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Habits and Heroes


Or, How I Learned to Stay Calm Under Pressure


I was too young and inexperienced at the time to understand the “why” behind my actions, I just knew I had a burning desire to be like the heroes I looked up to. The combination of their example and my desire to be like them put me on the path to creating a new habit that helped me keep my calm in pressure situations. This is the story of how that happened.


In 1992, I was a second lieutenant and a student at The Basic School, where every newly commissioned Marine Corps officer must complete a six-month long course before going on to specialty training (such as flight school, infantry officer course, etc). Toward the end of the course our student company participated in the retirement parade for Colonel John Ripley, a recipient of the Navy Cross for his heroic actions during the 1972 Easter Offensive in Vietnam. He was a famous Marine but a distant figure to most of us from across the parade deck.


After the parade, my buddy and fellow student, Lieutenant Bill Wischmeyer asked if I wanted to go to the Officers’ Club and hear some war stories from his dad and “some of his buddies.” Of course, I said sure, count me in.


What I didn’t know was that Bill’s dad was Colonel Wischmeyer, and that his father had been one of the Marine advisors in Vietnam during the Easter Offensive. That afternoon at the Club I met a roster of famous Marines like Bill’s dad who had shared in the experience, including Colonel Ripley, and Colonel Gerry Turley, who wrote about many of the assembled group’s exploits in The Easter Offensive. It was a remarkable, impressive group, I was thrilled to have been invited to join them, and I tried to remain invisible so they wouldn’t get rid of me. 


The senior Marine at the gathering was Lieutenant General Walter Boomer who had also presided over that day’s retirement parade. At the time of the Easter Offensive, most of them had been Marine captains, although Walt Boomer had been a major. The story that stood out the most for me was one about him. Most of the advisors had gotten cut off or surrounded by the North Vietnamese during the course of the offensive, and thus were in circumstances of extreme danger. The situation across much of South Vietnam was chaotic and confusing, people were staying awake for days at a time, nerves were frayed to the breaking point.


And what did one of the advisors tell me? In reverential tones, he told me how “Major Boomer” kept him calm, helped him focus on problem solving, and sustained his belief that he would get out of the situation alive. How did Walt Boomer do it? The former advisor told me that every time he heard Boomer speak on the radio, it sounded like he had just awoken from a nap – he sounded so calm, that over the airwaves he transmitted a sense of confidence. Boomer’s calm steadied his nerves, kept him focused, and helped him see a clear path through the surrounding chaos. He believed success was possible because Boomer believed success was possible. That calm demeanor was legendary amongst the group.


From that point forward I was determined to learn how to stay calm under pressure so that I could help others keep it together, just like Walt Boomer did. I started to look for situations when people around me would get excited and emotional, and I would consciously try to steady my own emotions and project calm – at least outwardly. I worked on it for years, and I had some spectacular failures along the way. Eventually though, I started to receive feedback from others that they appreciated how I stayed calm, and showed patience, no matter what might be happening around us, whether in a combat zone, on a training field, or just across the conference table. I’m not sure I was ever tested as severely as Walt Boomer, but over the years I experienced enough wins to realize I had successfully developed the habit he inspired me to try and emulate.

 

It was only later in my career, after a lot of research and writing about decision-making, that I realized what had happened and how I was able to develop this patience and calm. As Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But, if you can imagine yourself in a situation then you can imagine yourself handling that situation successfully, and soon those imaginings will translate into successful action in the real world. Duhigg goes on to write that for a new habit to work under stress, you also need belief. And that belief is what my heroes gave me that day long ago. I believed people could stay calm even when everything was literally blowing up around them, because I met some famous Marines at the club that day and they told me that’s how it worked. You too can look for opportunities in your leadership to project a sense of calm, and provide that same belief to those around you.

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