By Jay Huwieler
You are embarking on perhaps the most mentally-taxing endurance event in the U.S. Army – 63 weeks learning a Category 4 language at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, CA. No, it won’t be physically tough, and graduating won’t earn you the same respect among your peers that Ranger School would, or getting selected at SFAS. No, in fact graduating will go by virtually unnoticed – there won’t be a tab to wear, or a creed to recite, or a bumper sticker to display on your truck. But what mountain and tactical athletes will immediately recognize, will be just how much of the journey is mental. You’re going to climb your own mountain, by yourself without a partner, where attitude will matter as much as aptitude or altitude. Those 63 weeks will require the most discipline, mental clarity, and just-plain-stubborn refusal to quit that you’ve ever had to demonstrate in your life.
And here’s the secret – you’re going to have to nearly fail out. Twice. You’ll survive by less than 3 percentage points on a test your instructor expects you to fail. You’ll get recycled back to the beginning with a different class and you’ll have to go through it all over again; forget 63 weeks – now you’ll spend a total of 94 weeks giving maximum effort, and never once will the dopamine-reward system ever trigger; for those 22 months, you will never feel success, because you will never know if you’re meeting the standard; the instructions at the beginning will be “start pushing, Soldier – you’re done when you quit.” Spoiler alert: You will refuse to ever quit.
Ultimately, you’re going to pass with one of the best performances among anyone at the school house during your cycle. But you’re going to have to make three critical mistakes early in the course, and you really will be on the cusp of total, abject failure, until you learn one critical lesson in life. You’ll internalize that lesson and you will carry it with you all the way up to the day you respond to an open-call for essays on MTI’s website. This is how it will happen:
The first mistake you will make: resting on your laurels
You’ll convince yourself that because you’ve done something similar before and were really good at it, then you’ll have an advantage now; no special prep will be needed. When the first three tests are easy for you, you’ll take that as confirmation that your conviction is prudent. However, your “strengths” will prove to not be strengths at all – they’re a convenient cover for the underlying truth, that you aren’t developing mental infrastructure, nor awareness of how best to keep developing past your current plateau. When the academic tests finally outstrip your previous learning, your peers will meanwhile have in place hard-learned and robust mental tactics, techniques, and procedures that have evolved to meet the current challenge. You will go from being first in the class to literally dead-last. It will happen with shocking speed.
The second mistake you will make: comparing yourself to others
They’re going to make it look so easy. Maybe the bell curve is unnaturally slanted, and they’re all just gifted? But then the second possibility will occur to you – maybe they aren’t above average; maybe they’re par for the course, and it’s you that is below average. Is it possible? You’ll start telling yourself they represent the standard. Your best will look substandard. You’ll start telling yourself that it wouldn’t really be your fault if you failed — “just look at how freakishly good you have to be at this just to be average … hell, in hindsight, I’ll probably realize I never had a chance to begin with…”
Stop it. Stop it immediately. It doesn’t matter how you rank among them right now. Blow them off and keep going. Keep. Going.
The third mistake you’ll make: rehearsing why you couldn’t, instead of practicing how you could
You’ll meet another Soldier who is months ahead of you in his own course, yet he will be barely hanging on, passing the standard by a mere fraction. The moment he senses your struggle, he’ll try to seduce you with his. He will have a well-rehearsed narrative about how the program is unfair; how ‘they’ don’t have any credibility anyway; everything they teach is wrong; he’ll tell you that ‘no one could possibly do it; this place is a joke,’ ad nauseum. He will proceed as if spreading his own litany of loss will make it as true as spreading the gospel.
Get away from him. Now.
He is rehearsing why he couldn’t be expected to succeed. Every job, every test, every place has hoops that must be jumped through. As foolish as they seem, you have a choice: jump through them, laugh to yourself for half a second, and then move on, or refuse to jump. This Soldier is going to refuse to shut up and jump; instead, mentally he’s still waiting just in front of the hoop, for everyone – anyone – approaching the hoop who will listen, so he can tell them how stupid the hoop is, how unfairly it was designed, how no one should have to jump it, how useless it is, how … how about you blow him off and keep going. He will rehearse why he couldn’t. You need to get down to the tough, dirty, unglamorous and uncomfortable job of practicing how you can. You don’t get a slot in the toughest Army schools by telling the Cadre how stupid their test is; you get a slot by doing the pushups, the sit-ups, the distance rucks and runs when no one is watching, and no one cares if you show up to compete or not. Whether it’s sports, or combat, or life – you will have to put in the work to get the results. Period.
The life lesson you’ll have to learn to grow and succeed: self-reliance
The final test to decide whether you stay in the program, or you fail out and get sent home will be on a Monday morning. On the Friday afternoon before, you will find out that one of your classmates has been recycled and won’t have to face the same test. She was on the ropes the same as you, but she will be given a chance to start over again and will not have to face that final test. Not you. In fact, you will learn that the lead instructor only had one slot to give away for a Recycle, and she decided that you were not worth saving. The other Soldier was assessed to have a future and was worth helping, but you were deemed beyond help. You instructor – your mentor, your coach – is going to give up on you, and is going to abandon your corner before the fight is over.
My best advice to my younger self: fight it out anyway. That final 48 hours, you’ll be tempted to rehearse thoughts of “Should have”, “could have,” and “would have.” But instead, you’re going to arrive at an inalienable truth about the human condition: The only person who will ever fix your problem, is you. When it’s time to start kicking down doors and punching personal demons in the throat, “Should-could-would” is over with; and no one can convince yourself of that fact, except you.
What you’ll leave with by the time you graduate: zì lì gēng sheng, or “Self-reliance.”
In the Chinese language, there is a four-character aphorism, 自力更生 (zì lì gēng sheng). It means “regeneration through one’s own efforts,” or “Self-reliance.” You’ll discover the phrase by accident one night while you’re reading, but you’ll instantly recognize it for what it is. Your entire growth as a Leader over those 94 weeks will be summarized in those four characters, and over the next decade, you’ll say it to yourself every time you need reminding of how tough leaders, good teammates, and extreme athletes overcome the insurmountable: self-reliance. zì lì gēng sheng.
About the Author
Jay Huwieler is an intelligence analyst in the US Army. He enjoys writing, computer science, and hiking. For more, visit his foreign affairs, security, and tech blog at www.huwieler.net
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