On November 15, 2019, I was humbled to be the guest of honor for the annual formal commemoration of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps 244th birthdays at the University of California, Los Angeles NROTC unit—my alma matter.
It was a festive event with sword detail, color guard, cake cutting, and a video greeting by the CNO and CMC—the highest-ranking Navy and Marine Corps officers. I was afforded the opportunity to address the midshipmen battalion and assembled guests, consisting of college freshmen through seniors as well as the unit staff officers and their dates.
I hoped to offer the midshipmen some practical suggestions on how to get the most out of their impending careers in service based on my own experiences and observations. My remarks are reproduced here, less the introduction and conclusion, in the hopes that my ramblings may benefit and inspire others. A video of the event can be found here.
As we spend a few minutes together this evening—me now a couple years removed from my career, you on the cusp of entering yours—I thought it appropriate to share a few of my lessons learned that hopefully you will find useful.
For inspiration in organizing my thoughts, I recently re-watched Admiral McRaven’s motivating commencement address to the 2014 University of Texas class for the umpteenth time but this time, I decided that with all due respect the Admiral, he actually did a disservice to those graduating seniors.
You see, the problem with challenging people (imploring them, really) to “change the world” is that, realistically, very few ever actually do, and to fall short—as most of us will—could rightly be considered a disappointment.
Think about the few who, individually, have changed the world: we usually recognize them by a single name, don’t we? Shakespeare, Einstein, Ghandi, Hitler, Mandela, SnoopDogg.
And yet there are tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people out there who this very day are quietly and unceremoniously making a difference, just as they have all throughout history. These are people whose names you will most likely never know.
Names like Herman Addleson.
Private Addleson was one of 4,000 allied soldiers (2,500 of which were American) killed during the D-Day invasions of June 6, 1944, some the moment the ramps dropped on their Higgins Boats as they stormed Northern France.
On an individual level, you could argue that Private Addleson and other KIA failed to “change the world,” but we know better. We understand that while some soldiers were killed before even stepping ashore, the invasion itself succeeded, and that Operation Overlord did in fact change the world.
So, while I do not doubt either your resolve nor your abilities, and I do believe each of you is capable of actually changing the world (and indeed, some of you just may), my comments this evening are geared to the more realistic imperative to do your best and make a difference as part of a cause larger than yourself.
If you do your best and make a difference, the US Navy and Marine Corps team can continue to change the world just as it has for the past 244 years.
In the spirit of less is more, here are not 10 ways but 8 ways I believe you can do your best and make a difference. I wish I had committed to these 28 years ago when I was sitting where you’re sitting tonight. Some came easily; others I am still working on to this day (as my wife will no doubt attest), but hopefully you can take them to heart…
Number one on the list is show up on time. That’s it, simply show up on time.
Sounds easy, I realize, but the key is to determine what constitutes “on time.” Anyone who tells you early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable, was clearly never a fighter pilot.
I will concede that late is almost always bad but early is not good either, especially when flying a close air support mission where arriving early means the mark has not yet reached the target and the friendly ground forces do not yet have their heads down. The results of being early can be disastrous.
To show up on time means figuring out when you need to be somewhere and then doing everything in your power to get there at that time. If it’s a 0800 class with one of the unit’s naval science professors, then arriving at 0755 (or whatever the unit standard is) is appropriate.
If it’s a flight brief in your squadron, showing up 30 minutes before brief time may be appropriate to help put together the kneeboard card or prepare the whiteboard.
And if it’s a 0800 class with a civilian professor who spends the first 10 minutes railing about politics and other BS, then slipping in at 0810 might be appropriate.
If you want to do your best and make a difference, show up on time.
(And speaking of showing up on time, the only reason I survived oversleeping for my first flight without being “downed” right there in the ready room is that my instructor and I had briefed it the day before but then got weathered out, so he took it easy on me.) [Author’s note: I had referenced this incident on my first flight school sortie in the omitted intro.]
Number two is ‘accept your mission.’ I’m not referring to Mission Impossible here where you have some choice; what I really mean is to play the cards you’re dealt or, put another way, to be at peace with your lot in life.
This idea manifests itself in multiple ways: one is to accept who you are. As leadership expert Andy Stanley puts it, we all live in the land of “er.” That is, there is always someone rich-er, smart-er, better looking, more naturally talented, whatever. Instead of being jealous of those other land of “er” residents (who, by the way, also look up to someone with even more “er”), celebrate them and their “er-ness,” and then acknowledge and be grateful for what you have.
Because compared to others, you also have more “er.” Accept your qualities, your talents, your strengths & weaknesses, and then be a first rate you instead of a second-rate someone else.
The other part of this concerns opportunities afforded you (or not) in life and—specifically—during your military service. I understand service selection occurred earlier this term and that not everyone got what they hoped for. Marines, as you know, your fate will be determined at [The Basic School].
Listen, I don’t have a magic formula that will make everything better but I can tell you this: in almost two years of hosting the Fighter Pilot Podcast, I’ve had roughly 70 different guests on the show—pilots of jets, helicopters, P-3s, C-2s, you name it. I even had an E-2 NFO who originally joined the service wanting to be a jet pilot.
Each of them said that they enjoyed where they ended up. They all found the good in it and frankly that’s what you need to do with whatever the Navy or Marine Corps has in store for you. It’s the only way to find peace. Your path is unique to you and you have to walk your own path, not someone else’s.
And it does not end after service selection: if you do get flight school you may wash out. When you reach the fleet you might not get the coast you want. And later you may not
Here’s the secret: to maximize your chance of getting what you want, strive to always finish at the top of the class. But just realize that even then, the service may have other needs and the needs of the service always come first, just as our recent V-22 Osprey guest ‘Sweet Pea’ mentioned when he told the story of how every Marine finishing primary flight training the day he did was assigned helicopters.
As with life there will be setbacks throughout your career—large and small. If you want to do your best and make a difference, accept your mission. Walk the path that only you can walk, wherever it may take you, and enjoy the journey (more on that in a bit).
Third: know what’s expected of you. This sounds obvious but most people don’t do it.
When you arrive at a new assignment, whether it’s a training command or the fleet, don’t assume you know what’s expected of you—go find out. Ask a fellow student, a peer, your supervisor, do whatever it takes but find out what it is, don’t assume, because you may be surprised.
And then once you’ve been there awhile, find out again what’s expected of you because guess what? It changes frequently, even in the same assignment. When you arrive at your first fleet unit you will be expected to keep your mouth shut, learning as much as you can about fleet operations and being a good follower. But by the time you leave just a couple short years later you will be expected to be an outspoken advocate of the unit, and a good leader who is able to teach others.
To do your best and make a difference, know what’s expected of you and then, fourth, do it to the best of your ability.
…There’s really not a lot more that needs to be said here, although I suppose we could debate what constitutes “the best of your ability.” It depends on what’s expected.
If it’s routine paperwork, then your “best” is whatever effort is required to ensure the paperwork is submitted on time and error free.
On the other extreme, if you’re outdoorsman Aron Ralston who spent five days with his hand pinned between boulders in the Utah wilderness and what’s expected—or at the very least desired—is survival itself, then your “best” may be as drastic as cutting off your own arm with a dull multitool, rappelling down a 65-foot drop, and then hiking 7 miles to safety all in a state of delirium from days of exposure, dehydration, malnourishment, and pain.
Figure out what needs to be done, and then do it. And do it well.
Number five: learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward.
It’s amazing to me how many people, including myself at times, drag around mistakes or the results of them like some albatross, threatening to drown us at every turn. Look, I’m not saying mistakes should be taken lightly—some mistakes can torpedo your career, but mistakes will happen and you have to learn from them and keep moving forward, even if it’s as a civilian.
In that regard, mistakes are like a microwave dinner. What happens? You take it out of the freezer, pop it in the microwave for a few minutes, then eat it and discard the packaging. A mistake is like the meal—you digest it and it becomes a part of you, nourishing your body and soul, facilitating growth.
But do yourself a favor, don’t carry around the packaging which attracts flies and gets nasty. Throw it away and keep moving forward.
The sixth way to do your best and make a difference is to keep a proper perspective. Do me a favor, raise your hand if you have seen in person or perhaps even embarked on an aircraft carrier…
Okay, now in a single word, describe an aircraft carrier, go ahead just blurt it out…
That’s right: huge, enormous.
Do you know what that 1,000-foot long, 100,000 ton ship with four-and-a-half-acre flight deck looks like in the middle of the open ocean from 25k feet up when you’re waiting to come down to land?
It’s tiny. It’s a mere speck on a seemingly endless ocean. A postage stamp. Yet down there on that speck are 5,500 sailors—and occasionally Marines, depending on the air wing—who think their problems are enormous. And perhaps they are, certainly some problems are bigger than others, but they’re usually not as big as you think if you just view them from the proper perspective.
This works in other settings too. The next time someone cuts you off on the road or appears to be driving erratically, instead of assuming the worst, honking and rendering the one-finger salute, try this: assume the driver is rushing to be with a mother who has just fallen ill or a child who has just suffered an accident.
You’ll be amazed at how this changes your temperature. Nothing about the situation has changed, mind you, only your perspective of it—and that can make a big difference.
Don’t rush to judgement, ask questions and seek first to understand as Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People implores us. To do your best and make a difference, keep a proper perspective.
Number seven is to achieve mastery in at least one area.
Once you’ve accepted your mission, figured out what’s expected, and then begun doing it to the best of your ability, find a particular niche or nuance of the job and strive to be the go-to guy or gal in that matter. It could be GPS-guided weapons, underway replenishments, whatever. But learn it better than everyone else because subject mastery is a quality that will distinguish you and make you indispensable.
Like Steve Martin says, be so good they can’t ignore you. In our line of work that translates to be so good, you’re the person everyone comes to.
This applies outside of work too. A friend of mine, former Blue Angel and air wing commander Pepper McCoy once told me if you know how to grill ribs and mix margaritas, you’ll always have friends. Sage advice.
And finally, number eight: simply have fun. No matter what you’re doing, have fun doing it and if you can’t, at least smile.
Without doubt the profession of military arms is serious business. As a fighter pilot you may be called upon to blow things up or shoot things down. People die. It’s no laughing matter.
On the other hand, the seriousness of it all paradoxically facilitates some fantastic humor at times, occasionally at your expense but that’s okay. There’s a time to put your head down and get the job done but there’s no crime in having fun while you’re doing it, situation permitting.
And, again, if you can’t have fun—at least smile and make people think you’re having a good time because a smile is the most powerful, influential facial expression there is, more so than a scowl or frown.
So that’s it, my friends. As you enter into your careers, do your part. Make a difference by:
- Showing up on time
- Accepting your mission
- Knowing what’s expected of you
- Doing it to the best of your ability
- Learning from your mistakes while moving forward
- Keeping a proper perspective
- Achieving mastery in at least one area
- And having a little fun
If you can do these eight things then you will be part of a U.S. Navy and Marine Corps team that not only changes the world, but changes it for the better. And that is a realistic goal you should strive for.