As some of you know, I spent a couple years in the U.S. Air Force before going to university. I learned a lot of things about leadership and time management there, the latter out of sheer necessity (I was actually taking classes full time at community college at the same time as working 12 hours a day). There is a lot of nonsense in the military that I could have done just as well not going through. But there was also something very valuable. The three Air Force Core Values. Those values are:
Service Before Self;
And Excellence In All We Do.
You’re in luck: you don’t need to go spend time in the military, possibly getting shot at by angry people, to benefit from these core values. We can all choose to adopt them, whether we’re military or not.
In the Air Force, they make a big deal about honesty, but not just any old honesty. They want proactive honesty. Regular honesty just means, if someone asks you if you screwed up, you say yes. Proactive honesty means, if you screw up, you tell whoever you need to tell, and make sure it gets fixed. And that, proactive honesty, is integrity.
I was a Weather Forecaster while I was enlisted. If I messed up a forecast, even if I could justify it with some clever use of loopholes (believe it or not, there are specific guidelines for determining precisely when a forecast is officially “screwed up”), it was better for all parties concerned if I would amend it anyway. Absolute worst case scenario, a messed up forecast could make a pilot crash. But even if everything went rosy and no problems came about because of the missed forecast, I’d still feel worse about myself, knowing I hadn’t given it my all.
As a matter of fact, there was a long period when I was doing as little work as possible. I was using every loophole I could. I still remember one trick: any time winds are light, always forecast them to be 9KT. That way your forecast isn’t “out of category” (ie “messed up”) unless the winds hit 19KT. Forecast calm wind and your forecast goes out of category when the wind hits 10KT! (Why 9KT instead of 10KT? If you forecast 10KT and the wind actually was calm, you’d go out of category…) Well, using this trick, I had less forecasts officially out of category, but at the same time it had a cynicalizing impact on me. Over time, I began to become extremely miserable at work. “I could program a computer to do this!” (and I could have, and I even did program TCL scripts to do certain parts of my job).
I felt like my time was being wasted, that I’d made a big mistake going into that career field, but the more I resisted it, the more downhill things looked. I hit rock bottom after a week of training to take phonecalls from pilots mid-flight. They threw a ceremony to give us training certificates, and I forgot to salute the colonel handing them out. Big no-no’s in military circles, and it cranked the heat up on me all along the chain of command, when I was already in pretty shaky standing.
I made a decision shortly thereafter, to return my focus to the blessings and good things in my life instead of dwelling cynically on how “messed up” the squadron and career path in general were. (And, objectively speaking, military weather forecasting really is pretty screwed up, but that’s not the point.)
With that decision, I also started putting a little more heart into my work, and like magic things started falling into place. A few days later I got word that my application for early release had been accepted (Congress was forcing the Air Force to downsize, so I volunteered; I’d volunteered once before and been rejected). As soon as I stopped resisting, and turned integrity back on, suddenly I had learned the lesson that I was meant to learn in that situation, and the path to my next adventure was revealed.
The thing about integrity is it usually takes a lot of courage. It takes unconditional acceptance of one’s own self, because otherwise there’s too much fear of “losing face” when one admits a mistake. But like anything, it becomes easier with practice, especially when you experience first hand just how painless it actually is. Like a high diving board, the fear of admitting a mistake is mostly illusionary. Make one dive, and the rest are easier.
SERVICE BEFORE SELF
Service before self is something I’m working on right now in my own life. This blog is part of that, I want to provide value to people through writing. The thing about value and service is, I usually find, it’s reciprocal. In other words, when I give value to other people, it shines back at me like a mirror. A win-win situation. If I try to take value from people, my own value plummets like a rock.
Service before self doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a Mother Theresa type. In fact, sometimes it’s the exact opposite. The best way I can explain this is with an example. I was in the car with some friends, and we were discussing where we should go eat. And it was one of those “I dunno, where do you wanna go?” “I dunno, where do you wanna go?” battles. No one wanted to take the initiative and lead the group. So I blurted out where I wanted to go, not caring whether that was somewhere everyone else wanted to go. And of course, that’s the best, most serviceful thing I could’ve done in a situation like that.
Of the many services you can perform, one of them is good leadership. If you’re a good leader, then by asking others for service, you are actually providing them a service, like in the “I dunno, where do you wanna go?” example. This is especially important for guys in relationships. If a guy is all like “ummm where would you like to go tonight”, all the time, that’s a turn-off.
I find that just by consciously deciding, ok, I want to create value for people by writing on the internet, just that thought alone somehow opens floodgates of creativity for me. When I first started the Glowing Face Man Blog, I was surprised how tough it was to write. I had no motivation at all. That was before I had started looking into how I could create value. Now that I’ve decided I want to create value, writing these articles has become easy. I don’t even think of myself as being the most well-travelled or well-read guy, yet now I keep realizing just how much value there is in various experiences which I’d totally written off before (like, e.g., my Air Force experiences).
It’s taken a long time for me to really realize and appreciate it, but one perfect example of service before self, was my mother. Leaving college to take care of first one, then two, then three, then four kids, now that’s Service Before Self. I disagree with a lot of things my mother taught me. Well I may as well come out and say it, there’s very little we agree on at all. But I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if I’d been neglected by her.
EXCELLENCE IN ALL WE DO
The core value of Excellence In All We Do kind of ties the previous two together. It’s hard to do an excellent job of something if I’m not totally honest about it. So integrity is tied into excellence. And I’ve never had much success with anything unless I did it selflessly. That’s where service before self comes in. Excellence In All We Do pushes it to the next level. It’s a conscious decision not to settle for mediocrity, or “good enough”, but to strive to do better.
Excellence is important for the warfighter, because you can bet the farm the enemy’s also going to be striving for excellence in all they do, so it’s literally life and death. But it’s just as important outside the military. Before I die, I’ll look back on the things I’ve done, and if I didn’t do them excellently, then I may as well have not done them at all, which would mean I may as well just die now. It’s not as literally life and death as it is for the warfighter, but it’s still life and death in a more symbolic way.
Excellence In All We Do, does not mean striving or tryyyying harder. Putting unnecessary effort into something is, well, unnecessary. The Air Force leadership really likes to emphasize the idea of minimal force. Minimal force means getting the job done with as little as necessary. That doesn’t mean half-assing it, of course. It means coming up with the elegant solution instead of the brute force solution.
But how does one even come up with the elegant solution? Certainly not by sitting there with forehead scrunched up trying to come up with it. If you’re a multibillion dollar branch of the Department of Defense, you could contract it out to thousands of scientists, but that’s really just a bigger version of the scrunched up forehead. For individuals, I think you just have to consciously choose excellence, and then wait for the elegant solution to come. Maybe it’ll take years, or maybe not come at all, but I think when you choose excellence, the mind becomes more receptive to elegant solutions which it might otherwise glance over.
The “Fourth Core Value”– Situational Awareness
In basic training and tech school, the drill sergeants and blue ropes talk about a fourth core value, “Situational Awareness”. This fourth, “secret” core value isn’t officially one of the core values at all, they just bring it up in the training environment because a lack of situational awareness spells pain in boot camp, an environment absolutely full of opportunities to screw up. Nonetheless, situational awareness is still a useful core value outside of military training environments. It sort of corresponds to the concept of “presence”.
Presence is the state of being in the present, in the here-and-now. Being present means being aware of everything that’s going on, both in the environment and also inside one’s own self. Consider the difference between a man who gets angry and goes berserk, vs. a man who gets angry and observes “I’m angry right now”. The second man is the more present one.
I’ve been working on improving my own presence. There are a lot of advantages to being present. With true presence comes a deep joy. You’ve probably experienced this, maybe while taking a walk you suddenly just became “aware” of the trees and grass and people all around, and felt inexplicably happy. Or I dunno, maybe you haven’t, but I hope you’ll experience it often. In any case, that’s presence.
Of course, the Air Force drill instructors are looking at it at a much more pragmatic, less spiritual level. And that’s fine, too. I’m a very spiritual guy, and that tends to color how I interpret things.
Blending the three core values together, as well as the fourth “extra” core value, they all strengthen and enhance eachother.
But don’t limit yourself to three or four core values chosen by a bunch of plane-flying wingnuts. One of the advantages of a systems of core values is that one becomes a stronger figure, with a more solid hold on one’s reality, just by having core values. A lot of people walking around don’t really have any strong, sincere core values. They probably have some default values, chosen for them by society and school and church, but a man with his own passionate core values is a rare and powerful man. Whether you feel these Air Force originated core values resonate with you or not, I hope my article will at least get you thinking about what are your own core values.