the learning never stops!

Do the Work in Front of You (1985)

Stories / The Rules

"The Rules" are twenty-six ideas I've collected over the years that seemed relevant enough to life in general that I've written each down with a short story to reinforce each in particular. This is Rule Number Twenty-Three.

When you don't know what to do, do the work in front of you.


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Photo: Admiral William McRaven, commencement speech to the University of Texas, May 17, 2014

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The following are excerpts form the remarks by Navy Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, at the Commencement at The University of Texas at Austin, May 7, 2014.

I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left UT for Basic SEAL training in Coronado, California. Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL.

But, the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships. To me basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months.

So, here are the 10 lessons I learned from basic SEAL training that hopefully will be of value to you as you move forward in life.

Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack — that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

To hear the rest of Admiral McRaven's ten lessons, see: Admiral McRaven Commencement.

If Only There Were More Time!

It is a common refrain these days: "If only I had more time!" I say refrain because it is no longer a complaint. I look back to the days when I used it as a complaint and wonder what I must have been thinking. The refrain changed from complaint to comment in 1986. That was one year after I learned the art of doing the work that was in front of me.

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Photo: Captain's insignia

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I became an Air Force second lieutenant in 1978. I earned my pilot's wings in 1979. I became a KC-135A copilot in 1980. I was promoted to first lieutenant in 1981. I became a Boeing 707 copilot flying out of Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii in 1982. In 1983, I was promoted to captain. I upgraded to left seat and became what the Air Force calls an aircraft commander in 1984. In 1985 I graduated from the Air Force Flight Safety Officer Course. It seemed that I was geared to accomplishing one one thing a year. But then I got a call from the Air Force Test Pilot School.

"We have been reviewing your records and want you to apply," the colonel on the phone said. "I see you just made captain and that's good. But we need you to do a few more things so you don't appear to be so young. If you could attend Squadron Officer's School that would be great. And you need to get your master's degree. It wouldn't hurt to upgrade to instructor pilot too. And come up with one more thing to ice it."

"Is that all?" I asked.

"Yeah, that should do it," he said.

My first thought was, how am I going to do all that? My second thought was that going to Squadron Officer's School was outside my control, our squadron hardly ever sent anyone. Well, I didn't want to go to test pilot school anyway.

That night I settled into my usual routine: dinner, a beer or two, some television, and a good book. After television I looked at the latest novel I had been reading and thought, "Am I really going to waste the rest of my life doing this?" My decision was made.

"You really want to go to SOS?" The squadron commander looked at me suspiciously. "I thought you were a future airline pilot. You know SOS carries a two year commitment?"

I knew that, of course. But my commitment from pilot training ran concurrently. "Yes sir," I said. A month later I was at SOS and three months later I was an SOS graduate. (Read more about those three months: Risk / SOS.)

Three months. Three months and all I had to show for it was a lousy diploma. SOS ended up being easy and I ended up goofing off most of the time. I looked at the diploma and wished I had been more productive. Maybe one less night a week at the bar. Perhaps fewer hours in the hours-long BS sessions. Or maybe less rack time.

So, it seemed, 1985 would be the year I got SOS under my belt. But it was still only May. "You can get Air Command and Staff College done by correspondence if you are looking for something to do," the squadron commander said. Ah, the "one more thing," I thought. I signed up. I got my books and started a new routine when getting home: dinner, ACSC.

But didn't I need a master's degree too? The University of Oklahoma had an extension course on base where a visiting professor would spend a week each month to teach. The course required three weeks of lessons prior to that week, so each course was a month long. After fifteen months, you would have a master of science in economics. For every ten students that started, only one would finish. I enrolled.

Of course there was my real job to contend with. I was the Hickam Air Force Base Flight Safety Officer while flying as a guest aircraft commander for the squadron. The safety officer job didn't take more than an average of five hours a day and flying for the squadron meant a trip or two a month. After each day I would come home and look at the pile of books on my desk and dive in. We didn't have any kids and The Lovely Mrs. Haskel was in school so we became two book worms sharing a house.

All was going according to plan until an F-16 fighter crashed on an instrument approach in Japan and a week later an F-15 did the same thing in Korea. The Pacific Air Force decided every base needed a pilot to attend the Air Force instrument instructor school and if they had an engineer pilot, that pilot had to go. So off I went. (Read more about the Air Force Instrument Instructor Course: 60 to 1.)

While I was at instrument instructor school I brought my economics and ACSC texts. My classmates thought I was crazy and there were times I was tempted to agree. I would always look at the pile of books and papers and wonder what had to be done the next day and start there. Once that was done, I simply picked up whatever was next. And I made that next. Instrument Instructor school was difficult. For most students it was the math. For me it was all the memorization. I didn't ace many of the tests and that was frustrating. I thought I should have done much better, but still my pile of books beckoned. I decided my "do the work in front of you" philosophy was valid, but I needed to prioritize.

Two months later I was back, an instrument instructor. The year, it turned out, wasn't limited to just one accomplishment. I managed to finish ACSC and my master's degree the next year. I got the call from Test Pilot School the same time I got the call from a Boeing 747 squadron. It was the airplane of my dreams. The rest, as they say, is history.

Years later, while flying Gulfstreams for the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, I came up for promotion to lieutenant colonel. There were ten of us majors all competing for just three slots. Many of the majors were trying to decide where to focus their efforts, getting ACSC or their master's degrees. "Which are you doing for," some asked. "I already have both," I said. "When did you find time for that?" they asked. "Seven years ago," I said. "Lucky," they said.

Lucky indeed.

That luck has been a recurring theme. Every now and then I drop something and relearn the value of turning projects down. But through it all I've discovered I can usually do one thing more than I thought I could. It's just a matter of never failing to look at the work in front of you, and doing the next thing.

Revision: 20180916
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