I truly believe that failure is the single most crucial factor in success. Not drive, not potential, not intelligence. Failure. Why? Because only those who have failed have persevered.
Some people are absolute studs. You know the ones I’m talking about – you might even have their resume in front of you right now. They’re high performers who graduated at the top of their class from a great school. They have many years of experience in exactly the role you’re looking to fill. They have references who continuously sing their praises. Hiring them seems like it would be a slam dunk.
But have they ever failed? I understand that a resume is not a place to talk about failures, but an interview is. You have to dig for failures to determine someone’s true character.
I grew up just down the road from the Air Force Academy, and I wanted to go to college there for most of my life. I took all of the suitable courses in high school, studied hard, had a great GPA and good test scores, had leadership experience under my belt, exceeded the physical standards for entry, and even earned a Congressional nomination. I thought I was a prime candidate. I was waiting for a big, blue envelope in the mail telling me that I was accepted into the Class of 2014. I didn’t get a big blue envelope. I got a small, white envelope. If I remember correctly, I didn’t even open it – there was no mistaking that it was a rejection letter. I had failed. I attended New Mexico Military Institute for a year to better prepare for USAFA and applied again for the Class of 2015. That big, blue envelope showed up later that year, and I was thrilled.
I reported to USAFA on June 23rd, 2011, alongside 1,137 of the most talented, driven, intelligent, and high-potential young men and women that America had to offer. Four years later, only 852 received diplomas and were commissioned as Air Force officers. What happened to the other 285?
Cadets succeed or fail for various reasons, but I can tell you confidently that the vast majority of those 285 people never made it past their first year at the Air Force Academy. I can recount dozens of individuals who were stronger than me, faster than me, and wiser than me choosing to leave the Academy on their own accord. For the first time in their lives, they were encountering failure – when exposed to the extreme pressure of a stable training environment, classes that are considered to be on par with an Ivy League education, and physical and mental standards that they had not prepared to meet, they encountered failure for the first time in their lives on the most critical stage they had ever been on. I had already experienced crushing failure, and I had learned how to deal with it. I succeeded where they didn’t, not because I was more skilled, gifted, or intelligent than them, but purely because I was more resilient than them.
The same thing happens at Selection & Assessments for top-tier military communities every single day. Incredible athletes can’t hack it because they have never had someone look them in the eye and tell them they aren’t meeting the standard, and when that happens for the first time, they mentally crumble. They had the skill but lacked the talent. The truth is that nobody cares that you’ve failed. They care about how you handled the adversity that followed.
Talent is not skill. Talent is an assortment of capabilities held together by the glue that we know as resiliency. If you’re not assessing a candidate’s resiliency, you’re not assessing them at all.
After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dan served for over five years as an officer in the elite Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) community. He served both as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) and as a Task Force Advisor on a 2018 deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. His expertise in selecting, developing, and leading effective small teams stems from his experiences as an Air Force Special Warfare Officer, both in training and in combat.
Dan partnered with the Talent War Group (formerly EF Overwatch) in 2019 and now works as the Director of Sales for Kahn Mechanical Contractors in Dallas, Texas. Dan holds a Master of Arts degree in Strategic Leadership from Saint Bonaventure University. He is passionate about mental health advocacy for the veteran community.