PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Thirty-two. Thirty-three. Thirty-four. Thirty-five — time’s up. Somewhere in Texas a senior airman failed his fitness test. He couldn’t complete the minimum requirement for abdominal crunches.
Dragging himself back to his car, ashamed and furious with himself, he realized that he was now one of those Airmen he looked down on for failing their fitness tests. Worse yet, he was deploying in two weeks and his gut sank as he thought of delivering news of his failure to his supervision.
That senior airman was me in 2014.
I also found out I wouldn’t be promoting to staff sergeant earlier that day either, making this the second year in row I missed the mark for a promotion. At this point, I was certain my leadership would tell me I’d blown my opportunity to deploy. I’ll never forget the half hour sitting in the parking lot, full of shame, staring out at the flight line before facing my supervisors.
I did end up going on that deployment and would need to pass a fitness re-assessment while I was there in the desert.
Until failing that fitness test, I never felt like a failure. I’d felt mediocre at times. In fact, I often felt mediocre. I knew there was plenty of room for me to improve, but never acted on it. I never studied for my promotion test or trained for fitness assessments. At work, I met the standards, nothing more, nothing less. Looking back at that time, I coasted through my professional and personal life.
I didn’t know at the time that I needed to fail that test. The shame and anger born from that failure pushed me toward growth and progress like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
While deployed, I engrossed myself researching fitness plans and woke up two hours before my 13-hour shift to hit the gym. I lifted weights and did push-ups and sit-ups, then wrapped up with a run every day. On my only day off each week, I woke up early to run until my sides ached and I was covered in sweat with the sun beating down in 110-degree desert heat.
I was averaging about five hours of sleep a night with a little more than that on my day off in an effort to catch up on the lost hours. I was exhausted and I hated every second of it. But I hated being a failure more so I kept at it.
When it came time for the fitness reassessment, I earned a 93. It was the first time I ever scored over a 90. But the biggest payoff from those early mornings and intense training routines was what they taught me about failure and the value it added to my life.
Seeing that score was the turning point in my life. I began looking for other ways to improve myself and learned to use failure as a motivator. I stopped beating myself down and changed the way I approached problems in my life. Instead of focusing so extensively on the ways I thought I couldn’t measure up, I learned to approach my struggles as obstacles to be overcome instead of as walls I couldn’t pass.
Statements like “the only way to grow is to be uncomfortable” can be found in all sorts of motivational texts and seminars, but lessons like this have to be experienced to have any significant impact on a person’s perspective on life and failure. For me, it was weightlifting that gave me a better understanding of this life lesson.
I want to encourage people to not give up in the face of failure because I’m a better Airman today due to the lessons I learned from mine. We all have to face failure in some aspect of our lives and it wears a different mask for all of us, but it can teach us how to be better if we’re prepared to search for those lessons rather than flee from them.