Things I’ve Learned

by Joseph Hogan

 

The cliche is not lost on me, but it is true nonetheless. The longer I live, the less I actually know. It seems as if I’m farther from unlocking life’s secrets than ever. I’d guess that many who’ve reached middle age recognize this sentiment. At the same time, there is a degree of advantage in finally recognizing how little one knows. One of the advantages is that the list of things actually learned is short.

 

The important things are simple

Ideas like love, loyalty, humility and courage are simple. They require no wordy explanations. We know them by sight and feel and we recognize their presence (or absence) instinctively. I’ve noticed over the years that when I am grounded by simple thoughts or elements I am at peace. I think clearly. I have empathy. I’m creative, open and energetic. At the same time, when I find myself anxious, angry or frightened, it’s typically during a time where I’ve allowed myself to be overwhelmed by complexity. We live in a complex world. Countless bits of information are assaulting our senses at any given moment. I do not intend to suggest that a mere shift in perspective will wash away that reality. What I intend to say is that I believe that while many factors exist in any one problem or mission, only the simple ones really matter.

When I graduated from the fire academy I was assigned to the best company in the department. I was anxious to show off all my new skills but ten minutes into my first shift, the Captain let the air out of my sails. He said, “Kid, when I step off of the rig on a scene, I expect you to be in your gear, carrying your tools and stuck to me like glue. You’re only here to do what I tell you. Secondly, I expect you to know every item on that engine. If I send you for a tool and you open the wrong door, I’m going to jump in your ass with both feet! Understood?” That was his full welcome address. In a handful of sentences he had explained my entire job as well as the consequences for not doing it properly. I failed to see what a gift he’d given at the time. The minutiae still overwhelmed me. I had dishes to wash, knots to practice and manuals to memorize. I still wanted to be the best at every skill and know every facet of my profession from the rookie to the Chief. As my career wore on, I began to see that those things were far less important than fundamentals. Two decades later, I found myself giving my own welcome address to new arrivals to the same company. My points were a bit expanded but still distilled down to simple principles. Be physically fit, know your equipment, communicate, stay with your crew and so on.

 

The simple things are hard

When I was eleven I was hit by a pitch in a little league game and developed a fear of the ball. It grew with every at bat. Coaches, teammates and parents all gave me the same advice. “Just keep your eye on the ball!” It was a simple solution to my problem. Keeping my eye on the ball made sense. I’d done it before and was still able to do so…until I swung. Something forced my eyes to close every time I moved the bat. As my frustration and embarrassment grew, so did the batting slump. Insecurities and anxieties, totally unrelated to baseball, began to follow me into the batter’s box. Eventually I just stopped swinging and ended the summer going out on called strikes.

To say simple things are hard is not really the best way to put it. Keeping my eye on the ball was not hard. Keeping my mind clear enough to do it was. Perhaps saying that it is hard to maintain focus on simple things is more accurate. Our physical and mental health depend on the proper application of very simple things like adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise and socialization. All of them are simple on paper but we all occasionally find it difficult to adhere to them.

The term flow state is used today to describe the ability to connect with simplicity, but the concept is thousands of years old. We’ve long recognized the value of a focused mind and spirit but we’ve yet to create an easy pathway to it. Whether we are striving to bowl a 300 or attain a higher state of spiritual enlightenment we all seem to find it difficult to limit our attention to the fundamentals.

 

Most things are outside of my control

We had a few firehouse visits from people we’d rescued or treated over the years. The individuals and families were always grateful and effusive in their praise. One might think this was the most gratifying aspect of the job. After all, saving a life is the pinnacle of the profession, but it always felt awkward to me. It’s not that I wasn’t happy for a positive outcome or failed to appreciate the joy of people given the chance to spend more time with their loved ones. I just failed to see how I was responsible for any of it. In almost every case, my actions during the call in question were identical to the actions I’d taken on scores of other calls, with less favorable outcomes. In fact, in several of the cases, I know my own actions were riddled with errors, leaving me feeling like a phony as I posed for pictures with the survivors.

After a decade or two the calls all start to feel pretty similar. You train, you respond, you act in the most professional and competent manner possible and you go back to quarters. Some outcomes are joyful. Many outcomes are tragic. With few exceptions, I cannot say why the outcomes are what they are. I can go on to say that is equally true in other aspects of my life. My hard wok and good intentions are not enough to sway the variables of the universe. Simply put, I control precious little.

Before I take another step, let me say that this does not justify a nihilism. For me, this acceptance has actually helped to gain more from life, not less. Knowing how short the list of things I can control is allows me to worry far less and use my energy much more efficiently. I realize that much of my anxieties and efforts are going to waste and I winnow them down daily.

 

The things I can control are largely imperceptible to others

I had some great engineers (apparatus drivers) over the years.They were not great because they could recite all the hydraulic formulas or could tell the mechanics how to adjust the brakes. Their greatness was almost impossible to spot with an untrained eye. It was more about what they didn’t do than what they did. The great engineers didn’t make wrong turns because they studied the territory and listened to dispatch. They didn’t make you wait for water at a fire because they didn’t allow themselves to be distracted by the chaos around them. They didn’t have to explain missing equipment because they thoroughly inspected everything at shift change and after every call, Conversely, the lousy engineers had a habit of banging the wheel in frustration over poor drivers, skipping rig checks because they were busy looking over my morning journal and making me ask for water twice because they were off directing traffic. A bad engineer is easy to spot, whereas the best engineers are the ones you never notice.

Like them, things I can control are unglamorous and mundane. Physical fitness is a great example. I control my fitness in a mirrorless garage gym or on a desolate gravel road. The day of my fastest 5K or heaviest deadlift were not my fittest days. They were flashes of mild vanity at best and pointless wastes of effort at worst. I don’t regret chasing those PR’s, but I recognize they were superficial. My most noteworthy fitness accomplishments probably happened in some smoke filled hallway, backcountry trail or in a wrestling match with my son. Nobody noticed and nobody would have cared if they had.

I try to pick up my messes. I try to control my temper. I try to be tolerant. I do so because I know I have control over those things, but I doubt anyone would use “tidy, slow to anger or tolerant” to describe me. My efforts to overcome my flaws go unnoticed because they are internal. Only my failures to control them draw attention. Conversely, many of the things I once touted as positive qualities or personal accomplishments are really due to circumstances I did not fully create, Instead, my daily efforts to control the little things have occasionally placed me in a position to take advantage of blessings. If I get up on time, show up fit and knowledgeable and give my level best effort, I offer myself as a positive force. What others see and think about it are on the long list of things I never had control of anyway.

  

Perseverance is the ultimate virtue

My son called me from one of the tougher schools the military has to offer. He’d failed a critical evolution and was destined to run the entire greuling course again. He was crestfallen to say the least. He may have been a hard young man to the world, but he was my little boy. I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer and asked the only question I could think of. “What do you want to do?” He answered without hesitation, “I want to quit”. I certainly couldn’t blame him. He’d already done far more than I had while enlisted and had nothing to prove to his family. At the same time, I knew he’d called his dad first for a reason. “Can you quit tomorrow?”, I asked. He said that he could. “Good!”, I said. “You get some chow, sleep and tell the cadre you want to quit in the morning. I’m proud of you son!” He didn’t quit.

Less than a year after that exchange I was facing my own desire to quit. I’d agreed to a speaking engagement in front of thousands of people. As the date approached I was drowning in self-doubt and regretted taking it on. I told my wife I intended to back out. She was in her 10th year of fighting advanced breast cancer at the time and had long lost her patience for cowardice. She was blunt. “If you’re going to quit, you’d better do it now so they can replace you. But once you do, I don’t want to hear going on about how the kids or I need to keep fighting. Your credibility will be gone with us.” I didn’t quit.

I’m not saying quitting is unacceptable. Truth is, I’ve quit many times and am a better person for it. Bad relationships, bad careers, and bad investments all require us to be mature enough to quit at the proper time. It’s called discernment. What I am really referring to are moments in which our desire to walk away comes from a lack of resolve for what we know to be the right path. I’m referring to our ability to do something despite difficulty or delays in success. It’s called perseverance and it is, in my opinion, both the most important and most attainable of all virtues.

I don’t really have advice on how to persevere because it’s self-explanatory and requires no skill. One simply has to keep showing up. Doubt yourself? Show up. Missed an open shot? Show up again. Lost it all? Start over. You feel dumber, slower, less talented than your competition? Show up anyway because the hotshots might not have set their alarms that day. Like the things above, perseverance is not easy and it probably won’t draw a big crowd, but it is simple and it is totally under your control.

 

Conclusion

When I was a few years into my career, I became obsessed with gadgets. Helmet lights, gear straps, bail-out harnesses, and clever new tools weighed me down. I was like a walking tool box but over time, my pockets got lighter. If something didn’t hold up or failed to prove itself useful, it got dumped. The items that remained after 20 years were proven in battle. They were well worn and effective in pinch and my steps were lighter with the knowledge I was not wasting space or energy. That may have given the impression that I’d lost my enthusiasm, but I hadn’t. I’d simply learned how to direct my enthusiasm toward useful things.

What I’ve offered above may come off as a bit of a bummer. It’s certainly not rah-rah motivational material. The difference is though, these are things I truly believe in after nearly a half century of trial and error. The things I’ve learned are like the gadgets that made it to the end of my career. They may not look like much but they work for me and I trust them.

 

Joseph is a retired Fire Captain.

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