By Lt. Col. Oliver K. Leeds
92nd Air Refueling Squadron
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 successful journey!