I walked into my first Operational Detachment as a wet behind the ears Special Forces Engineer Sergeant. My graduation from the Qualification course had been timed perfectly to put me out of the school house and into Afghanistan. I remember flying from Bagram to my Forward Operating Base sitting by the bubble window on the “shit-hook” helicopter, wearing all my shiny new kit, feeling like a reincarnation of Alexander the Great.
Disembarking in the whirling dust I was ready for anything… well, almost anything. I was soon to find out that all my training, reading, and preparation hadn’t set me up for the biggest hurdle anyone faces in their career: human terrain.
Over the course of my first deployment I learned a lot of lessons about myself and staying alive in a very hostile environment, but the most important lesson I learned was that others’ perception of me was reality.
The definition of self-awareness neglects to recognize that learning to accept others perception of ourselves and shape that perception by changing our own actions is the true measure of this trait. I grew up thinking that if I knew myself I would be self-aware, but it turned out that knowing others is far more important to the process than knowing one’s self.
Let me clarify. In my mind I was a handsome, winsome, egalitarian, and righteous member of society. In the perception of my first team, I was an over-eager, cocky, arrogant prick who had yet to prove his worth in any definitive measure. This gap was clear to everyone BUT me and I spent a lot of time fighting to see why my Sergeant Major, my Team Sergeant, and pretty much everyone else would hammer every effort I made with such critical vigor.
It was oppressive for me personally; I was angry and frustrated all the time. My team for the most part was committed to training me up and humored my lack of awareness which is what kept me on the path. However, it wasn’t really until I had safe separation distance from the situation post-deployment that I realized how actively I had been sabotaging myself.
The First SOF Imperative; not just for SOF guys
The first step to achieving self-awareness and giving yourself a leg up in any social situation is being able to sense and process atmospherics. It is no coincidence that the first Special Operations Forces imperative is: Understand your operational environment.
As a “cherry” I had neglected to realize the most important part of the team environment: every day is your first day. I was stuck in an endless negative feedback loop, because I was convinced that I brought something to the team and acted like it well before anyone else had been convinced of it. No matter how well I did any task, my peers would frame it as being accomplished from a sense of entitlement, not a sense of shared duty or dedication to building a solid foundation.
To be quite frank, they weren’t wrong. My own arrogance that I didn’t see was setting me up for failure again and again.
When I got home, I sat down and took inventory. I moved to a new unit to chase a deployment and resolved to not relive this chain of events. My reputation had followed me, but my lack of self-awareness did not. I showed up like a dutiful private to every task I was assigned. I cut my hair, I shaved twice a day, I stood at parade rest for my superiors… completely unlike the SF I had dreamed of.
You know what happened? Those people that knew the old me had nothing to say, and everyone else thought I was being ridiculously proper and made fun of me… but they noticed that I was there to work. It didn’t take long before people started noticing the good work I was doing.
Understanding people’s perception of me and adjusting my actions helped me unlock a reset button that I hadn’t been sure even existed. It didn’t happen overnight, but watching it unfold taught me a lot about approaching every day as my first day on the team.
We all develop skills that raise our worth, but the need to display humility and worth never goes away.
Self-Awareness Drives Smooth Operations
Last year I had the honor of participating in a funeral detail for one of my fallen brothers. Little did I know that this solemn event would highlight to me the correlation between self-awareness and success.
The funeral was held in Dallas and our “detail” was comprised of a group of guys from teams from all over our Company. None of us had ever worked together before. Some of the group had colored reputations. There were two officers and six NCO’s.
Let me tell you, SF guys aren’t kings of Drill and Ceremony, but we know it. We practiced for three days straight and honored our brother in the best way we could. By the end of the funeral, we were moving as one and displaying an aptitude we weren't even sure we could muster before the ceremony.
We didn’t fly out until the next morning, so we were left with an evening to kill in Dallas. I suggested that we go to an “Escape Room” in Deep Ellum just for fun. I told the guys “hell I’ll pay for anybody who doesn’t want to do it and we can bring beer”. Everyone begrudgingly conceded that they had nothing better to do and away we went.
What happened in that room really highlighted for me the value of self-awareness, maturity, and adaptability. It also brought into focus why these characteristics are so highly valued by the Special Forces regiment when searching for candidates.
I watched a group of individuals enter that puzzle room with vastly disparate approaches and skill sets. Almost immediately the officers gravitated towards the written instructions and detailed folder of the story line. The younger NCOs all started organizing “clues” collected from their more experienced friends who were methodically searching the room. Almost no communication was taking place, guys just buckled down and started looking for work that wasn’t being done. There was no infighting or bitching. There was no posturing or vanity. In that moment I stood back and realized that this was a group of mature individuals, capable of completing any task, committed to their team, and aware of their place in the world. I also realized that if I hadn’t pulled my head out of my ass and started developing self-awareness I wouldn’t have been able to call these men my peers.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” - Charles Darwin
The key to adaptability is self-awareness. If we wish to maximize our effectiveness in life, we need to learn how to effectively shift gears as our environment changes. Do not let yourself be sedentary like a lobster in a slowly boiling pot. Be aware of how you are perceived and how that affects your own desires, goals, and efforts. John Donne wrote that “No man is an island unto itself”, and we would be wise to remember that when we feel misunderstood and ineffectual.