“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

-The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”


As a college senior preparing for commissioning, the call came as no surprise: “Branch selections are in. Can you swing by the PMS’s office sometime today?” As an engineering major, my top choice was the Army Corps of Engineers; my father was a career civilian in the Corps and I grew up around a steady line of engineer officers. I’d wanted to wear the castle insignia for as long as I could remember. After my morning classes, I made my way from the School of Engineering over to Memorial Gym, where the Army ROTC program’s offices could be found. I walked down the stairs into the lower level of the gym and down the hallway past the cadre offices to the room where the Professor of Military Science hung his hat.

“Come on in,” he said, gesturing to me to enter. “Have I got good news for you!” I walked in, bristling with excitement. I’d waited a long time for this news and could barely restrain a stupid grin. “Congratulations! You’re Regular Army!!” That was welcome news and a goal I’d worked diligently toward over the past few years. “And… you got Ordnance!”

“Ordnance? What’s that?” I replied. The branch wasn’t one of the choices I’d listed on my “dream sheet” and my familiarity with it was, at best, passing. In fact, on “Branch Day” at Fort Lewis the previous summer, I’d skipped that area altogether. I was an engineer and I was going to be an Engineer officer. It was that simple. Or so I thought.

“It’s a great branch! They’re the guys who fix typewriters.”

To say I was dumbstruck would be an understatement. To say I was disappointed would fall far short of the emotions I felt in that moment. I didn’t understand how I’d been selected for a branch I didn’t request and he couldn’t explain it, and it was written all over my face.

“Well, you don’t always get what you want,” he said with a shoulder shrug. “The Army has its priorities and you won’t always see the bigger picture.”

I left that day determined to be the very best at my craft. I didn’t hang my head. I didn’t feel sorry for myself (okay, maybe a little). I didn’t quit. I worked hard, committed myself to learning what it meant to be a “maintainer” and pushed myself as far and as hard as I could. I wasn’t always successful, and I made my share of mistakes along the way. But I persevered and worked to find the silver lining in the proverbial cloud. Through it all, I remained optimistic and focused on the future.

In the words of Jim Malone (Sean Connery) in The Untouchables, “Here endeth the lesson.” Or so I thought.

When the Brass Ring Slips Through Your Fingers

Try as we might, we’re going to miss the brass ring from time to time. You don’t get the dream job you were aiming for. Someone else is promoted when you feel you deserved it more. You aren’t selected for a school that you had your heart set on. Every lousy assignment available seems to land in your lap. You’re shown the door much sooner than you anticipated. You reach for that brass ring and you just can’t seem to make the stretch.

Life is like that. It’s going to take its own twists and turns, make its own way. But you have choices. You can wait for the brass ring to come to you or you can go out and grab it yourself. Create your own luck. Find the open door when another one closes. Pry that silver lining out of every cloud that comes along. It sounds cliché, but there’s nothing cliché about attitude, determination, and a refusal to quit. Sometimes, that’s all that separates those who might from those who do.

What should you do when you miss the brass ring? First, stand tall. Instead of wasting time feeling bad about what happened (or didn’t happen), spend that time gathering and analyzing the facts. Get to the “why.” Sometimes, the answers require some brutal self-reflection, while other times those answers might seem elusive or even mystifying. Everything happens for a reason; in the same vein, everything that doesn’t happen has a reason behind it, too. You might not like the answer, but it’s there and you need to find and acknowledge it.

Second, start planning. Just because you missed that brass ring once doesn’t mean you need to make a habit of it. If you understand why you missed the brass ring, then you can take steps to ensure that you’re ready the next time it comes around. Develop a detailed plan of action with set milestones to put you in the right place at the right time to grab that brass ring. The more prepared you are, the better your chances of seizing that ring.

What happens next is completely up to you. In Stephen King’s classic novella, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” the character Andy Dufresne frames this perfectly: “It always comes down to just two choices. Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Either way, you have to get busy. Ruthlessly pursue your action plan. Push yourself to each and every milestone. Forge your own success. Never lose focus and never stop pushing.

Fourth, flip the script. In the ranks of the military, “embrace the suck” is a time-honored truism. A big part of creating your own luck is embracing failure and learning from it. Sometimes, we’re so traumatized by missing the brass ring that we can’t see the opportunities in its wake. There is a silver lining; every failure provides an opportunity to pursue other avenues and ideas. But, it’s up to you to maintain your confidence and press on.

Finally, stay positive. Pessimism is contagious, but so is optimism. Steer clear of the “haters” and focus your energy on a positive frame of mind. Don’t listen to people who say you “can’t” or you “won’t.” Believe in yourself and your potential. Over 40 years ago, my summer league basketball coach handed out an excerpt from “Thinking,” a poem by Walter Wintle, that I have kept to this day:

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man.
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the man who thinks he can.

That piece of paper is long since worn threadbare by years of reading and re-reading. I missed my share of brass rings over the decades since I first held those words in my hands, and it proved invaluable more times than I can remember. You might miss the brass ring, but you’re not beaten until you say you are. And in that, you have a choice.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.