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Thoughts on Transition (and 3 reminders)

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When working in any environment that has become familiar there is an established pattern of doing things.  Some of our environments are tightly constrained with very few degrees of freedom.  These types of jobs (or environments) may be boring for some and comfortable for others.  For me, and many of my teammates coming from special operations we were accustomed to an environment more loosely coupled.  However, special operations is still the military and had boundaries.  In terms of structure, the day-to-day profession (although not all of the activities within the profession) was bounded by many governing constraints and tightly coupled within a larger command structure of a particular unit.

When we transition from the military, or when anyone transitions from a consistently familiar environment into a radically new environment you’re in new terrain that requires a new perspective.  You’ve moved from either an obvious or a complicated environment into a complex environment.  And it isn’t just the environment that is complex, you’ll also have to deal with your internal complexity in a new way.

Let’s back up to some definitions.  As you can see below in David Snowden’s Framework on complexity, an obvious or complicated environment, with either tight or governing constrains responds well to both best and good practices.  The best and good practices are those that have worked well for us in that familiar environment where we have a consistent, established way of doing things.



When we make a radical environmental transition, I’d argue that we’re moving swiftly into a complex environment, away from governing constraints and boundaries and into enabling constraints that is loosely coupled.  Thus, this new environment does not behave consistent with what we knew as best or good practices.  Rather, we must rely on emergent practices to help us in this new space. Practices that, by definition, occur unexpectedly and arise from non-causal events.   Potentially believing we’ll operate with all of our old practices in this new environment completely disregards the most important part of the transition…YOU.  Assuming best or good practices might work for you, at best lets you off the hook in preparing yourself, and at worst leaves you victimized, constrained, and shackled to an obsolete set of skills and tools.

Steven Pressfield, author of Gates of FireTurning ProThe Warrior EthosThe War of ArtThe Legend of Bagger Vance, and many more, writes beautifully on this topic.  In Tk Ths Job n Shove Ita must read for anyone transitioning, he writes about artists who take the leap from a familiar environment to pursue their new profession (whatever it is).

He starts with this dialogue,

“When you and I were working on the line at Ford in Dearborn [insert old environment here], we had to worry about our production quotas, our standards of workmanship, our supervisor’s evaluations of us.”

“What we didn’t have to worry about was the structure of our day.”

“That structure was imposed on us from outside.  Then one day we quit. Suddenly we were artists.  We were entrepreneurs.  We thought it would be easy. We were free! Nothing could stop us!  It turned out to be the hardest thing we’d ever done.”

I personally remember the first couple of months I was “out” of the Navy and free to do whatever I wanted, when I wanted. Then I realized I didn’t even know how to get dental insurance much less get my footing on the “outside.”  For a few years, I continued to use all the same models of the world that I had previously established for myself and mapped them verbatim into this new environment.  No dice.  Well, maybe a few dice.  Think a cat on ice.  Some skills carry forward very well and some don’t at all.  I was using tons of best and good practices and this emergent environment was out-morphing and out-adapting me.  Given my personal learning style, you’d think I’d notice the complexity of the environment but I didn’t.

Reminder #1:  In transition, recognize that you’re moving from obvious or complicated into a complex environment.  The rules have changed.  The environment will eventually stabilize and so will you but at first, it’s complex.

In Tk Ths Job n Shove It, while talking about the excitement of this new change in our lives, this new world, Pressfield says…

“There was only one problem: we ourselves had to change.  We could not survive in the Extraordinary World using the mindset that had worked for us in the Ordinary World.  How exactly did we have to change?”

For the longest time, I can’t tell you how many people I thought would eventually see that my way was better, more enlightened.  The special operations way.  The harder is better way.  The grind it out way.  The just do more way!  Then, slowly but surely (very slowly), I realized that not every week was Hell Week.  Not every event was mission critical.  Not every scenario was a potential ambush.

Reminder #2:  We ourselves have to change.  In transition, we have to observe and find our new best and good practices after we’ve “probed-sensed-responded” within the new environment.  

We had to make the mental shift from externally-imposed discipline to self-discipline.

We like to think that in special operations, or anywhere in the service, we’re self disciplined.  In many ways this is true but with the constant and insistent structure of the larger organization.  “This, in one sentence,” Pressfield tells us “is the difference between the laborer-for-hire and the entrepreneur.”

Reminder #3:  When in transition, you are operating like an entrepreneur.  You’re largely setting your own schedule and deciding what needs to happen each day.  You’re the entrepreneur of your life.  No morning quarters.  No more muster.  No general military training. No admin department checking your records for you.  We have to learn to Turn Pro in this new environment.

The unit is not “making” us go on deployment anymore or on another training trip.  The command is not setting our schedule and keeping us away from home or asking us to work long hours.  We decide our deployment and work schedule now.  The question for any of us in transition is as Pressfield asks,

“We will be our own boss, our own employer, our own mentor and teacher and psychiatrist.  Can you make that mental shift?  Can you flip that switch in your head?  Can you be your own master, run your own show without adult supervision?”

We absolutely can but it doesn’t come easy.

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