The Two Main Reasons People Fail

June 29, 2014
Steve Prziborowksi explains the two distinct reasons why firefighter and officer candidates fail during testing.

Understanding why people fail at something will help you learn from their mistakes, and help you ultimately succeed at whatever it is you want to succeed in. I don’t care whether there are thousands of people you are competing with for a firefighter's exam, or only a couple of people you are competing against, you are still only competing against one person – yourself!  It is very easy to get psyched out seeing hundreds or thousands of other folks, just like yourself competing for something. Nobody ever said that the great things in life (and I definitely consider my career as a firefighter to be one of those great things) come easy.

I truly believe that you can narrow down why people fail to just two reasons:

  1. Because they are unprepared; and/or
  2. Because they are nervous

It is that simple. If you think of the things you have failed at in the past, and there have probably been many things you have failed at (and will continue to fail at in the future), I bet you will be able to narrow the reason why you failed to one of the two above reasons. That is, of course, if you actually truly take responsibility and accountability for your actions (or lack of actions).

Let us take a closer look at those two reasons:

       1. Regarding preparation, you either properly prepared, or you did not properly prepare. How can you really argue that?  I hear many candidates complain that they studied and studied and it didn’t seem to make a difference. The immediate thought that comes to my mind is that while they may have studied, they obviously didn’t study the proper material. If they had, then they would have done better.

My preparation for our department’s written test for the position of fire captain began shortly after I was hired as a firefighter. During my probationary period, besides attempting to learn as much as I could about my present position, I was also trying to learn as much as I could about the next up position, that of a fire captain. I truly believe that to be successful in whatever position you are in, you need to know the job one rank above you and one rank below you. I spent countless hours studying all of the department policies and procedures, rules and regulations, etc. At the time, I was not doing it so much as to prepare for fire captain, as I was to learn about the guiding principles of our department so that I could properly do my job and fit into the department. 

What I slowly realized was that many of the firefighters off of probation did not really know information such as the rules and regulations and polices and procedures as good as they probably could. Why? Because unless you want something to assist you in falling asleep at night, it is hard to be motivated to read something that is usually very dry and that can be tough reading. However, by learning that information about the department at an early point in my career, and then re-reading it every few months for the purposes of retention and refreshing, when it came time to prepare for the upcoming captain’s written test, I didn’t have to learn it all from scratch; I could just “maintain” my present knowledge.

       2. Regarding nervousness, this is a tough one to actually give you a good answer for overcoming. Face it, all of us are nervous in some way or another. The key is how we channel that nervousness, how we project our confidence to others (so they don’t see that we are nervous), and how we get over that nervousness to move on with life and whatever it is we are trying to deal with (such as the written test, the oral interview, etc.). I consider myself to be a good test-taker; however, I still get a little nervous when I hear the word “test” being thrown in my direction. Why? I look at it as human nature. The key is that I know how to project confidence and hide and overcome any nervousness I may have. I also make sure I am properly prepared.

Too many people cannot honestly take constructive criticism or look at themselves in the mirror and objectively evaluate their performance (or lack of performance). I get sick of hearing excuses such as “they are not hiring white males,” “the test was discriminatory,” “I studied my butt off and I still failed, the test was a joke,” etc.  Take all of that negative energy and turn it into positive energy. If you took all the time and effort you put into blaming others and/or the system for your lack of performance when it was your chance at the plate to produce, and instead focused it on how you could improve in the future, you would be amazed at how much you could do to better yourself and your scores.

Like it or not, but your life as a fire service professional will always contain some form of test. If you aspire to promote in the fire service, you will definitely have promotional examinations to participate in (and successfully pass). Even if you don’t want to promote, and want to remain a firefighter (which there is nothing wrong with), you will still be faced with annual tests such as EMT recertification, hazardous materials refresher training, and other training mandates requiring some form of testing to maintain and prove your competency.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a Contributing Editor, has over 20 years of fire service experience, currently serving as a deputy chief for the Santa Clara County Fire Department. He is also an instructor for the Fire Technology Program at Chabot College in Hayward, CA,and is a former president of the Northern California Training Officers Association. Steve was named the 2008 California Fire Instructor of the Year. He has earned a master's degree in Emergency Services Administration, a bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice, and an associate's degree in Fire Technology. Steve has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, and received Chief Fire Officer Designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing. He is a regular speaker and presenter at fire service events and conferences across the country and recently published three books: How to Excel at Fire Department Promotional ExamsReach for the Firefighter Badge, and The Future Firefighter's Preparation Guide, all of which are available on his websites: and


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