I have heard people discuss the difference between errors of commission and errors of omission in vastly different ways than I will discuss here. There may be other definitions and connotations of both terms. I respect that they exist but for the basis of this article I am going to write my own story of sorts. If that doesn’t jive with your way of thinking this blog may not be right for you.
I talk a lot about a specific football coach I had growing up. He’s one of the many mentors I had in high school who really shaped the way I think and act. He provided me countless lessons that I went on to learn again later in life. I shared many of these lessons with my platoon when I was a Marine. They continue to shape my life and I am eager to share them with my son one day. One lesson that really sticks out to me is the concept of making errors of commission versus errors of omission.
My coach used to tell us every day at practice, I don’t ever want to see you “pussy-footing” around and making mistakes. The man had a unique snarl on his face that would wrinkle up the entire left side of his face and almost curl his lip when he was making one of these points. When I saw that lip curl my ears generally perked up to listen. He went on to say, “If you’re going to make a mistake during a play, make it a mistake caused by moving too fast, pushing too hard, or attempting to overexert yourself and ultimately losing control.” He described the errors we make from moving around cautiously as errors of omission. He described those errors we make from going too hard as errors of commission.
He made us agree to remind him if he ever yelled at us for something we did from going too fast, or pushing too hard that it was an error of commission and all would be forgiven. One could argue that this is tied to the thought process of asking for forgiveness instead of asking for permission. This way of thinking was something I modeled my life after. Be it in school, fitness, or the Marine Corps I never wanted to be the guy who got yelled at for dragging ass. I always made it a point to be the one who had to be told to throttle down. To take it down a few pegs and take a deep breath.
Of course, this did back-fire from time to time when I was conducting certain operations in the Marine Corps. One particular memory I have is when my company was being evaluated by a group of Marine instructors on a live-fire range in Twenty-Nine Palms. Because it was a live-fire exercise the enemy we were facing was a set of targets arranged in a Russian Style Defense. Our objective was to destroy their position in order to allow friendly movement ahead to a follow-on objective. My platoon was the weapons platoon for the company and so our responsibility was to suppress the enemy position with indirect mortar fire and direct machine gun fire in order to allow the rest of the company to close with the position and destroy it. Basically, I had to keep the enemy’s heads down while we moved up close enough to engage them.
My platoon had to gain a position on a mountain that overlooked the enemy position so we could direct mortar fire and lay down machine gun suppression. The instructors were painting effects on us so to simulate the actual situation of facing a live enemy. They would tell us if we were pinned down by enemy fire or if we had no ability to move forward and we had to listen. My company commander tasked me with getting on the top of the mountain to the left of the enemy position and I was going to do so, come hell or high water. As I ran up the mountain towards the front of my platoon, one of the instructors told me to slow up so he could talk to me. The man out-ranked me but he wasn’t in my chain of command and slowing down was not a priority of mine. So, I blew past him.
He immediately freaked the out on me and started screaming at me, but I kept sprinting past him, and I really couldn’t hear much from him after the first three or four expletives that had come out of his mouth. He wasn’t happy. My platoon took the machine gun position and we directed mortar fire directly onto the target with first round effects (we hit the target with mortars on our first shot). We allowed the company to close with the target and take the objective. I had done my job and definitely made some errors besides blowing off the instructor but on the whole, I was pleased with my platoon’s performance.
At the conclusion of the range we did a debrief with all of the instructors who discussed and evaluated our performance. They ripped me a new one. Which I probably deserved. What I didn’t deserve was the evaluation from my battalion commander who had been watching the attack from the ground level about 500 meters away from me. He told me I took too damn long to take the position and I let bullshit paints from the instructors pin me down. It drove me mad to think anyone could consider what I had done as an error of omission. That I failed to take action when it was required of me.
I was fortunate that later on one of the instructors informed my Battalion Commander that I had done quite the opposite and I was actually counseled (chastised) for not listening to the instructor when he told me to slow down. I approach life with this same mindset. When an objective is presented to me, I refuse to allow anyone to tell me to slow down in attempting to achieve it. I think that more of us could benefit from this mind-set. I will say, it is important to consider others and ethics in the course of aggressively pursuing a goal.
I think that more of us would be pleased with our actions if we forced ourselves to engage only in errors of commission. I talk a lot about the concept of living life drinking from a fire hose. Refusing to allow others to tell us what we can and cannot do. I think these are morals and principles that we should live our life by. The whole world told Roger Bannister he couldn’t run a four minute mile until he actually did it. I had countless people tell me I would never be an officer in the Marine Corps. I’ve seen tons of people telling people they cannot do certain things, or achieve certain goals. Those people all disappear when you finally do. Never to be heard from again. Show me a man or woman who is told they cannot do something and I will show you one of two people. They’re either a person who accepts the limiting beliefs others impose on them. Or they are the person who proves others wrong. No one ever regretted living life at 100 miles an hour. Except Dominic Toretto, he lived his life a quarter mile at a time.