May 3, 2017 – Lessons Learned

After over 30 years of working in joint military and civilian organizations, I’ve learned how a person approaches a problem is definitely influenced by his or her service background, or a lack of military service in general. Through the years I watched (and learned) as each military service has a different approach to problems and as such, they are dead sure that they had the right answer to any problem. I also learned that my civilian counterparts who had never served, often have a diametrically opposed view of how to solve problems from their prior-military counterparts.

Those of us with a military background usually plan the heck out of every task. We work very hard to foresee potential obstacles/frustrations, and then develop well-thought out mitigating strategies for them. We even carry that mentality to our home lives. We tend to plan family vacations to the minute. We also know that no family plan survives first contact with children or the highway (my apologies to the German General Von Molkte (the elder) who said “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.”) What a good plan gives you is a foundation from which you can flex in case of changes. A good plan also gives peace of mind. The services vary wildly in planning and doctrine. The Army tends to be the most thorough when it comes to planning. This brings to mind a quote from senior service school, “An Army general doesn’t have a bowel movement without a plan” (this is the clean version). It is possible to over plan something, or get stuck in the planning cycle and never get to the execution cycle.

My non-prior-military civilian counterparts usually approach problems with an entirely different mindset. They are more nimble when it comes to problem solving. They can grasp problems quickly, but they have little patience with making detailed plans and prefer the, “fly by the seat of your pants” method of problem solving. They prefer to talk about problems, then execute. I watch daily as they attack problems with the “ready, fire, aim” method. This leads to double the work. Problems that would have been foreseen and avoided with good planning are too often talked to death in long and painful staff meetings.

I can also say they are heads and tails above their prior-military counterparts when it comes thinking outside the box. Military doctrine tends to provide answers for most problem sets, which sometimes hamstrings prior-military when it comes to creative thinking. However, it’s my observation they struggle with detailed and long-term projects (unless they have a business degree or background) because that involves much more “brain-power” than they think is necessary. I have seen this phenomenon up close and personal at the highest levels of government.

That said, here is what I’ve learned and want to pass on from watching both sides operate. Some lessons were learned from watching others make mistakes, and some came with scars. The goal of all these posts is to provide the reader the benefit of our experiences, and occasionally inspire an “eureka” moment.

Know the cost.   When you make a decision make sure you know the cost of your decision either in dollars, blood, sweat, or tears. There is cost to everything you do. Economists even count the cost of what you gave up, to do something else. This is called opportunity cost. Opportunity cost refers to a benefit that a person could have received, but gave up, to do something else. For example, if you decide to play golf with your buddies, the opportunity cost is not spending time with family or doing something at home. So make sure you know the cost of your decisions.

Be comfortable with the worst case scenario. I usually call this the “what’s the worst that can happen?” question. The 1970s detective show Baretta had a theme song had this phrase, “…if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” When you make a plan, determine the worst case and be prepared to deal with that possibility. If you can’t, then don’t execute the plan. It’s that simple.

More money (or stuff) does not equal more happiness. I know it may seem hard to believe, but money does not equal happiness. One benefit and curse, of growing older is now many of my friends are retired or retiring and they all say the same thing, what they cherish the most isn’t their stuff or money, but the memories they made. They all regret not spending more time with loved ones. I have a friend who seems to shovel money into the gaping hole in his heart/soul/life and never gets happier. I know from first-hand experience that hitting an arbitrary number in your bank account, or buying the next cool thing only provides fleeting satisfaction. Long term and deep satisfaction is built with relationships and memories.

Build your life’s foundation on solid principles. There are legion sayings about this, for example, “stand for something or you will fall for anything.” The reason you need to have a solid foundation, built on time tested principles is that they often conflict with your interests, your wants, or your friends. So many times I hear someone is “torn” because of their choices. They are torn because their principles are in conflict with their wants/interests. That simply means their principles are not solid, and as such, they are easily swayed to something they know is not right. Having a solid foundation doesn’t mean you are never conflicted, it simply means the gravitational pull from what you know is right cannot be overcome with what is wrong or convenient.

Live your life. My grandmother (God rest her soul) was determined to live her life through her children and select grandchildren. Every time we visited all she talked about was my aunt, uncle, or my cousin. When asked her about her life, she seemed confounded. She was so busy keeping up with and offering advice to her children and grandchildren she had forgot to live her own life. She didn’t travel – except to visit children – and she didn’t have a hobby. Every person you meet serves as an example – remember that. My grandmother showed me how not to live. Live this life to the fullest – make a bucket list and attack it with gusto.

I’ll add more tomorrow – but in the meantime I’d like to leave you with a quote from Marcus Aurelius “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”



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