This is part 7 in the series: RESILIENCE

Practice and preparation

So how do we get to become another Greatest Generation? Practice and preparation. Most people like to talk about the theory, but nobody really wants to do the hard work. The organization in our country does a better job in practice and preparation than anyone else is the U.S. Military.

Let me tell you a story. I was working with a Vietnam era vet, this was around 2005, and I was talking with him, and his wife is there. Here’s how our conversation went:

Me: “Just out of curiosity, you were a combat veteran in Vietnam, how many tours of duty did you do?”

Vet: “Three, and they were about a year a piece.”

So, he was in combat for a long time. Which is very, very unusual.

Me: “Why did you keep volunteering?”

Vet: “I don’t know. I felt like I should do it.”

Me: “What was your service weapon?”

Vet: “It was an M16.”

Me: “When was the last time you touched an M16?”

Vet: “1975 when I left the field. I put it on the rack in the chopper and never picked it up when we landed back at the base. I haven’t touched one since.”

Then I asked him what must have sounded like a silly question…

Me: “If I was to give you a M16 today, could you field strip it?”

Vet: “Oh yeah, absolutely, with my eyes closed. No problem.”

His wife looked at him and she said, “No you couldn’t. What are you talking about?”

It was good to have her there. (Makes for a better story too.)

Me: “How are you so sure?”

Vet: “The reason is, it’s a fairly delicate machine in terms of the way it works. It recycles the gas from the explosion to drive the hammer back for the next shot. It was a dirty, humid environment and the rifles would foul all the time. In order to keep it in good working order, we would have to field strip it, about twelve times a day, just to keep it going. Because I didn’t want to be dead.”

Twelve times every day, 365 times, for approximately 3 years. He had field stripped his service weapon probably 10,000 to 15,000 times. That many rehearsals, over and over again, made it possible that he remembered how to do it having not touched one for 30 years.

Vet: “Yeah, I could probably do it with mittens on. It’s so ingrained.”

I don’t think his wife believes him to this day.

What we know is that in times of stress the ability to perform decreases.

Why does the military drill their people to do these tasks over and over and over again?  Because it becomes second nature. Why is that so important that it becomes nature? So there’s no hesitation. Their life depends on it. What we know is that in times of stress the ability to perform decreases. In those moments, what people revert to are habitual behavior, over-learned and over-rehearsed behavior. Field stripping a rifle 10-15,000 times becomes a habit, not a thought-intensive act.

Maybe you aren’t a combat veteran. Maybe you took piano lessons as a kid. Do you remember your piano teacher saying, “Hey, just as soon as you get through it the first time, that’s probably good enough for the recital.”

No! It’s never that way. Your piano teacher made you rehearse to the point of completion and then over-rehearse so that when you are under the stress of the recital, you are still able to perform out of habit. What we have is a culture that does not value over-rehearsal. “I’ve got it. I’ve got it. Been there. Done that. Doing it tomorrow. Got it. I don’t need to over-rehearse. It’s boring.”

Excellence requires not just rehearsal, but over-rehearsal so that it becomes habit. If you want to prepare for adversity, if you want a company that will bounce back from adversity, it requires that you experience adversity until you can respond well without thinking. Which nobody likes.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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