Author and Former Navy SEAL, Jocko Wilink, was once explaining to an audience the two ways that someone can gain combat experience. The first way is from experiencing combat. The second way to gain combat experience, he said, is to train for combat – to study it and train in a combat-like environment. Coming from my own experience as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps for several years, I was quickly able to understand his point. There is no way to gather the mindset needed to survive combat than either being in combat or training for it. No one is born with combat experience, it isn’t passed on to you in a bloodstream or bestowed to you from a deceased relatives will, you can’t buy it, and you can’t have someone just give it to you on your birthday. War-fighters gain experience from training and from being tested under fire.
Decisions are important. Battle hardened war fighters will tell you that there is a lot more to combat than just two sides shooting bullets back and forth at each other. Combat is a thinking mans game. A warfighters survival has a lot to do with his ability to make sound judgement calls in the middle of the chaos. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese General, once wrote, “There are some roads not to follow; some troops not to strike; some cities not to assault; and some ground which should not be contested.” That’s a lot to have to consider when determining what to do and what not to do while the bullets are flying. Sun Tzu recognized the importance of sound judgement over 2,500 years ago and anybody who has ever put rounds down range or trained for it will agree. Whether or not you achieve victory hinges on your ability to think well and make sound decisions. Many a soldier has died on the battlefield from his bad decision to blindly charge the enemy rather than use the terrain for cover and close the distance without getting killed.
Good judgement, like combat experience, isn’t something that you can get any other way than by training your mind through the pain of trial and error, or through studying. U.S. Army General Omar N. Bradley once said that he learned good judgement through his experience and his mistakes. You can get experience by jumping in and learning as you go – making mistakes that you can learn from but I would advise that if at all possible, you don’t hone your decision-making skills by running into the middle of a combat zone unprepared. While there are some mistakes you can learn from, some mistakes will take you out of the fight or get you killed. Instead, do what others do and train yourself. Even the most battle-hardened U.S. Marine with years of combat experience got his start in boot camp carrying a rifle for over a month before the was even allowed to fire it. When faced with a problem, some men pause; they think about it but they don’t act. When this happens, thinking will only go so far. Without turning your thoughts into action, you actually limit your ability to think because there is no consequence, good or bad, for how your actually training your mind – that is unless you suffer consequence for taking no action. Take for example a real estate agent or a writer. Either of these people needs to set goals if they want to become a success but thinking about how to accomplish their goals only gets them so far. Their ability to discern a course of action will mean nothing if they don’t take action and implement their plan of attack. Only after they test their plan against the market will they stand in a position to judge the merits of their strategy. You must train your mind and test your ideas with decisive action.
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport discusses our minds ability to focus and the brain decay that comes from being preoccupied with social media. He writes, “What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore – plays in defining the quality of our life.” Like a soldier running into combat consider what you should be paying attention to. Are you making sure you’re running in the direction of your objective and are you thinking about what you have to do to close the next 100 yards to get you within striking distance? Or, are you thinking about the next episode Stranger Things and how many likes your last Instagram post received?
You are a product of the choices you make. Turning your minds attention to things that matter will make a difference. Focusing on character and promptness for example will train your mind in terms of goodness and respect. The quality of your life and the quality of your leadership rests on your ability to make good decisions. When you make a good decision for yourself, you are better off and when you make a good decision for you followers, they are better off and a step closer to mission accomplishment. This is why reading good books is so important. If you want to be a good man who knows how to make good decisions, you should be reading from good men who make good decisions. Reading about men like George S. Patton, Benjamin Franklin, Chuck Yeager, Sam Walton, or Ronald Reagan will give you insights to how they think. These insights will help you learn to think better and you will begin to develop your mind in ways you never thought possible.
Experience is good. Learning from your experience is better. Making a mistake is the cost of tuition we often pay to learn something. It’s ok to make a mistake. It means you actually tried and it is only in vain if you fail to learn from it. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “By seeking and blundering, we learn.” If you didn’t learn enough by training your mind to think better, you may have to learn by your own blunders. Regardless, commit yourself to learning and thinking better, the quality of the rest of your life depends on it. Becoming the person you want to be depends on your ability to think well enough to be that person.
Suggestions for Improvement
- Read good books. The point of reading is to read books that will help you learn how to think. Leaders who think good are leaders who make good decision. Your leadership isn’t worth anything if you can’t think well. You might feel intimidated by the size of a book but don’t, the idea isn’t to read every word cover to cover so much as it is to read in a way that contributes to you learning something. Whether you sit down and read it straight through or you read a chapter every other week or just scan a book for useful information and then keep it on a shelf for reference, read.
- Detach yourself from a situation so you can think about it clearly. Stay Calm. It’s easy to let yourself get caught up in a situation. You may feel like you want to jump up and charge forward but there might be dangers just in front of you that you can’t see through your emotion. Take a step back, relax, don’t just do what feels right until you thought about what is right.
- Act. You need to test your ideas on the battlefield if you want to see whether or not they work. Learn from mistakes and adjust.
- Give yourself permission to fail but don’t give yourself permission to quit. If you try and fail you are closer to your goal because you now know what not to do. If you fail to even try, then you are a loser. Get out of the way so someone that actually wants to take a shot can take it.
- Journal. Reflect on your goals, what it will take to accomplish them. Write down things that change and how you plan to adapt. Track your thoughts and learn from them.