Monday, September 28, 2015

Further ruminations on the fear of failure

Early in my first assignment, which was at Pearl Harbor, I remember several lengthy conversations with the destroyer squadron commander for whom I worked. He was very concerned, as was I, about motorcycle accidents annually claiming the lives of almost a dozen young sailors in the squadron, usually involving alcohol and excessive speed. He thought the Captain of the sailor's ship responsible for the sailor's death. I disagreed. I maintained that if the ship's skipper had done everything reasonable to avoid motorcycle fatalities – having quality programs to teach motorcycle safety, to stress compliance with vehicle laws, to deglamorize alcohol consumption and promote safe behaviors, etc. – some young sailors would still chose to behave irresponsibly.

The squadron commander adamantly insisted that the ship's Captain was responsible: a motorcycle accident fatality constituted prima facie evidence that the Captain had failed to take effective action. I, conversely, maintained that sailors had some measure of autonomy and no set of measures existed whereby a Captain could ensure that none of his crew would become a motorcycle accident fatality. The squadron commander and I never resolved our disagreement, though we did develop a mutual respect that grew into lasting friendship.

I soon realized that an ethos of accountability coupled with an expectation of zero defects in all things permeated the military. The aim for zero defects, often without an emphasis on accountability more broadly seems to characterize the federal government (remember recent Department of Veterans Affairs' scandals in which managers tried to deflect blame instead of accept responsibility).

In my third assignment as a chaplain at a Naval Air Station, I had numerous conversations with pilots. In subsequent assignments, my circle of dialogue partners included test pilots, astronauts, surgeons, and nuclear engineers. Sometimes, we should aim for zero defects (who wants to awaken from surgery to find that the wrong body part was removed or sail aboard a nuclear powered submarine in which the reactor is likely to fail?). In these conversations, my dialogue partners and I would frequently seek to identify those times when a zero defect mentality is essential, when can help, and when it is counter-productive.

Occasionally, I would encounter someone for whom perfection in all things was the goal. Such individuals inevitably suffered from overwork, experienced great frustration, and never achieved success. Conversely, I have also known individuals who never strove to achieve excellence, always satisfied with the minimum required effort and minimum required standards.

Abundant living entails an individual accepting some measure of responsibility for one's destiny (nobody is in complete control of her/his destiny) and then deciding when to aim for excellence (or even perfection) and when "good enough" will suffice.

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