March 30, 2020
By Tom Beckstrand
Take a second and google “The four SOF truths.” You might find a history lesson on where they came from and that recently we found the lost fifth truth. What matters for most of us are the application, understanding, and adoption of the first truth: “Humans are more important than hardware.”
This principle applies to anyone preparing themselves for the uncertainties that life has to offer. It’s good to have adequate stores of vital goods and materials, but it’s more important to invest in preparing the person. Preparation of the person, their attitudes, resilience, and abilities will be the deciding factor in what carries us through a crisis.
A couple years ago I was watching a TV show on preppers where a wealthy property owner and his family had teamed up with another man’s family of limited means. The two men were conducting rehearsals of potential catastrophes as part of their training plan. During the exercise, both men were in a hunting blind conducting marksmanship training when the less wealthy man shot his rifle with the muzzle inside the structure. The noise was evidently more than the property owner could bear as he dropped his rifle, terminated the exercise, and banished the other man from his camp. He also broke down crying. I remember thinking “that is a fragile man.”
We can have all the means in the world, but if we fail to condition our minds to the uncertainties and difficulties of a crisis, we should also expect to fail. There are a number of mental aspects to consider but we’ll focus on the most basic and general: mental toughness. Toughness has nothing to do with being mean, it is simply our ability to persist in the face of resistance. While basic, it is the foundation upon which we must build. Without it, we probably won’t be in a position to take advantage of the rest of our preparations.
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
Many years ago I was attending the Special Forces Qualification Course. We had a panel of guest instructors visiting when the conversation turned to investing in human capital, namely ourselves. One of the instructors was a Sport’s Psychologist of some renown who had worked for a couple of major league baseball teams and one team in the NFL.
His comments have always stuck with me. He said: “Confidence in your abilities is key. It will carry you through a crisis. Confidence gained through self-help books will ultimately fail when you need it most. The kind of confidence you must have can only come through blood and sweat and tears. You have to work for it and you have earn it.”
The kind of confidence we need for the types of crises we face is that we’re strong enough to handle the challenges placed before us. We need to learn that if we persist, even when the odds seem insurmountable, we can and will conquer. This is a learned behavior.
Special Operations Forces evaluate how well candidates understand and apply this concept by using a test that’s so basic it’s almost laughable. They ask the hopefuls to walk long distances with heavy weight on their backs, often with time standards that are difficult to meet. The test is both painful and exhausting. It is also a daily experience and frequently occurs at night.
The test is brilliant in its simplicity. It isolates each man so that he can only look within for encouragement. If he is marginally committed, he’ll quit when no one is looking. The test also requires each man spend hours alone doing something that is physically painful, often at night when he’s tired. Heavy weight on the back (especially with a poorly designed pack like the issued ALICE model) becomes painful immediately. Spending hours alone with our pain either conditions or breaks the mind. What makes this type of test even more difficult is that all we need to do to make the pain stop is sit down. This is a passive means of quitting.
Carrying heavy weight for long distances while hurrying is an excellent way to condition our mind. We learn that even though we are in pain, we can continue to put one foot in front of the other. No one single step is ever enough to break a man. It’s only when he begins to think that he’ll never make it to his point on time or that he hurts too much to continue that he quits. If he focuses on putting one foot in front of the other (quickly), he’ll often be successful. It’s a metaphor for the challenges that lie ahead should he enter the special operations community.
Although some time under a heavy pack is an ideal way to condition the mind, we’re not all at a point in our lives where that is possible. Time and injuries take their toll and rob us of our strength. It doesn’t have to be a heavy pack that forces us to work through pain. Sometimes life serves up all the pain we could ask for. Any challenge can teach us persistence. Weight loss is a good place to start if we’re carrying a little extra. It requires us to focus our efforts every day to see the results we want and need. Job loss and family problems can also be painful and linger for months and years. These can either challenge and condition us, or crush us. The choice is ours.
Crises that all of us can expect to see in our lifetimes can be handled by “putting one foot in front of the other.” While the Spec Ops method of testing and conditioning the mind is brutally simple, it has universal application across a wide variety of circumstances. Less physically intensive but equally painful everyday challenges can also teach this principle. Lying down and dying is its antithesis.
When calamity finds us we can be overcome by the immensity of the challenges that lie ahead, or we can focus on the tasks at hand that require our attention and then execute them vigorously. We probably won’t have “practice calamities” to prepare ourselves, so we should take a page from the Spec Ops playbook and spend some time alone with our pain, preferably by choice. If you can, get a good backpack, make it heavy, and spend 1-2 hours a day a couple times a week walking fast with no breaks. It’ll start to condition your mind. Keep going until you can do it for 12 hours at a time.
THE WILL TO WIN
Another key component to having a successful mindset is cultivating the will to win. Quitting is a disease that, once caught, can permeate into every aspect of our lives. If we make it a habit to quit things we don’t like or that we find uncomfortable, we’re training ourselves to be quitters at everything. It becomes habitual.
Some personality types are more accepting of the competitive drive that pushes individuals to refuse to quit, but most of us have some degree of persistence within. Our goal becomes to nurture this will or persistence and to make it grow. It is a vital characteristic that will serve us well in a crisis. We do this by finding something we like and do well and then becoming better at it.
Preferably, our chosen hobby or field is something that allows us to compete against other people. Competing at our chosen art is an essential transition we must eventually make. While relying on internal motivators to fuel our development is acceptable, competing in a public area against others is ideal. Competition is a better and faster way to motivate us and to provide us with valuable feedback on how we can improve.
I like to shoot a variety of disciplines, but I recently discovered a 24-hour adventure race/sniper competition that provides an excellent example of why competition is important in cultivating our will to win. Fifty competitive two-man teams paid the expensive entrance fee and signed up. Thirty-five teams actually showed up and started the race. Twenty-five teams crossed the finish line. Those who did finish walked away with heads held high knowing they performed a difficult task well.
The race started with a surprise task of putting 100 pounds of rocks into an improvised litter and carrying it for three miles. Each two-man team had to carry all their gear and the rocks. No one knew how far we had to carry the litters when the event started. A couple teams quit almost immediately. The uncertainty of the situation and the difficulty of the task convinced at least one member that they were not capable of completing the race, so they just quit. All they had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other and they would have been just fine. They looked to the future and assumed the worst; quitting became the safest and least painful way out.
Other teams quit because there was a fair degree of pain involved across the entire event and, as the hours wore on, decided that they didn’t want to finish enough to endure the discomfort. The teams that were successful focused on the task immediately before them and continued to push themselves one step at a time. The psychological difference between the two approaches is enormous.
The only way to develop the right attitude is to sweat and bleed and work for it. It can never be gained through comfortable study; it has to be won through hard experience. Just like that guest instructor said many years ago: “Confidence in your abilities is key. It will carry you through a crisis.” Pushing ourselves to work through pain until we reach our objective is the only way to get that confidence and will to win. It must be cultivated or it won’t be there when we need it.
Our start point becomes selection of a task or activity we like and think we might become good at, should we put forth some effort. Hopefully this activity allows for competition, the more physical the better. The next step is to apply ourselves and focus on becoming the best at our chosen field. As we see progress and gain feedback from either awards or certifications won, we gain the type of confidence that stays with us for life. We learn that hard work and persistence can overcome insurmountable odds.
CAREFUL, IT’S HABIT-FORMING
Success is addicting. Once we begin to see our efforts pay off, we start to believe that we can be successful at other endeavors. This attitude is essential for disaster preparation.
Mental toughness is a key component of success. Without an ability to work through or around obstacles that lie before us, even if it means pushing through fatigue and pain, we’re doomed to quit as soon as a task becomes challenging. The only way to gain that toughness is to suffer. Much as a child unchallenged will always remain a child, an adult forever comfortable will always be a pushover.
As each of us prepares for whatever calamities might lay ahead, we’d all do well to remember that humans will always be more important than hardware. It’s in our best interest to hold ourselves to demanding standards and to be unrelenting in our pursuit of excellence. The mentality that comes with this type of lifestyle ensures we can overcome whatever lies ahead.