The Chronicles of Failure: A Guide to Understanding the Benefit of Setbacks
“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” - C.S. Lewis
My name is Douglas Kiesewetter. I am married to a wonderful woman. I have a pair of beautiful and talented daughters. I am a Special Forces Engineering and Weapons Sergeant. I am a graduate of Texas A&M University. I am an entrepreneur whose career has spanned a variety of industries.
In every single one of these noted areas of pride and personal achievement, I am a failure.
As a husband, father, soldier, student and professional, I have made monumental mistakes, and yet every time I have learned from these failures and come away a much better version of myself. The path to success is rarely linear and for some of us it is marked by a series of painful lessons that show what right should look like, demonstrated through excellence in doing it the wrong way. We spend a lot of time focusing on the end state and rarely look at the road that led to the top of the mountain.
At SOFLETE, and in most of the SOF community, we try to take pride in being self-aware. The first step towards using failure to facilitate progress is honest self-analysis. In our time together there have been some awesome talks about the failures that led us to being who we are today, and it got us thinking that we should start highlighting some of these failures and using them as object lessons to teach resilience and help others better frame their own journey.
It is important that “successful” people tell stories about watershed moments that may have seemed like the end of a dream, but through persistence, changed techniques, and hard work developed into meaningful positive life events.
From Spoiled College Kid to Roustabout
Let me start with a failure, give you a little backstory, then put it into a more global perspective that shows you what I THOUGHT I was learning versus what I was ACTUALLY learning.
Failure: In 2001 I was asked to leave Texas A&M University because I had not maintained a 2.0 GPA for two semesters in a row. I thought my life had come to an end. I was going to become the “Sanitation Engineer” my father had always threatened I would become without a college degree.
Let’s be honest, this action came as no surprise to anyone in my friend group after several years of skipping classes to learn how to weld or go on road trips to recover auto parts for my 1968 Ford Bronco project that had become my real life passion. I had stopped seeing a benefit in a college education around the time my parents dropped me off at college and I started meeting people who were “salt of the earth” and had life experiences I craved. Experiences like bar fighting and roaming the Earth like a redneck Cain from Kung Fu. This lack of passion for academics meant that my inflated sense of self-worth and absence of any real work ethic was going to result in a hard fall from the University’s (and my parents’) graces.
Now, don’t think I recognized any of this. I was self-pitying and unable to grasp how my professors couldn’t recognize my true genius. I was a wreck, but I was also a total piece of shit with an inability to accept ownership.
The real adjustments started when I returned home, defeated, depressed, and yet still defiant. I didn’t endear myself to my dear folks with my refusal to get a job, or my insistence on going hunting with my friends every night and then sleeping in hung over until noon. Luckily for me, that only lasted about a week before my Dad came in and politely told me I had two weeks to find a job, pay him rent or move out.
I was pissed! What kind of parent would treat their kid this way? In retrospect, I am often appalled at the levels of entitlement I have displayed in my life, so don’t think this is a proud memory. My dad is a wonderful man who has been my closest confidant over the years; his advice and gentle prodding have gotten me back on azimuth many times.
However, in that moment I resolved to show my old man exactly who he was messing with.
I’m not sure if my father knew it or not, but this is where the dogged defiance in me got sparked and started to get refined in the crucible of life. I spent the next two years trying to prove to the world that I didn’t need college and that I would make it on my own. I got a job as a bottom rung “roustabout” in the oil field. I worked 80-100 hour weeks in the West Texas sun, next to the hardest and least forgiving men I had ever met. I made a lot of money. I wasted a lot of money. But, I learned to shut the fuck up and buckle down.
In college, no one will kick the shit out of you for missing an assignment. In the oil field, if you choose to ignore a task your boss is going to make some very direct and physical corrections. This kind of management forces accountability, and it helps you get good on your feet and with your hands. I loved the work, and I learned that if you listen to your more experienced co-workers and show initiative, you are given more responsibility.
Transitioning from spoiled college kid to Roustabout wasn’t failure free in itself, but at the time I learned to adapt and thrive. What I didn’t know was that the lessons I was learning in the oilfield were actually setting me up to overcome my previous defeats and to progress on to even more difficult challenges.
Forging Achievement in the Crucible of Failure (or, Alternate Routes to Success and the Value of Education)
After two years, I started to realize “almost” graduating college wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to be. No matter how lucrative oilfield work was, it was impossible to ignore how lucky I would have to get to make it to 60 in the world I was working in. Discreetly (God forbid I admit I was wrong) enrolling in night classes, I started the process necessary to get back into Texas A&M and complete my degree. I did well in my junior college classes while still working full time, and was reaccepted to A&M to finish my degree. I walked across the stage to receive my diploma from Robert Gates in 2004.
If not for my time on The Caprock I would never have gone back to night school and re-applied to Texas A&M get my Bachelor’s. The heat, almost cutting off my hand in a mechanical jack, suffering chemical burns that blinded me for three days, rig blowouts, sleepless weeks of work, authoritarian bosses, and a host of other environmental influences shaped me. I learned that there is joy in joint suffering. I learned that there is a value in education, even if it is simply to demonstrate your ability to buckle down and accomplish a prescribed task. I got to watch some of the most resilient men in the world wake up every day and push themselves to do their best in a raw and rugged industry. I knew I needed something “more”, but I hadn’t yet learned how to define that. Facing failure, adapting to my operational environment, adjusting my techniques, and re-engaging on a hard target really forced me to grow as a human.
To forge achievement from failure, we must step back and assess what led to that defeat. We must address our own contributions to the failure and be willing to adjust our behaviors to elicit an alternate outcome. As a Green Beret, we often discount our tenacity as being “too dumb to quit”, but that ignores the true passions that burn inside. In order to persevere we must have a fire in the first place.
Identifying our passions and utilizing them for the good of ourselves and our society fuel us through times when we can’t clearly define what victory looks like.
I quit almost everything until I started to discover how to channel the passion I felt for recreational pursuits into other, more important, areas of my life. Getting kicked out of college and taking a manual labor job forced me to explore a lot of personal shit that I had actively ignored for most of my life. More importantly, that failure set the stage for my future pursuits. I learned that there are alternate routes to success, and that the shortest route isn’t always the most productive. This lesson has kept me in a lot of fights long after others thought I was out of it.
Failure is a perception; we define our own end state. We all will be well served to remember that a single defeat or a series of defeats is not a lost cause.