How to Handle New Career Situations with Ingenuity & Imagination

5 powerful lessons taken from a World War II survival guide.

black and white image of a sinking battleship
black and white image of a sinking battleship
Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Before his passing in 2017, I recall many occasions when my dad would share the events and feelings that came over him when he learned of the tragedy at Pearl Harbor. My dad, even at that young age, was an expert at looking up into the sky and being able to identify the U.S. fighter planes soaring overhead. He knew their sounds, where they were heading, and at the tender age of seven, was fully engulfed in this World War from his little town. My dad later went on to serve in the U.S. military and dedicated many years of his life in service of his country.

As a result of my dad’s stories and vivid memories, I grew to love the history of World War II, and so deeply appreciate the sacrifices of those whose lives were lost.

On a recent trip between Utah and Nevada, our family stopped at the Wendover Air Force Base Museum to take in some of the wartime history at the historic airport. The base was used during World War II to train B-17 and B-24 bomber crews and as another fascinating nugget of history:

It was the training site of the 509th Composite Group, the B-29 unit that carried out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Source

While at the Museum, I came across a survival manual that was in print during the war. This manual would have been handed to military personnel as they entered frontline service and embarked into treacherous territory. It outlined what to do in the jungle, desert, arctic, and ocean terrains should you be stranded there without help. I can’t even begin to imagine the fortitude and strength it must have taken to do what they did. Within the first few pages of the manual, a particular paragraph caught my attention:

From the introduction page (as seen in the image above), it read:

“No attempt has been made in this booklet to provide a complete and comprehensive guide to permanent bliss in the Arctic, the Desert, the Jungle, or the Ocean. Rather it is a brief and concise resume of suggestions which will materially aid you in the event of an emergency landing. The suggestions presented should be coupled with imagination, ingenuity, common sense, and the natural instinct of self-preservation the result being no reason why you can’t beat any terrain or climate.”

I couldn’t help but get choked up as I pictured someone having to open this booklet for the first time, stranded in the jungle, and trying to survive. How hard it must have been to flip through the pages and desperately look for what to do if you found yourself all alone in the ocean with a sunken airplane.

Oh, the strength and resilience it must have taken!

But in that introduction, a line stood out and spoke to me as the means by which we can tackle anything difficult: “The result being no reason why you can’t beat any terrain or climate.”

  • What about our careers?
  • What about the difficult situations, the challenging terrains, and climates of a new job?
  • Where’s the survival manual when we’re just getting started?

I believe the U.S. military knew this when they handed out this book. They knew people would have to improvise. They knew people would have to think outside the box and get creative. They knew survival instinct would kick in. They also knew that sadly, some might not make it through.

I believe the introduction paragraph to this manual contains five amazing lessons for tackling any new terrain or climate, including a new job, a new role, a new challenge, new goals, and new outlooks on an improved life.

Lesson 1:

There’s no guarantee of permanent bliss

There won’t be a survival manual when we start a new job. There will be books, lessons, podcasts, tutorials, YouTube videos, universities, bootcamps, mentors, onboarding, and the scrappy, gritty work we do to gain experience, but it is nearly impossible to account for all situations and circumstances. There won’t be a survival guide for dealing with the office jerk or the toxic manager.

To promise permanent bliss in any role just isn’t possible.

That’s not to say we can’t survive, that we can’t have fun along the way, that we can’t enjoy some bliss. That’s on us. We have to dig in, we have to apply common sense, we have to be the physical representation of all those things we’ve learned, we have to bring it each day, show up, and face what’s in front of us. But don’t come into it expecting guarantees. There will be a day when you’ll want to leave your job — and sometimes maybe that’s the best decision for you — but permanent bliss is not a guarantee.

Lesson 2:

Couple what you know with imagination

This is precisely why we need you. It is through the process of imagination that new ideas are formed. We need you in the workforce to help navigate through complex problems and participate as a resourceful contributor. Dreams lead to invention, thoughts provoke creativity, and imagination gives way to impactful change.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” — Albert Einstein

If you struggle to tap into your imagination, look for ways to enjoy the downtime. Be adventurous. Go on walks and try new foods. Talk to interesting people and read new books. And when all else fails…play. Yes, play. We’ve all forgotten what it means to throw on a cape and run around the living room pretending the floor is lava. Couple what you already know with imagination.

Lesson 3:

Couple what you know with ingenuity & common sense

Imagination and ingenuity go hand in hand. Using our ingenuity means we can take knowledge and imagination and find clever ways to solve hairy problems. Think about the Egyptian pyramids. What about Steve Jobs and the iPhone. What about getting clean water to people all around the globe. The challenges of the past and those that face us in the future required and will continue to require ingenuity and common sense.

“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.” — Steve Jobs

The Williams Martini Racing F1 team came up with 5 ways you can develop your ingenuity and they are as follows:

  • Connect your passion to a purpose
  • Obsess about the small stuff
  • Seek solutions in unusual places
  • Continuously push the boundaries
  • Overcome the fear of failure

Lesson 4:

Couple what you know with your natural instinct of self-preservation

When given to soldiers during World War II, the message of self-preservation and keeping oneself safe & alive made perfect sense. But in the context of daily work, what exactly is meant by our natural instinct of self-preservation? A short answer would be to evaluate your psychological safety. Are you in a situation where you’re not safe to be the real you? Are you able to contribute to the team without fear of looking stupid or being rejected?

If so, that’s not good.

Your ability to be creative and openly share your thoughts will suffer, not to mention the toll it will take on you mentally, physically, and emotionally. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School and long time advocate for psychological safety offers this advice:

“It’s so much better to be in a workplace where you can be your real self, and contribute; contribute to the work in a meaningful way.” — Amy Edmondson

Self-preservation is about knowing your limits, too. Don’t do work that is unethical or goes against your moral standards. Don’t work so hard that the stress causes burnout. Keep yourself safe out there!

Lesson 5:

There’s no reason why you can’t beat any terrain or climate

We all want to feel like what we’re doing is important. We want to know we’re working well as a team and contributing great work to the world. We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and know we made a difference. In essence, we want the rallying words of Winston Churchill during World War II to ring loud and true in our work and have others say about us:

“This was their finest hour.” — Winston Churchill

Having a plane shot down over the desert, jungle, arctic, or ocean meant soldiers had to do everything to “beat” the terrain or climate. They had to survive. In the context of your career, beating the terrain or climate of work might not be the most appropriate word, but there’s still a need we all have to succeed at what we do — and you can. Find the reasons why you’re not experiencing success or happiness and work on them.

When you start on your next journey, there won’t be a complete manual to answer everything. You’ll have what you know and you’ll need to add imagination, creativity, scrappiness, grit, and an insatiable desire to do good work for the world. As you do, you, like these soldiers who fought so hard for our freedoms, will have the tenacity and wherewithal to survive any terrain or climate in the professional world.

(aka Uncle Mikey) How do others experience you? I help amplify people and products through human-centered design. 20+ years in design, e-com, sales, and UX.

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By Mike W. Curtis

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Helping businesses & individuals apply their UX skills to how they’re experienced by other people. 20 years experience in design, UX, marketing, e-commerce & sales.

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