The ground is hard and unaccommodating beneath you. You roll over, trying to find a more comfortable position, but it makes no difference. There’s no getting around it—you are cold and stiff, and your entire body aches. With a sigh, you return to your back and look up at the stars. If only this were a camping trip, you could just pack up all your gear, spend the night in your car, and drive away tomorrow leaving this entire nightmare behind. But there’s no escape. You’re in the army and this is your life now.
Sounds pretty awful, right? It certainly can be, but guest writer Peter Ross shares how his army experience helped him become stronger, more independent, more reliable, and ultimately more suited for the workforce. Read on to learn what he discovered and see whether joining the military might be a smart move for your career.
During my twenties I was a bit of a drifter. I’d been to college, traveled, worked in bars, and was pretty much a big kid. I’d tried a couple of things that didn’t work out, so when I came back from Japan, my parents gave me the message that it was time to get myself sorted out.
I made a fairly hasty decision at 26 that completely changed my life and who I was: I joined the army. Let me tell you, it was no picnic, but the things I learned there gave me a completely new perspective on what I was capable of and about life itself. Below are the seven greatest lessons I learned about how to succeed in life from my six years there.
Lesson 1: How to make friends with discomfort
Being a soldier means living rough. When you’re out in the field you sleep on the ground, you don’t get to shower very often, the ration packs you eat taste like ass, you’re outside in the searing heat or freezing cold, and you have to just make the best of it.
Think about civilian life—air conditioners, comfy beds, whatever food you want being just a few minutes’ drive away. When you get used to living in discomfort in the army, suddenly all the things everyone complains about in the civilian world make you say “Huh?”
Learning to shrug your shoulders and do what you have to do while everyone else is whining makes you stand out for all the right reasons.
How to achieve it: Don’t chase after comfort all the time. Take cold showers once in a while, skip a meal and learn what hunger feels like, get out of your comfort zone.
Lesson 2: How to triumph over adversity
Everyone goes through some adversity at some point during the army. I had a few times where things were bad in my personal life and I was going through hell in the place I was posted at. Those times of adversity give you enormous courage and strength for the adversity that’s going to come in real life.
I know a few people that have had tragedy strike early on in their lives. When that happens, it’s like a sword being forged, except the hammer beating it comes down so hard it causes it to break. When that happens, you can spend years—decades even—trying to pick up the pieces. In the army, the constant adversity is like that hammer beating against the steel, making it harder and stronger. When the big hits from life come, you already have the emotional resilience to cope with them, so they aren’t such massive blows to you.
How to achieve it: Life isn’t meant to be perfect, and the more you shy away from pain, the worse it will be when the big hits from life come. Look at adversity as a necessary part of life and work to focus on the positive—even in the most negative situations.
Lesson 3: How to forget fear—and take pride in your accomplishments
Everyday life and moving up in the world can be a bit of a crapshoot. You try something, you fail. Maybe you try again. After a few times, though, many people give up and stay in a rut because it’s easier. Failure has become enough of a pattern that people get discouraged and don’t want to put themselves out there anymore.
From day one in the army, they are throwing tests at you, except they have staff that are invested in making sure you pass them. If you don’t, they get you back on that horse to try again and pass as quickly as possible. After three months at bootcamp, you’ve been tested and passed those tests so many times that you’re a different person. You walk with what many civilians perceive to be an air of arrogance because your confidence has grown exponentially with each test you’ve passed.
You look back at the end and wonder who the hell the person you used to be was. Tests and challenges aren’t scary anymore because you’ve passed so many of them. You feel as though nothing is beyond your reach. That is an extremely powerful feeling.
How to achieve it: Take small steps. When you want to accomplish things, take the smallest steps possible that you know you can succeed at to build your confidence. Soon enough you’ll be game to take on those bigger challenges!
Lesson 4: What it means to be truly grateful
Want to know one of the big secrets to success? It’s gratitude. Tony Robbins says, “If you want to change your life, change your thinking from expectation to appreciation.” People don’t like entitled people, because they whine and have a chip on their shoulder.
When you have to sleep on the ground, eat terrible food, and work in temperatures that would have everyone else running to cool off in the air conditioning, you learn to really appreciate the comforts of life. When you’ve had to drink water from a canteen hot enough that you could bathe in it, you thank the universe when you get something cold.
I remember when I first came home from recruit training and how much I appreciated not having to scramble out of bed, and the fact that I could just take a nice leisurely shower and take as long as I wanted. When you have gratitude you are happy and positive, and people want to be around you.
How to achieve it: Every time you’re about to complain about something, stop yourself and take a moment to reflect. From the outside, is the situation really as bad as it feels to you in that moment? Doing this on a regular basis will help you to be thankful for everything you have in your life, and maintain a mentality of abundance.
Lesson 5: How to be good at everything
Specialists make huge money, it’s true. In the army (in Australia, anyway), no matter what your trade was, you also had to be able to do anything else that popped up. If it was something you didn’t know, you’d often be given a “soldier’s five,” which means a quick five-minute explanation of the equipment or task before you had to step in and do it. This meant you had to learn things on the fly and get the task done. There was no such thing as “I can’t do this.” You just had to work your way through it.
By the time you get out of the army, you feel that there isn’t much you can’t do. Sure, you wouldn’t be able to start programming at Facebook if you’d never learned a line of code beforehand, but you wouldn’t be afraid to take a shot at most things that would seem daunting for others. Manage the company for a day? Sure, why not? Talk to this guy about why we won’t pay him X amount of settlement? No problem. Job descriptions are not set in stone—especially when you realize you can do anything that you set your mind to.
How to achieve it: Challenge yourself! Learn as many different skills as you can in as many different fields. If you’re really enthusiastic about expanding your skill set, look into online classes or workshops happening in your neighborhood.
Lesson 6: How to take responsibility
In the army, you have people relying on you all the time. And you’re relying on them. When people don’t do their jobs correctly, others get killed.
In the business world, you’ll often be expected to print off every interaction, to account for absolutely everything, and to constantly follow up with people to make sure they’ve done something.
In the army, you never have to do that. If someone has a task, they’ll do it, just as you will because you all know the consequences if you don’t. It isn’t just about the fact that your brothers and sisters that you work with might get killed, it’s the fact that you wouldn’t ever want to be responsible or bear that guilt for it happening. So you do your job and you become someone that people can rely on. When someone says, “Can you do this for me?” and you say “Yes,” they don’t have to ask a second time. In a world where everyone will try to shirk responsibility, it’s a big deal when you can be relied upon to get things done.
How to achieve it: Keep your word. If you say you’ll do something for someone, do it. Trust takes a long time to earn and can be dashed in a heartbeat.
Lesson 7: What it feels like to be held to great expectations
In the army I was at times in charge of intelligence monitoring of a 1.5 million square kilometer area. I was responsible for expensive equipment. I was responsible for upholding a security clearance. I was responsible for so many huge things.
In the day-to-day world, what are most people responsible for? Getting their work done in eight hours, not making big mistakes, being nice to people, and so on.
The kind of responsibility thrust upon you in the army brings your maturity and ability to cope up to another level. When I had been in the army a while and caught up with old friends, they suddenly seemed incredibly immature to me and stuck in the same rut that they had been in before. They hadn’t grown at all. They may have been earning more money than I was or living a more comfortable life, but they hadn’t had the same opportunity to grow that I’d just had in the army. This is the kind of opportunity that makes people want you for management positions when you’ve barely been in a company a few months.
How to achieve it: Never shy away from a challenge. Even if it seems like you’re biting off more than you can chew, just chew like crazy. If you need help, ask. Just don’t say no to the challenge because you’re scared.
Homework time! Think you might want to learn some of these lessons for yourself? Before you sign up for the army (or any other branch of the military), treat it the same way as any other type of job search. Find alumni or personal connections to interview about their experiences. Learn about some of the different departments or jobs you could have and what your day-to-day life would be like (both during bootcamp/basic training and after).
Peter Ross is the owner of Grass Roots Success and author of School’s Over… Now What? The No BS Guide to Finding the Right Career for You. A former army signals intelligence specialist with a Master’s degree in intelligence and counter terrorism, Peter is focused on helping high school and college students to make the right career decisions early on to have the life they want.