The Unexpected Cost of Success
One of the hardest things you will ever learn is the unexpected cost of success.
Yes, you read that right: the cost of success.
Of course, failure often has a cost. And, it's a cost we're all too familiar with by the time we reach adulthood. By this point, It's been used to define acceptable actions and help us navigate the perils of merely being alive, by developing well-placed respect for danger or dangerous behavior.
It started as young children, as we learned lessons to keep us safe and free from injury:
Don’t climb on that, you might fall.
Don’t touch that, you’ll burn yourself.
Don’t eat that, it’s poison — and how did you even get that cupboard open?!
As we get a bit older, we move into activities that are dangerous but generally unavoidable, like driving. Now we're not only responsible for our own actions but those of the people around us. By this time, we've also started to realize that those other people in the world, well, let's just say some of them are just a little bit off. This generally clicks for us when we see someone driving down the wrong side of the road or backing their car out of the building that they just accidentally turned into a parking garage by a misplaced confusion of the controls.
Shortly after comes the realization that we are expected to move out of the home of our childhood. That we should not only establish a societally-approved definition of success for our future selves, but then we should already be well on the way to preparing for its eventual achievement.
I'm not a psychologist. Still, it doesn't take a doctorate in human behavior to see a pattern emerging here: we are training ourselves to pursue the things we want, need, or hope to achieve, and we are also training ourselves to avoid failure.
The problem is that you often can’t succeed without first failing and learning. You didn’t learn to walk without falling down, probably many, many times.
Once you mastered walking, you didn't go back to practicing falling down. You moved on to learning to run. You had found something that worked, internalized that, and moved on to the next goal.
That's the contentious relationship: we need the pressure, the motivation, sometimes even the humiliation of failure to learn, but it's ingrained in us from a young age to minimize risky behavior and avoid failure as we pursue success.
How do we achieve this?
We learn what works, and we repeat it. We expand on it, we repurpose it, we teach it to others, and in doing so, learn more about ourselves.
Early in my adult life, I had an experience that taught me something about success that has remained with me to this day, and that has served me well in my professional pursuits and achievements.
This lesson also eventually resulted in a catastrophic failure that forced me to reevaluate who I am both personally and professionally, and ultimately led to the creation of this book.
As I worked through my last year of High School in the mid-1990s, I had a growing feeling that college wasn't for me. Academics had always come relatively easy for me, and I was at the age where I wanted something more challenging than more years spent in school. Ideally, that would be paired with a chance to travel out of my small town and see more of the world.
When I say I come from a small town, I suspect the image this conjures in your mind is probably not accurate. My graduating class had just 24 students, and the combined population of the two neighboring towns that made up the central part of our small community was around 2,000 people.
I knew I needed to figure out at least the near-term direction for my life, and broadening my horizons both literally and figuratively was the most promising opportunity to do just that.
So naturally, this meant I should join the United States Marine Corps. They had the sharpest looking uniforms. While it is a never-ending debate amongst the many former service members across the internet today, they were clearly just better.
I say this very tongue-in-cheek, having many friends and family members that have served and continue to serve across all branches. I met my wife when she was serving with the US Navy. Besides the decades of fun we've had teasing each other over our respective service alma maters, you can see that I've now upped the game to a whole new level by liberally borrowing a concept from the Navy to title and structure this book.
I'll try and keep the service-related puns and inside jokes to a minimum!
So this is how I found myself sweating my way through the Third Phase of Marine boot camp in the summer of 1994. For those of you that have never been to beautiful San Diego in the late summer and early fall, it's a gorgeous beach-adjacent destination with excellent weather. If you are lucky enough to be there on vacation, you can spend the days lazing on the beach and sipping cold drinks.
My experience was not that.
Marine Bootcamp involves a lot of Physical Training (PT), which is code for lots and lots of running. Then there is Incentive Training (IT). This generally means impromptu sessions of plyometrics done indoors or out, whenever the mood or need strikes your Drill Instructors. If you've ever subjected yourself to high-intensity training programs that rely on lots of exercises that involve core work, getting up and down off the floor for no logical reason, and generally pushing your body to learn new thresholds for pain, you've got the idea.
Just add some sand and make sure it's sweltering. Think 20 to 30 dudes crammed into a 15x15 foot space and sweating profusely kind of hot.
The Recruit Training Depot in San Diego just happens to be positioned ironically close to the San Diego Airport. For most of your three months of training, your Drill Instructors will briefly pause whatever activity they are currently using for training to watch planes fly overhead. They do this to make you question your life choices. At their insistence, you look up and observe the aircraft flying a few hundred people to some far-away destination. Of course, they take this opportunity to ask the group of sweaty, suffering young men how much they wish they were on that plane. I do not think this real estate selection was at all accidental.
As a Marine-in-training, you progress through three phases. If you survive intact through each stage and successfully pass the required areas of testing, you graduate and earn that coveted title: US Marine. 25 years later, I still feel just as proud as I did on graduation day. It doesn't fade with time, which may put into perspective the difficulty involved in earning it.
What happens if you fail some crucial part of the training? The Marine Corps has regulations, policies, and procedures for everything, and this is no exception.
Recruits that fail or are otherwise unable to complete any component of training are dropped. This means you rotate out of your current training platoon and join the next available platoon in a later cycle to repeat the exercises again. This remediation will continue until you pass successfully, or wash out and go home. Preference is given for the former, of course. Don't get the idea that deciding you've made a horrible, horrible error in judgment is an acceptable option.
One facet of the Third Phase is something of a break in the norm for the senior recruits that are so close to graduation: they are assigned to Service Week.
After many weeks of intense training, you spend a full week basically doing various jobs around the base. You might work in the kitchens, you might do maintenance around the base, you'll definitely clean wherever you get assigned. If you enlisted in any service and managed to get through your time without learning your way around a mop, I'd love to hear the story.
Don't get me wrong, it's still a week of highly structured activity. The Drill Instructors always make time to have a bit of fun with you, you continue to train, but you're also recharging for that last critical sprint to the finish line.
Once service week is completed, you have to pass all the final tests on your way to finally earning what you've been working so hard for over the last 3 months: Becoming a US Marine, officially and forever.
Final Drill, Final Physical Fitness Test, Final Inspection in front of the commander for the Recruit Training Regiment.
So Service Week turns down the heat, metaphorically at least. If you were working in the kitchens, as I did, the temperatures typical for San Diego in late fall are still quite warm for a kid from the Oregon high desert.
Two or three days before Service Week ended for my platoon, disaster strikes.
I find myself at medical because I've developed a cough, feel like I probably have a fever and I'm just generally feeling awful. The doc says I have pneumonia, with an accompanying temperature of 102 degrees.
Who knew you could get pneumonia in San Diego in October?
So my week of low-key service activities comes to an early and unplanned screeching halt as I'm restricted to the barracks and instructed to sleep it off and try not to die without permission.
Fast forward to the end of the weekend. It's Sunday night, the day before the platoon recommences training. We're scheduled to run our final Physical Fitness Test the next day. This is a 3-mile run, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and as an untimed set of dead hang pull-ups.
A perfect score for men of my age group at the time: 18:00 minutes or faster on the run, 80 or more sit-ups in the allotted time, and at least 20 pull-ups.
Obviously, there were less demanding requirements for passing scores. Still, if you've ever had a conversation with any Marine since the advent of the Physical Fitness Test, you probably aren't surprised to hear that the only acceptable score is perfect.
I'm sleeping relatively soundly since I'm still on bed rest, which automatically means I'm off the roster for fire watch in the middle of the night. There's at least a somewhat lower chance the Drill Instructor would choose me should they need a participant in any ad-hoc group training amusements.
At 0200, I'm proven wrong as I wake to a voice near my ear saying my name. Of course, as I open my eyes, every recruit's worst nightmare comes to life. I see nothing other than one of the Staff Sergeants squatting down next to my rack, staring intently at the side of my head at a very uncomfortable distance of about 2 inches.
There are generally 3 or 4 Drill Instructors (DIs) that remain with your platoon for the duration of your training. Each of these has a different role to play or persona. There's the Senior, whose tough but fair and often takes a nearly parental role with the recruits. Then there's the "heavy" — an experienced DI that is tasked with being the primary disciplinarian. He is the master of Incentive Training, and quite likely the source of the most significant percentage of training-induced pain you've ever experienced in your life.
And he’s staring right at me.
It’s like the scene from Back to the Future when Principal Strictland confronts the always tardy Marty McFly in the hallway and berates him for being a slacker, getting closer and closer to his face until their noses nearly touch.
Let me assure you, this experience did not have the decidedly John Hughes 80’s coming of age comedy feel to it.
The iconic "Smoky Bear" hat the Marine Drill Instructors wear is unmistakable. By this point in your training, every Marine Recruit is convinced that any DI that is so inclined could quickly end your pathetic existence with its sharp edge.
My immediate reaction is conflicting instructions from my brain to jump out of bed and stand at attention, or lie very still and hope I'm dreaming and he eventually goes away. I went with the latter, but unfortunately, he didn't leave, and I wasn't dreaming. Worse yet, he started to speak.
"Tomorrow is Final PFT. You are still on bed rest, which means you stay here, and at the end of the week, you get dropped to repeat the third phase over again with the next platoon that picks up."
Yep, this is definitely a nightmare.
"Medical says you can't PT, so when we form up tomorrow, you'll stay here. If you fall in for PT tomorrow, Senior will ask you if you are still on light duty. If you confirm that you are, he'll tell you to fall out, and we will drop you."
"We don't have time to check the status of 90 recruits every day. If you fall in for PFT and Senior asks about your light-duty, maybe we've got the dates wrong? It's up to you."
With that, he leaves. The next morning when the platoon falls in to go for final PFT, I fall in with them.
Senior says, “Recruit Overlund, aren’t you on bed rest?”
“Very well, carry on.”
So I ran 3 miles. I completed 20 pull-ups. I even suffered through 80 sit-ups. It was a painful and utterly unpleasant experience.
If you have never tried to run 3 miles when you have the energy level of a wrung-out dishrag, you know what I'm talking about, but I did it. I graduated with my platoon on schedule.
This single event has stuck with me for the rest of my life. I learned something from this that has shaped my behaviors every day since.
If you want to be successful, you have to show up.
It may not be easy. It may not even seem sane, but ask yourself: What do you want, and how much do you want it?
Be honest with the answer.
Then take a step forward, or don’t. It’s your path, it’s your choice — and you own the eventual outcome.
I learned this lesson, and I used it to significant effect in my own career, but it also eventually failed me. Or, perhaps a better perspective is that I failed myself, and use this lesson as the vehicle.
You see, I leveraged this commitment and dedication to hard work to drive me towards the vision of what a successful life looked like for me — and it worked until it didn't.
I excelled in roles where I was an individual contributor and even had some success taking on management and leadership responsibilities.
I could generally leverage my work ethic and commitment to doing whatever was necessary to get the job done, and my career progressed upwards as a result — therein lies the problem that ultimately led to failure.
I was continuing to work harder, commit more time to work, and struggling more every day with balancing the need to both produce and manage my team.
I found I couldn't let go of doing the hands-on work that had gotten me where I was, but I also wasn't realizing the full value of the team around me.
The rub, of course, was that what I was doing was working. Sure, it was painful, and my quality of life was suffering both personally and professionally. However, I was still delivering successful results, so why wouldn't I continue?
Do what we know works, it’s less risky, it’s less prone to failure.
So that is what I did. I kept doing what was working, the personal, and eventually, the professional costs, be damned.
Over time this led to a severe impact on my level of engagement with my work. I continued to do more to achieve more and maintain the upward path of my career. That effort was often not realized, and I found myself asking why I should continue doing what I was doing.
I was working exceptionally long hours, my personal relationships had suffered, and I couldn't justify the individual cost for the professional return, the expected travel along the path to success simply wasn't materializing.
What had always worked in the past, suddenly reached its limit.
The skills and practices that had brought me that far would take me no further. I had to change to transform my approach to leadership to understand how to serve my teams, to show up for them, and not only for me.
Change is hard, transformational change is incredibly hard, but the result is worth the effort.
Let’s get started.