Failing sucks, get over it

The Wall Street Journal published an adaptation of Admiral William McRaven’s commencement address to the University of Texas about life lessons learned at Navy SEAL Training that is worth a read.

Here are a couple prescient lessons.

Get over failing:

Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges.

But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle, it just wasn’t good enough. The instructors would find “something” wrong.

For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed, into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a “sugar cookie.” You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day—cold, wet and sandy.

There were many students who just couldn’t accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated.

Those students didn’t make it through training. Those students didn’t understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.

Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes.

If you want to change the world, get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward.

More on failing, don’t afraid of “the circus”, in fact it’s how you respond to failure that may build your success in the future:

Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events. Long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics—something designed to test your mettle.

Every event had standards, times that you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards, your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to a “circus.”

A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit. No one wanted a circus. A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue, and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult—and more circuses were likely.

But at some time during SEAL training, everyone—everyone—made the circus list. Yet an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students, who did two hours of extra calisthenics, got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses built inner strength—built physical resiliency.

Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.

But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

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7 thoughts on “Failing sucks, get over it

  1. That whole address was fantastic. He didn’t tell them how great and brilliant they all were and how they were going to change everything, but rather told them what it took, the kind of strength and courage and perseverance needed to succeed in life. I loved it and shared it with my kids.

  2. I think there was only 1 guy in my boot camp company that passed the ‘initial’ p.e. test for seals/udt. I never found out what happened to him. my particular pipeline – the nuclear track – had its own set of expectations – zero defects. im not sure how to train kids to safely operate nuclear reactors, but I managed to do six years without causing too much trouble.

    • Another nuke — power school class 8906. Good point that it seems like the SEALs tolerate failure if you learn from it and soldier on, whereas the nukes had a zero defect mentality. It takes a particular kind of person to thrive in that world, and I chose to leave after 6 as well.

      • Or, perhaps they tolerate failure in training b/c they know that’s how they improve to reduce chances of failure in mission. While in nuke, they are essentially in mission. Was their training prior to getting close to the glowing stuff that allowed for trial and error, like flight simulators for pilots?

        • the training consisted of about a year and a half of classroom instruction that was a crash course in math, chemistry, thermodynamics, nuclear physics, and materials for the most part. then there was about a six month ‘hands-on’ phase at an actual operating reactor facility. simulators were specifically not allowed. – I think the reasoning was the same. zero defects. you get one shot. don’t mess it up. we did have a ‘paralleling’ simulator for my watchstation – the electric plant – but the reactor operators only learned on live reactors.

      • even moreso that we were there at almost the exact same time. I think I was 8901, although im not exactly sure. em a school class 8836 I think.


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