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Calm in the face of adversity

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 9.23.48 PMI’m not sure when or where this value was instilled but the concept of it being better to beg forgiveness than ask permission seems to be a recurring theme throughout my life. Whether as a US Coast Guard Officer, or in airport operations at some of our nation’s largest airports, I have always had this mindset. Author Mark Donald says that the special operations community has a variation on this theme: get it done first, then ask for permission or forgiveness later (Donald 241).

I know that there are people in the world who need to sit back, criticize, look for fault, pontificate and plan endlessly before they ever make a move (okay, for some reason my spell check software just suggested the word “government” in place of the word “move” in that last sentence – maybe my MacBook knows something I don’t).

I am not an enemy of planning. In fact, I spend vast amounts of my time, just planning my next moves – planning my week, planning my day and planning my projects. I’ve burned through more planning apps than any other type of app on my iPad combined. I realized a long time ago that a few hours spent in planning can save hundreds of hours and even thousands of dollars later on in the process. But also there is a time to act. It is knowing the difference between when it is time to plan and when it is time to act that makes the difference for many of us.

The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it. 

  • As quoted in The Treasury of Humorous Quotations (1951) by Evan Esar.

Want to be a person of action? Adopt these characteristics?

  • Remain calm during periods of pandemonium. Excessive yelling and erratic movements only invoke a frantic state, but keeping your composure instills confidence (Donald 193). One thing I learned in my short history as a first responder in airport operations is that you move quickly but smartly. Donald says that a warrior within an even-tempered disposition moving at the controlled pace is often moving as fast as the situation allows, especially when moving into the unknown (Donald 193). It gives you time to analyze the situation and prevents accidents. This is especially relevant now as investigators look into whether an airport firetruck inadvertently ran over one of the victims in the San Francisco Asiana plane crash.
  • You do not have to be a first responder to demonstrate the trait of remaining calm. Maybe someone has just run into your office with some business – not something life-threatening but maybe a decision that went wrong. Don’t lose your head and go sprinting down the hallway to see what the problem is. Take a deep breath, then calmly stand up and proceed to address the issue.
  • Being courageous does not mean being stupid. Donald talked about his experience with the Afghan warriors who were taught from the moment they were born that they must stand and fight and to run was to demonstrate cowardice (Donald 211). However, that warrior culture was instilled long before automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. This was the modern battlefield and while we need people to stand and fight they don’t need to do it in the middle of the kill zone (Donald 212).Remember Top Gun? In that scene in the TACTs trailer where “Viper” (Tom Skerritt)  criticizes “Maverick” (Tom Cruise) for pushing a bad position in his last dogfight, and tells him: “You take a hard right, select zone five … and return to fight another day.”
  • Be the difference. Donald notes that each special operations warrior has something inside him that screams, “I can be the difference.” (Donald 190). From their earliest moments of training confidence is instilled as a key factor for success (Donald 201). He notes that it is not arrogance or ego, it’s simply an unwavering belief in themselves (Donald 190).

What does self confidence look like? Part of it is your physiology. Recently, while watching the latest episode of American Ninja Warrior, I saw a contestant who was the first to make it through all of the obstacles except the 14-foot wall. He had failed to make it over the same wall in the previous season and had even spoke about how he was afraid of not making it again this season because he had not had a chance to practice it in his training.

The camera zoomed in for a close-up on his face at the moment of truth. That moment when he faced the wall for his third and final attempt. Anyone could easily tell just by looking at his face that he was not going to make it up that wall, and he did not. His face looked like a man who had already been defeated before he even tried.

He definitely was not calm in the face of adversity. Not the kind of person I would want to follow anywhere to Starbucks much less into combat, however it was a pure psych-out. Up until that point, his body language and his facial expression looked like he was just taking a walk in the park as he conquered the previous more difficult obstacles.

Perhaps, he could’ve changed his physiology just a little, to put a look of either pure determination or perhaps a smug self-satisfaction as if he’d already conquered the wall. I wonder if that would’ve made a difference.

I remember another young man with the same challenge. In flight school in Pensacola I did not make it over one of the obstacles on the obstacle course. An 8-foot wall. My face and body language defeated me before I even got to the wall. Weeks later, when I approached the wall again for my retest, my physical strength had not changed much nor had my technique improved, but my determination had. I sailed over it easily, then wondered why I had not done that the first time.

Donald, Mark L., and Scott Mactavish. Battle Ready: Memoir of a SEAL Warrior Medic. New York: St. Martin’s, 2013. Print.

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