This weekend, I ran across an interesting editorial written for Modern Warn Institute by Captain Kristen Griest, the US Army’s first woman infantry officer. In it, she argues for adoption of a physical fitness standard for combat arms units that does not distinguish based on the soldier’s gender. I don’t want to argue about the pros and cons of gender-based physical performance standards because I was struck by this paragraph, which I think has some important observations in it about goal setting:
“Critics might suggest this opinion makes me uncaring about equity or unsympathetic to women, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it is because I have failed almost every first attempt at a military task—from applying to West Point to graduating Ranger School—that I know first contact with failure is not a cause for concern. Similarly, an initially high collective failure rate among women on the ACFT is not indicative of their future potential to succeed, especially when this failure is largely due to an inability to perform just one repetition of one exercise. In fact, my latest first-attempt failure was on a practice ACFT. Although I trained diligently to raise my 180-pound maximum deadlift to 265 pounds over several months, I realized I should have spent similar effort on the standing power throw event. Having never thrown a ten-pound medicine ball backward over my head, I missed the minimum distance for the infantry by 1.5 meters. However, after six weeks of dedicated effort, I was able to meet the standard and I am motivated to further improve. I know other women feel this same motivation, as their posts on social media proudly display their ability to meet ACFT benchmarks they previously thought unattainable. One women’s ACFT Facebook page has amassed over forty-five thousand members who inspire, advise, and encourage each other to improve their physical skills. Instead of stymieing this groundswell of motivation and perseverance among women by reverting to gender-based testing, policymakers should foster their potential with high expectations.”
For Capt. Griest, standards that seem impossibly difficult at first glance aren’t a bad thing, and I agree with her on many of the reasons why.
First, failure is not permanent. It’s rare in life that you only get one shot to achieve a goal. More often, you will set or know your goals in advance, and you will have more than one opportunity to prepare for them, to practice them before the real thing, and to try to meet them when it counts. I know that in the self-defense world, we prepare for what is most likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event (or so we hope), so if we set our goal as “survival” it may seem that we only have one chance to win, at that one time we encounter that particular situation. However, there are so many intermediate goals we can put in place leading up to that potential day. For instance, being able to shoot a specific firearms drills within specified time and scoring parameters, or “winning” a hand-to-hand fighting scenario against a large and skilled opponent can both be difficult goals that take serious preparation and multiple attempts to achieve. All of that work, and the failure that accompanies them, are part of being able to accomplish that big goal where you might only have one chance. I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds an awful lot like there are just about as many chances to fail as there are to succeed, and that you can still meet your goals despite one failure or even many.
Failure, in fact, can be motivating. It’s often tempting to think that because you couldn’t do it the first time, you won’t be able to do it the second time. There’s a better way of responding, though, and that is to think of it as a dare, a challenge. Tell yourself and believe that you have the potential to meet that demand, no matter how unreachable it seems, because chances are you can. It’s certainly possible to set goals that are unrealistic because of your available physical, mental, emotional, monetary, and time resources, but when we dig deeply and honestly, we often find that we are capable of more than we had initially imagined. And if you fail more than once? I bet you get closer every time, and that inching along is worth something too. It’s not only a reflection of the work you put into meeting your goal, but a continued f-ck you to the fact that it continues to elude you, but not for too much longer. Oh no – it’s going to be yours one day soon.
Then when we finally hit on that big accomplishment, victory is so much the sweeter for the work that went into it. Easy goals are easily met, with hardly any effort at all and really, what fun is that? It might be momentarily satisfying to be able to check that item off your list, but I think we’ve all experienced how much better it feels when we’ve managed to do something that took a lot of sweat and tears. Small wins are certainly important, and motivating in their own way as they build up the momentum to bigger things, but chasing after the big stuff gets you the big wins. Not only can you bask in the glow of meeting a goal you weren’t actually sure you could, you can also show the world that they underestimated you. Perhaps even better is that future time when you can look back and know that you accomplished the seemingly-impossible once, and that you can do that again with some new nearly unimaginable goal.
But even if we never meet a lofty goal, we are still be better off for the attempt. If we look back at our starting point, when we first dreamed of the unattainable, we’ll find ourselves so much further along than we might otherwise have been. There’s a saying I remember from when I was young, attributed to many sources, that if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still land among the stars. It’s the same here: if you try for the impossible and you don’t quite get there, it’s okay. You’ll still be somewhere far from where you came from, and that’s a win too. More, it’s a win that you might never have gotten to if you’d never tried for the moon. That’s valuable all by itself, and knowing how close you managed to get is perhaps the secret you’ll keep inside while you gather yourself for another attempt, just one more try to land on that moon or another.
So take that leap. Jump. Reach for excellence. Show us how amazing you can be. I know you have it in you.