Eventually, my limits prepared
me to announce to the world, "I failed!"
One day, at my more comfortable long jump pit, my attitude swung 180
degrees. Simply put, I was discontented not knowing if I had done my
best. Could I have run faster? Did I jump too far behind the line?
Should I have waited for the breeze to shift directions? The second
guessing went on and on. I didn't have this problem in the high jump. In
the high jump, I always knew I did my best, because I pushed myself
until I failed. Eureka!
Had I found comfort in failure? Yes, because it assured me I had done my best, and removed regrets for not having tried.
My thoughts turned immediately to the sealed and addressed, yet
unmailed, envelope on my desk at home. It was college application
season, and I had been accepted to all four schools to which I had
applied. But the application on my desk was different -- it was to "the
long-shot school" -- the school I would go to if I could, but seriously
doubted I had a chance.
Wasn't it smarter to avoid failure? I could spend the rest of my life
thinking I wasn't rejected, rather than apply and remove all doubt. But
that day, 23 years ago, I glanced over my shoulder at an unusually
inspiring high jump bar. I walked out of my uncertain sand, went home
and mailed the application. Sure enough, two months later I was
rejected. It was my first true failure in the road of life, but I have
spent the decades since confident that I have done my best and grateful
that I had learned to live a life without regrets.
Some of my fellow Airmen surprise me for not seeing that lesson. I have
known people not applying for jobs for fear of rejection. I've known
NCOs and officers alike retiring before finding out if they were
selected for a promotion. All kinds of challenges are declined for some
form or flavor of failure avoidance.
Life is short, and an Air Force career is fast. Not failing does not
mean you are successful; it means you traveled too cautiously. Leap to
your limits, learn from failures and live without regrets. That is a