I learned some things about myself, too: what I’m good at, what I’m not so good at, how I react under pressure, and how I manage stress. But there are a bunch of other positive habits instilled by general military discipline that we come to take for granted. Here are just a few.
Getting up early
Satirical women’s magazine website Reductress posted a headline last year that reads: Hack Your Morning Routine by Waking Up at 2 a.m. and Having a Mini-Day Before Your Real Day. It is clowning on the impossible slog of the 40-hour work week, but like all good satire, therein lies a kernel of truth: getting up early to do stuff that you want to do, and not because anyone’s forcing you, makes the day seem longer and like you got more done, even if it’s just a few chores or spending some time on yourself.
I know myself. I know that once I cross the threshold of my home after finishing work, it will take an act of God to get me to leave again. As much as I love to swim, going to practice at 7 p.m. on work nights feels like torture. But if I can knock out some exercise before work or at lunch, it feels like a huge relief for the rest of the day: I can relax completely when I get home, free to do what I really want to do.
It doesn’t have to be exercise. It could be anything that makes you happy or gets you motivated for the day. To me, that little bit of personal time is worth the potential sacrifice of sleep. It makes me feel like I’m starting the day of my own terms, not because I have to show up at work on time.
Leaving home inspection-ready
Living in the barracks, leadership would do random room inspections, looking for cleanliness and, well, making sure nothing illegal going on. The idea that someone would be looking at my living space in my absence put a real anxiety in me. I now live alone, and I think often (maybe a little morbidly) about what my personal space says about me and what I’m leaving behind.
If you put everything where it belongs before you leave the house, you won’t have to spend excess time cleaning or digging around frantically to find something. It becomes thoughtless, a habit: make your bed; put your hygiene stuff away; put the dishes back in the cabinet; put the clean laundry in drawers or the closet. Marie Kondo popularized the idea of giving everything in your house a home, a place where that object lives, and the military reinforced that: if you leave the house with everything in order, it creates a sense of peace. Plus, no one is going to leave a piece of paper saying that they saw your space and now they know you live in a functional trash can.
I’m not talking about having your face in the dirt while someone screams at you to do push-ups. Even in the military, where each branch has its own minimum fitness standards, every individual has a different threshold for exertion. What is exhausting for me is effortless to the majority of my (truly obnoxiously) fit coworkers; what looks easy for me might not yet be feasible for you. Here’s what really matters:
- You find a physical activity that you like, and
- You do it.
If being physically active was reduced only to running, I would never exercise. I am not good at running and it makes me miserable most of the time. Cookie-cutter definitions of “good exercise” are very limiting for people of different abilities. But it’s important to find something that gets you moving and makes you feel happy or accomplished or, ideally, both, even if it takes a lot of trial and error to find that thing.
For the past few years, I’ve worked at a command of do-ers: hard-charging people who take responsibility for and pride in the work they do. It’s rare to work in a mega-motivated office. I feel lucky to be among them.
But because they’re so diligent, some of them struggle with task triage. When someone says, “This needs to get done,” what they hear is, “You need to do it right now.” I’ve only seen a few folks openly negotiate deadlines; I think there is an anxiety that delay might appear like procrastination. But trying to demonstrate maximum efficiency by responding with maximum urgency is unrealistic and, frankly, exhausting. I know this because I’m a people-pleaser, which makes it hard to admit it when I can’t do something and let someone down.
The leaders I respect the most were those comfortable telling their superiors “no” or “not now” (politely, and why). Just because our workplace can accommodate a request doesn’t mean we always should. Deadlines are almost always completely arbitrary; it is really refreshing to see someone negotiate goals instead of falling over themselves to prove that they’re useful and needed.
Eliminating fear of failure
My first chief sniffed out my fear of failure pretty early on. He put me in a number of unwinnable positions – deliberately, I think – and made me deal with it.
I realize now that there is something incredibly neurotic (and millennial) about being afraid to fail. Deep down, what I was really afraid of was criticism; my ego couldn’t handle acknowledging that I wasn’t good at everything, all the time, which ended up depriving me of opportunities to develop resilience. Worse, appearing faultless made me a poor example to follow. We need to see the people we respect fall short, own up to it, adapt, and keep moving. Avoiding mistakes is a form of stagnation; sometimes our best lessons are the hard ones.
The root of the fear of failure, I think, comes from a refusal to take a risk. Almost all of my Navy experiences have pushed me out of my comfort zone, often kicking and screaming. These experiences taught me that I’m capable of more than I think I am, that there’s no such thing as perfect, and that, for the most part, falling short is safe and normal. After failing over and over (and over and over and over), my self-esteem might take a hit, but it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. I’m grateful to have the anxiety of perfectionism lifted from my shoulders.
In fact, this blog is a continued exercise in letting “good enough” suffice. No matter what, every month, I make myself put something out there. It makes me feel incredibly self-conscious every time. What if my writing is bad? (It’s fine.) What if I say something that hurts someone? (I hope they will tell me and we can come to an understanding.) What if it doesn’t make sense? (This is why practice is important.) Worst of all, what if no one cares? (No one does care, and this is liberating!)
To this, I’ll leave off with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”