Swanton, Ohio --
I have a confession to make: I was never particularly good at anything. Everything I know I learned from someone else. Everything I can
do I failed at when I first tried. I’m pretty sure I fell down when I learned to walk or ride a bike – a lot. I’m also sure my parents didn’t always pick me up when I fell, and there’s probably a lesson in that too. I was a terrible engineering student at Notre Dame (you definitely don’t want to fly in an airplane I designed) and I failed my first check ride in pilot training. Life is a series of struggles, but I take solace in the belief that I’m no different than most people. I recognize innate talent in others, and physical gifts that raise their potential, but I didn’t grow to be 6’8” with the ability to run a 4.3 second 40 yard dash or jump with a 48 inch vertical leap. I struggle to hit golf balls straight and I don’t understand quantum physics. I didn’t win the genetic lottery. If I have an ability besides my remarkable capacity for failure, it’s that I have a drive to know how to fix it – to understand... everything.
I often say that I never learned anything by doing it right the first time – those rare accomplishments were probably just accidents. I only learn when I fail and analyze the errors. Coach Tom Landry once said if you want to win you have to teach, and if you fail you have to learn. And when I learn something, I’m so excited I want to share it. That’s why I have loved teaching, and leading. There’s nothing better than deconstructing a complex problem to simpler parts, and then sharing the answer with someone else. That search for answers means I pay attention to details, and make connections that some might overlook. I see lessons in the stories around me and I’d like to share a recent one with you.
My son Sam loves to play basketball. He’s a tall, athletic left hander with a soft jump shot. When he was in grade school he had the potential to be the best player on the court – not NBA or major college kind of talent, but a very good high school player. He came to identify as an athlete and life was good. Until he blew out his knee playing soccer his freshman year, and tore up his shoulder each of the next two years. Each time he faced painful surgery and long rehab. He couldn’t play basketball for 3 straight years. He had to confront the question: who was he, if not a basketball player? With the obstacles he faced, there was little hope to get where he wanted to go. Granted, this is just a teenager’s issue in the big world, but I see parallels in other people’s struggles. Is your career or life on track to get you where you want to go? If not, what’s holding you back? Maybe education is in your way. The mountain of information and indecipherable tests seem impossible. Maybe you have stumbled, or have made a bad decision or two. Now you’re sitting in an office being counseled or reprimanded. Or maybe your timing is just bad. The pyramid gets skinny as you go up and there’s just no opportunity because there are people in front of you that aren’t moving. You feel capable, and full of potential but you just can’t reach your goal. Who are you if you don’t reach that goal?
The first thing I’d say is don’t give up. Continue to fight the good fight every day. There is nobility and honor in refusing to quit. And realize that your efforts are preparing you for something – maybe just not what you’re expecting. You’ve probably heard that you are interviewing for your next promotion every day. I’d add that you should be preparing for that promotion every day. The only catch is that you won’t immediately know the second order effects
of your actions or your ultimate destination.
I’m absolutely sure my purpose has not been to single handedly do anything. I have flown combat missions, trained hundreds of fighter pilots and made tough decisions. I have tried to build teams and lead people where they want to go, even when they didn’t want to do the things to get them there. I have been successful and been promoted beyond my ambitions, but I don’t believe that’s why I’m here – this is not my destination. And I accept that I probably will never know all the reasons why I ended up here, but my hope is that along the way I’ve helped somebody else – that I’ve planted a seed that grows into something good. We all do that. The greatest impact you may have in your life may be in the simplest gesture of kindness. So realize that in your daily struggles, something else is happening.
My son had to reorganize his life without the central focus of sports. He had to fill the void, so he became more active in other things: youth groups, student government, academics and his relationships. He didn’t know it, but he grew as a person much faster than if he had been just an athlete. I would never have wished the pain and suffering on him, but the silver lining was incredibly clear. He thought his destination was to go back to being a basketball player, but once he figured out his new identity, and became confident in that new reality, he became a different, stronger, better-rounded person instead. If you are depressed about your current situation, remember that there is a better version of you in your future.
The second thing I’d say is that you need to focus on the right things. Coach John Wooden said “The more concerned we become over the things we can’t control, the less we will do with the things we can control.” I saw a great presentation on leadership last year and one of the main points was that E+R=O, meaning an Event plus your Response equals the Outcome. You can’t control the things that happen – your span of control is about a three-foot circle around you that you can reach within arm’s length. So “stuff” happens. Get over it.
You also can’t completely control the outcome. You don’t get the outcome you deserve, you get the outcome you earn through your disciplined response. The only thing you own is your response. And be careful about how you measure your success. The other team can score more points than you, but you can still win. I am admittedly hyper-competitive; I love to keep score and come out on top; win the argument, win the game, win the league, win the battle, win the war. But if that’s all there is, then after the last game is over, who am I?
Struggles don’t define us. It is our response that defines us. Robert Louis Stevenson echoed Cervantes when he wrote “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labor.” When you give it your all but come up short with your head held high – you have still won. That’s
a far greater lesson for my kids than any recognition I have ever received.
You may think you need to control every detail in your life and your children’s lives. The world can be harsh and we instinctively try to avoid that adversity, especially for our kids. We try to control every danger in our child’s life: no playing in the muddy creek because there might be germs; everyone gets a trophy because losing might make them feel sad; don’t challenge anyone with an alternative view because it might upset them – we need “safe” zones in our colleges to avoid conflict. We’re missing the point - control the response, not the event. In your careers, work every day to be better than yesterday.
Act with deliberate intention. You may not reach your original goal, but if you change your focus to a pursuit of excellence, if you make that your response to every challenge, you will find success you didn’t even know was there. And your excellence will inspire those around you.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, don’t let fear stop you. I know – it’s easy to say. Everyone thinks “what if I fail?” But think about it this way: not trying because you’re afraid to fail is the biggest failure of all. Recognize your fear as normal and rational. Be specific about it; what exactly do you fear and why? Follow the trail with each answer to get to the root cause. You may find there are easy workarounds, or that it’s not such a big deal once you have given a name to it. Then give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up over your perceived weakness. You’re stronger than you think and you can overcome the fear. It’s just an emotion and you can still act as you choose.
My son was finally cleared to play basketball again this year. He has started practices and I asked him if he ever thinks about his reconstructed shoulder. He said “every single minute.” But I still saw him go headfirst diving for a loose ball in his last scrimmage.
I love Teddy Roosevelt’s speech where he says, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I learn so much from other people, and I have so many heroes here in this wing, from our youngest Airman to the old fossils. I was more surprised than anyone when I realized my son was one of my heroes. Follow his lead and work hard every day to become a better you, whether that means winning a promotion or finding more compassion in your relationships. Make conscious choices to respond to the things you can control and conquer your fears. Reinvent yourself and go into your future with conviction. My son plays his first high school game next week. They may lose and he may not get off the bench, but I’ll be the proudest guy in the gym.