3 things I learned from the military
On life, leadership, and relationships — in a nutshell
At the end of freshman year many people asked me how my first year in college went — how my experience was, whether I felt like I grew — and I always felt weird answering that question even though I didn’t really know why I felt weird.
Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I realized the reason was because the growth I’ve experienced didn’t feel visceral enough for it to feel substantial. That is, compared to what I learned in the 2 years prior when I served in the Singapore army, the growth I experienced from college (so far) simply didn’t feel internal enough because it simply didn’t match the level of depth that going through crap in the army made me grow by.
And so, here’s 3 things that I learned from the military, which, in retrospect, was a profoundly transformative period of my life that reshaped my perspectives on a lot of things in powerful ways.
1. “Suck thumb”
Life is not designed to maximize my pleasure. And this seems so trite, so obvious, but it was something I only really internalized through Basic Military Training, thanks to my Platoon Commander.
On the first day of enlistment, He told us to “suck thumb” — to suck it up, because we couldn’t control the fact that we were born in where we were, we couldn’t control the fact that we were male and so, the only thing we really could control was how we responded to the situation — and we could choose to make the most out of it
And this was such a powerful lesson because it’s something that continues to anchor me up till this day: the fact that there are certain immutabilities in life that we are powerless to change, the fact that the best life is the sum total of the choices we make within these immutabilities.
What going through military service really did for me was reshape my perspective on leadership.
Prior to enlistment, I had a pretty dim view of leadership, because my experiences with leaders up till that point was a lot of inflated egos, credit-mongering, and little, actual impactful work done.
I thought people who became leaders did so for the prestige, or to satisfy their own egos, and I never saw the point of leadership because I didn’t see why any group needed a leader when most of the work was done by the rest of us anyway.
seeing as in the groups that I’ve been in, the rest of us were the ones doing most of the work.
All this changed in the army though, when I went through Infantry Officer Cadet School (OCS). In a nutshell, OCS taught me that a leader must be the keeper of a team’s vision, because infantry is tough, and at 3 in the morning, with 60 pounds on our backs 2 miles into a 20-mile march, it was the leader — the Platoon Commander — that needed to be the source of motivation and strength keeping everyone locked in and on course towards our objective.
Drawing a parallel to civilian life, the road to success is seldom easy, and in the starless nights it is the leader who must be the captain of his ship, fixing his gaze unwavering upon the slim glint of light from the faraway lighthouse — his vision — to guide his crew through the stormy seas of strife.
This one isn’t strictly related to the army per say, but between spending 5 days a week in camp and college applications on the weekend at one point in time, there was a period of time when I barely saw the friends I’ve been seeing regularly since middle school.
And we started to drift — obviously — because my absence when everybody else was still meeting up regularly started my life on a tangent different from theirs’, and that was sad, because it wasn’t something I had intended, and I still really treasured the relationships that I had with these people.
Thankfully, in this case, I noticed it happening and made a conscious effort to right things, but I learned through the experience that relationships needed to be conscious. Relationships are investments, and if I don’t put in the time and effort for them — because I’m too busy with school-work, perhaps, or because it’s not a priority for me — then I have nobody to blame but myself if these relationships wither away.
Don’t get me wrong, though, college is awesome, and I learned so much in the past year about things that I barely knew about before. But the key difference between these lessons and the ones I learned from military service, in my opinion, is that the former is skills-based, while the latter is more internal and perspective-shifting. That’s not to say that it’s always going to be this way, because I’m only a year into college and I’ve already learned so much, I can only look forward to the growth and the learning I’d have the privilege to experience in the many years to come.
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