Saturday, August 4, 2007

On Perseverance

I apologize for the delay between postings. I'd intended to keep up a relatively regular regimen, but life of course intervenes with trips to Houston and finicky internet connections, inter alia.

This week I finally had the great pleasure and relief to watch, in person, as my commander signed my application to volunteer for Airborne duty. This has been a long and unimaginably frustrating adventure for me, and I am indescribably relieved that it is now over.

I'm sure you're all dying to hear the story. So here goes: I decided back in December that I wanted to volunteer for the Airborne after I saw that my projected assignment put me at Fort Hood, TX, the veritable armpit of the Army. And while, in the Army, you have no control over your assignments as such, there are ways to influence the assignment process. The best is generally to strategically overqualify yourself for an undesired assignment by, for example, going to Airborne school in order to get out of an assignment to a ground unit (since Airborne training obliges the soldier to a minimum 12 months of assignment to an Airborne unit). This was my angle, and I jumped through all the hoops, filled out all the paperwork, and submitted my application back in April, while I was still stationed in California.

Or so I thought. I arrived here in Texas still waiting to hear on my new assignment. After a few more weeks of waiting, I finally asked my supervisor to check on the status of the application, only to find that it had never actually been submitted. It had fallen down the paperwork hole somewhere back in California, so I would have to resubmit it. "No problem," I thought. Think again. When I gave my paperwork to my supervisor, he reported back that my First Sergeant* had set some targets for me to reach on my Physical Training score before he would approve my packet. So I reached them, but in a scenario straight out of Vonnegut, the targets went up as soon as I met them, then went up again, and again. Needless to say, this was a rather frustrating experience.

Last week, I finally met the First Sergeant's targets and submitted my packet for command approval, which was duly given. And now that this whole misadventure is over, I've come to reflect a bit on what I've learned through it.

Firstly, a lesson on leadership: there are few things more demotivating than the perception that a superior's decisions affecting one's future are being made arbitrarily. While struggling to improve my own scores, I talked to other soldiers who had recently had Airborne packets approved with far poorer scores than my own. I felt singled out and persecuted, and I didn't know why. I still don't know why I had to meet targets far higher than what the Airborne school requires. But, while I felt demotivated through the whole process, I never did give up, much as I wanted to.

Which leads us to my second lesson, on perseverance. My experience of perseverance didn't play out like I would have expected from movies and fiction. Real perseverance is not about fighting for your goals and overcoming obstacles through sheer determination; at least, it isn't for me. It's about realizing that giving up hurts nobody but yourself and anyone counting on you. I'm reminded of one of the lessons from Ender's Game: real life is not a game, you can't simply quit because the rules are unfair. Or rather, life is a game, but one in which the rules are often rigged against you and there is no choice but to accept that and try to win anyway. I may have felt like I was being given the runaround when my targets kept changing, but what would I have accomplished by giving up? I would have simply been acquiescing to it. In the end, perseverance is not about "I'm going to do this no matter what it takes," but rather "I've committed far too much to let anyone -- even myself -- take this away from me." It's not glamorous, it plays far less well on a movie screen, but that's life. And I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

*The First Sergeant is the senior Non-Commissioned Officer of a company, in other words, the ranking enlisted man (or woman) in a unit of around 60-100 soldiers. Generally equivalent to the centurion of a Roman legion in terms of responsibility, comparative rank, and approximate time in service (15-18 years).


elephantschild said...

It's really not fair that my little brother should be so much better of a person than I, the Superior Older Sister, am.

You suck, and I'm proud of you.


Mom said...

I am very proud of you! Not just because you reached your goal, but that you learned from the experience. One of the most exciting things about being a Mom is that as each of your children learn from an experience--so do you. This experience will always be a part of you and what you learned from it will enable you to be a better person/leader. Thanks for sharing the experience so that I, too, learned from it.

Keep up the good work!