As I sit in my cozy little corner of the Middle East, listening to the whine of my dying split unit air conditioner, counting the days until I return home to my sexy, brilliant wife and wildly talented--and just plain wild--kids in the United States, I am reminded of a conversation I had before my deployment with a very senior Warrant Officer about the mission I was about to embark on. I had asked him how to best succeed in what I knew by reputation was a nebulous mission set that had been the demise of many Special Forces NCOs before me. I asked him, “Chief, how do I make this thing work?”
“Don’t make the mission into something it isn’t.”
That was it. In one sentence there was the life wisdom that should guide our efforts in every pursuit. His wisdom was telling because it seems vague but was a particularly prescient interpretation of the first SOF imperative: Understand the Operational Environment.
And Now, For Something Completely Different…
Now, for your situational awareness I should spend some time talking about this mission and its implications before I dive into the “so what” for most of our readers. Essentially, Special Forces guys have become very accustomed to a particular mission set in the Global War On Terror (GWOT) and they are great at a broad mix of Foreign Internal Defense (advise, assist, accompany, equip), Direct Action (warheads on foreheads), Special Reconnaissance (snooping and pooping), and pretty much any other active pursuit of Counter-Terrorism that can be dreamed up in any far flung corner of the world. The mission set here has nothing to do with ANY of those core competencies.
What we “Action Guys” don’t deal with well are problems resembling slow moving leviathans that require years of crafting measured responses and--often times--show no sign of immediate resolution. I am not sure I realized how miserable it could be to enter an operational environment I didn’t fully understand and try to shape the environment to my perceptions as opposed to shaping my efforts to the environment. I can attest that when we started to put that Chief’s advice into practice, our joy factor increased dramatically.
Swords Into Plowshares, After The War Is Over...
The State Department trains diplomats for this kind of long game and Special Forces guys are often integral in diplomatic success by observing partner militaries, mentoring their leadership, and providing feedback to the DoS on the progress of a country’s military and security mechanism. The key words in that sentence are “observing,” “mentoring,” and “providing feedback” to our diplomatically savvy bosses. There is a sweet spot there where we perform well but are chomping at the bit to DO something. This is where things gets interesting.
As action oriented and combat experienced soldiers, we have been conditioned to act in the absence of specific guidance. In the arena of my current mission set, this tendency can be detrimental to the overall effort of strengthening our partner force and supporting their growth as a nation. This understanding can be VERY hard to grasp, especially when confronted with immediate problems and possessing the desire and capabilities to solve those problems. It’s complicated even more when a lack of understanding of your operational environment leads to actively pursuing efforts that are counterproductive to the overall mission.
As competent and mission focused individuals and as a cohesive unit it’s important we are constantly assessing our efforts and ensuring that they are contributing to the”commander’s intent.” This mission only highlights that we are often quick to make things in our lives into something they are not, which is a recipe for frustration and struggle.
Rule #1, Not Just For Green Berets Anymore...
Now, let’s talk about how to apply this in a few familiar areas of our everyday lives: Health, Relationships, and Careers.
Fitness programs are something we might know a little bit about here. I love that our program descriptions give very clear descriptions of the attributes we intend to shape over the course of the program. Yet, people still email us upset that a stamina program didn’t boost their bench press “enough” or oddly impressed that a well designed running regimen changed their relationship with running for the better. We should expect that if we apply certain inputs we will see a corresponding output.
Working out is an element of your overall health.. and a pretty major one. However, you have to also be aware of the other attributes that will shape your performance. Recovery, Diet, and Mindset are also extremely important. Working out 3 hours a day but consuming all processed foods, sleeping three hours a night, and choosing to engage in a toxic relationship will have a negative effect on your training. Make sure that you aren’t taking away from your overall health by ignoring the effects of your operational environment.
I think people are quick to ignore the effect non-romantic relationships have on their lives, so I’m going to tackle this one from a relationships in general standpoint, not in the sense of romance. It applies to both, trust me.
Relationships are a construct of two peoples’ individual perceptions joined through agendas. These relationships are made easier when the two parties’ agendas are mutual and complicated when those agendas are competing. In order to understand our relationship’s “Operational Environment” it’s best to be honest with ourselves and others about what our motivations and goals are. Most relationship friction stems from trying to force someone to conform to an agenda that isn’t theirs. Don’t make the relationships in your life something they aren’t. Accept that others may not always be pursuing the same things as you are and work to find compromise. Remember, we can only change our own behaviors and views.
While working for a well known backpack company, I lost count of the people who would talk to me about how much they disliked their jobs and felt adrift in their lives because of it. This really resonated with me, because I too have been adrift at points in my life and had to choose to pivot in a direction that fulfilled my passions and not always my bank account. It’s pretty simple, if you are miserable in your environment, you need to find a new terrarium.
Careers aren’t about compromise like relationships are. Understanding your operational environment happens on day one when you are given your initial counseling and welcomed into the fold. You may have responsibilities and others in that organism may depend on you. It doesn’t make you wrong for not feeling fulfilled in that role, but the choice to find another more fulfilling role is one that YOU have to choose.
'If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain' -Francis Bacon
In the immortal words of Rocky Balboa, “Let me tell you something that you may already know”. Being happy in life happens when what we want intersects with what we have. Finding and increasing the frequency of those intersections is about making good choices. Making good choices comes from having an understanding of your operational environment. If we “make the mission into something that it isn’t,” we are only setting ourselves and those around us up for imminent failure.