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Failure Is Not An Option
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By Iban Goicoechea  

The United States Marine Corps is legendary for many reasons.  Even when faced with the "immovable object,” the Marine’s "unstoppable force” has a simple solution: Go straight through it.

There’s a spirit to the U.S.M.C, and a way of being, that makes Marines "Marines."  This includes an attitude that "Failure is not an option" and an adaptable approach that guarantees success in the face of any problem, "Improvise, adapt and overcome."  We demand excellence of ourselves and of each other; our very nature and purpose demand it.  Anything less is unbecoming of a Marine.

The Marine Corps instills these values in us.  From the outside, it may seem less than pleasant (I’m sure you’ve seen iconic images of a Marine Drill Instructor glaring inches away from a recruit's face); however, from within, we know that the intensity of every aspect of our training contributes to our overall effectiveness.  The purpose behind such severe attention is visible in the mission, history and reputation of the U.S. Marine Corps.

In the Marines, I learned that failure is not an option.  I was one of those raw recruits—with a drill instructor two inches from my face—"sounding off” as loudly as I could, never loud enough; running from here to there and back again, not fast enough, not responding loudly enough.

My rifle was never clean enough, bed not made tightly enough, uniform not neat enough, drill not crisp enough, shave not close enough...

Continuously being pushed to my limit (far beyond my previously established limits—and failing every time) made me push myself farther than I ever thought possible until I realized that the limits I established for myself (that, I came to realize, were only limits because I accepted them as limits) always fell short of my true potential.
What drove me beyond my limits wasn't an aversion to failing – like so many adults with undiagnosed ADHD, I grew up accepting failure, so that wasn't a viable measurement of "excellence" – it was that there was no way to fail my Drill Instructors, and there was no way that they would let me continue to accept failure for myself.

My years of training as a Marine taught me many valuable lessons.  One of the most useful lessons that stayed with me was not one I remember being directly stated, and yet it was present in our approach to every situation: "Solve the problem, not the reasons — but know the reasons."  Thinking back to boot-camp, I remember this lesson clearly, though it took me a while to put it into words.  No reason sufficed to explain away an infraction of any size; be it a stray thread from a button hole, or rust on one side of the inside of the head of the screw in the bottom of the butt-stock of your rifle (to name but a couple of the infractions so common at boot-camp); no excuse.  The thread may have been trimmed before you sent your uniform to wash, and the rust may have been removed when you cleaned your rifle yesterday, but neither fact justifies not noticing and correcting them when they returned.  Know the reason, but correct the problem.

Knowing the reason behind a problem allows you to prevent future problems from arising.  For example, check buttonholes for stray threads when laundry returns, or inspect your rifle for rust every morning.  What good will come from blaming the laundry?  The rust?  None.  On the other hand, knowing that both are "circumstances of your situation” allows you to correct them before you and 80 other recruits pay for that one stray thread.

All of this said, how often do you see someone diagnosed — or self-diagnosed — with ADHD, PTSD, or anything else, choose to use the diagnosis to explain and rationalize away their limiting behaviors?  To let the diagnoses define their limits?  I know that’s not what we were taught in boot-camp.  So, everyone doesn’t go to Marine Corps boot-camp; will that be one more reason to accept failure?

In reality, a diagnosis is used to explain a pattern of behavior/behaviors (in the context of behavior) in order to identify viable treatment methods.  So, if that thread sticking out of your buttonhole takes the form of "not focusing" on a responsibility, don't excuse yourself by saying, "It’s boring", "I'm not good at it", "I'll do it later" or "I can’t help it”… "I have ADD.”  If you can't find the solution on your own, find someone who can help you find the solution.
If the rust on the screw in the butt-stock of your rifle is "frustration" or "anger," don't hide behind a reason by saying, "It's because of my job," or "I didn't sleep," or "I keep having bad luck, no one likes me, I'm broke, I lost my job..."   Those are the "reasons"; anyone can find reasons to rationalize their limits, if you’re looking to protect your own limits.

Instead, focus on the objective; solve the problem: "I can't focus”, or "I'm frustrated”, or "I'm angry”, and identify the reason(s). "It usually pops up when I have to work/clean/find a job.”  If you can't solve the problem on your own (which is just a matter of fact; once again, it is not a reason to limit yourself), the good news is that people spend years — decades even — studying how to solve that very issue and they’ll be happy to help you.
By trying something new, you'll find approaches that work and you’ll be able to disqualify the ones that don't.  Keep at it, keep trying, and solve the problem; don’t hide behind the "reason.”  No excuses.

Recently, I approached the Director of a PTSD and Trauma Program at a State Psychiatric Institute with my hypothesis about ADHD and PTSD (you can read about that here.)  Through conversations with friends and family who helped me through my own issues to arrive at my current understandings on PTS, reflecting on my experiences and the lessons I learned as a Marine, and in conversations with other esteemed researchers, I've come to the realization that trying to unscramble the reasons behind these disorders is as impossible as outrunning the past; no matter how far or how fast, the past is always right behind you.  The program director warmly welcomed my thoughts on PTS, and we are now going to start a new project.  Just move forward, now, and when something that you don’t know how to deal with arises, ask someone who has successfully dealt with it in the past.  I still ask people for advice and help when I need it, and I learn something each time I do.  Whereas my questions used to mostly be about how to fix something, now they're mostly about how to accomplish a goal.

Instead of trying to fix the reason, identify your problems one at a time and face them.  Know that there is no shame in asking for help if you don't know how to resolve it (I mean, how often do you Google stuff anyway?  Before Google, people turned to books and each other to figure out what they couldn't figure out on their still works, give it a shot...) and find your solution.  Believing you can "deal with it” on your own, when you haven’t been able to in the past, is a very real limiting factor.  Asking someone to help you understand a circumstance, situation or experience is normal and beneficial.

I don’t know where the stigmas surrounding seeking professional advice came from, as if we know better but just need to remember what the solution was, but those stigmas are absurd…  The spirit that makes a Marine a Marine has helped me enormously in every area of my life, and I continue learning more from those lessons to this day.  I move forward, and when I hit a wall, I ask the most qualified person to help me in that specific situation for advice.  I don’t accept or excuse my failures, and I accept the consequences of my results; good or bad.  I just had to remember that those lessons I learned the hard way continue to have value long after boot camp, and after my active duty ended.  I hope that you, too, can learn from these lessons.

Iban Goicoechea is the ADDA eNews "Vetran’s Affairs” Editor. Many military veterans with ADHD are facing life, not only with ADHD and PTSD, but with other comorbid cognitive disorders as well. ADDA’s eNews is giving a voice to the veterans through Iban’s articles. If you wish to add your voice to the discussion, you may contact Iban directly at

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