The big takeaway: Learning from failure

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on November 24, 2012

From The News Desk

Before Jay Rogers started Local Motors, “a next generation American car company” that relies on community members to help design cars like the groundbreaking Rally Fighter, he was a marine who served three tours of duty. He spent much of it in Iraq -- Basra, Baghdad, Najaf -- where he witnessed the ravages of war first hand, losing friends and countless acquaintances in firefights, house-to-house sweeps, truck convoys though hostile terrain, helicopter accidents. Experiences like this made him aware of his own mortality.

That was the thing about war; you never knew when your time would come. Rogers had several close calls. Bullets missed by inches. He was once knocked out in a helicopter that had been fired on by a rocket-propelled grenade. In a convoy one of the trucks drove over a bomb killing some of the men he was leading. Yet Rogers, a graduate of Princeton, knew his time might not even come while fighting. A plane might malfunction or he could be in a jeep accident. It happened all the time. One marine he knew fell into a dry swimming pool and ended up paralyzed, and he had never stepped out from behind friendly lines.

But it was an experience that happened before he tasted war, during Officer Candidates School (OCS), that he credits with changing the trajectory of his life. It taught him the most valuable lesson as an entrepreneur. He learned to make the most of failure.

In Rogers’ own words (lightly edited for space and clarity), here’s his story:

OCS was a magical time for me. I was 28, the oldest guy in my platoon by a long shot, but I was still very fit. You’re judged on an amalgamation of physical fitness, academic skills, and military knowledge, and I ended up the number one graduate in a class of 300. A week away from graduation, I fucked up. It was on our final evaluation, which we call "The Crucible," and I lost my weapon. It’s the one thing you never do in the Marine Corps, and it was made worse because I was the Company Commander.

The Crucible is a week of being completely deprived of sleep and toward the end of that week you have your final field exercise where you don’t sleep for 48 hours and you’re go, go, go, go. You travel 30 or 40 miles with your pack on; you’re in the woods and delirious.

As Company Commander, I had 300 Marines of my own rank under me. We were at the end, and I was due to bring the company into parade formation and march back to camp. Then you go to warrior breakfast where you’re given your pins, and you become a Marine Officer. HMX-1 which is the President’s helicopter fleet comes in, and they pick up all the Marines that are the new Officer Corps, and they lift you up off to the basic school, which is 10 or so miles away.

It was morning. We had succeeded, and we were going to be picked up by the helicopters. We had been up 48 hours and they gave us two hours of sleep. Now if you’ve ever been up for almost a whole week with only two hours of sleep, you know it’s really hard to wake up. Suddenly the guy next to me was shaking me. “Get your ass out of the rack,” he said. “You got to get the company mustered before everybody gets up.”

I was like, “Oh, shit. I got to get going. I’m late.” I jumped up and slung my rifle over my shoulder. I had so much shit going on. I had my pack on, and my weapon on my shoulder. But I had to tiptoe around this company of 300 people sleeping in the deck not waking them up, so I could be over before we sounded reveille.

I was rushing around, and I think my strap retainer ring broke. It must have fallen off my shoulder, when I was running. You have to come to parade rest when you get in front of the First Sergeant. I went to grab my weapon, when I realized there was no weapon there.

He’s standing about 10 paces in front of me. I look him in the eye, and I turn around. I’m the company commander, and that’s a cardinal sin. I’m only 100 yards from where I had been sleeping. I’m thinking this is going to hurt. He’s going to bitch me out, but I’m going to go get my weapon. I turn around and ran back the way I came. There were a lot of leaves on the ground, and my weapon was nowhere to be found.

The first sergeant screams, “Lieutenant Rogers, get your shit over here right now!” He doesn’t know I don’t have my weapon. I’m scrambling, and I can’t find it, and I get back to my bivouac site, and it’s not there. I retrace my steps, and he’s yelling at me. I can’t find the weapon. I can’t find it. I can’t find it. I can’t find it. I start to cry, because it’s all crumbling. I go over to the sergeant and can see his face: He suddenly goes from angry to steaming to livid. He collects himself and asks, “What the hell happened to your weapon?”

It turned out that in that fleeting moment, I had been tiptoeing around the platoon, another sergeant who was patrolling the area found my rifle. He picked it up, which is why when I ran back I didn’t see it. There could be no worse person to find a weapon than the company Gunnery Sergeant.

I was immediately demoted and stripped of my company command. Then I was brought up from the rear of the formation, handed my weapon in front of the whole company and ordered to come to inspection arms, which means you bring up your weapon and clear the bolt with a really sharp maneuver. I’m standing in front of 300 of my patriots, and I bring the weapon up to clear it. But I couldn’t. Then the sergeant snatched the weapon from me, broke it open, and dumped out sand the company Gunnery Sergeant had filled it with. Naturally, he didn’t tell me he was going to do that.

We marched three miles. They sent everybody else out on the helicopters, and I stood alone in the middle of the deck while they lifted off. The rest of the platoon went to warrior’s breakfast. I didn’t. Instead I was sent before the Battalion Commander, while everybody else was getting their Eagle, Globe, and Anchor pins. In 30 minutes I went from company commander, the No. 1 graduate, to being told I was going to be recycled through boot camp again.

I was led into squad bay and ordered to sit there and clean my weapon for hours. Various marines would patrol back and forth in the squad bay, but I was essentially alone. After months of being surrounded by hundreds of men, suddenly I’m by myself. Everybody is at the basic school, having breakfast, celebrating, getting their Globe and Anchors, drinking beers, whatever. And I was sitting there thinking I’m going to have to do this whole friggin’ thing again and just feeling sorry for myself. It destroyed my morale.

Then Staff Sergeant Bryan K. Zickefoose visited me. He was a legend and someone I really looked up to.  He had won a Silver Star in Desert Storm by taking on a tank battalion by himself and stopping the lead tank with a rocket-propelled grenade.

Sgt. Zickefoose said, “Come here, Rogers. We’re going to talk.” We sit down and he says, “How do you feel about yourself right now?”

In the Marines you refer to yourself in third person. I said, “Well, Staff Sergeant, this candidate does not feel very good about himself right now. He’s feeling like he fucked up in a big way.”

“That’s right,” Sgt. Zickefoose replied. “You fucked up big time. So what are we going to do about it?”

Rogers told him what the Company Commander, and the Battalion Commander had told him.

“Right,” the Staff Sergeant said. “You might have to repeat this whole thing. How do you feel about that?”

“Well, Staff Sergeant, this candidate is not that excited about that. It’s pretty hard to have been the No. 1 graduate and now have to go back through and do this again.”

“Let me tell you a story,” Sgt. Zickefoose said. “I came from the old corps. And I remember when I first joined, we were on our first op. We were in Somalia.” His platoon was about to roll out when one of his marines didn’t have his helmet. The Gunnery Sergeant steps to the front of the formation and asked, “Where’s your brain bucket?” Now, Sgt. Zickefoose pointed out, “This soldier had his frigging rifle, and you didn’t have your rifle, so he was better than you.” The Gunnery Sergeant picked up the soldier’s brain bucket and beat the kid over his head to within an inch of his life. "You don’t have your brain bucket on, so you don’t deserve to go into war with us, because you’re going to hurt somebody else when you get out there," he said, and left him bleeding on the ground. “You can’t do that in the Marine Corps anymore,” Sgt. Zickefoose said, “but I guarantee if I could I would beat you right now with my rifle for leaving yours behind.”

I didn’t know what to say. I thought he was going to be my friend. But then he wasn’t. I was left alone for the next hour, then Sgt. Zickefoose returned. “All right,” he said, “here’s what we’re going to do. I don’t agree with it, but the Battalion Commander says you ought to be able to graduate. I think it’s a mistake, so you and I are going to have a little talk. You’re going to graduate in the back of the pack. You’re the last guy to graduate. You deserve worse than that. But you’re going to make me a promise that you’re going to graduate first from the basic school, and now you’re going to be with 900 other people. You graduate first in the basic school, you earn my respect.”

And that was it. He walked off.

This was a defining moment in my life. You know why? Because it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. You’d better believe I worked harder than everybody else. There was no way I was going to let Sgt. Zickefoose down. I was going to earn his respect. And six months later I graduated first from the basics school.

I learned how to lift people up when they are down, and I learned something about myself in the process. Because the worst experiences in your life can teach you the most valuable lessons. You can learn more from failure than success. [Image Credit: DVIDSHUB on Flickr]