I recently read a fantastic op-ed at WSJ titled, “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You,” and it was item # 10 that really reflected a theme that I’ve been trying to beat into the heads of transitioning junior military officers (JMOs) for a while now:
“10. Don’t try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.”
This is a great point especially for transitioning JMOs because your platoon leader or company command time in combat was great. It is easy to think that because you have done something great, you will continue to do great things. Let me take a second to define great. When I talk to JMOs, a 20-year career at a Fortune 100 company isn’t considered “great.” There is almost a delusional sense that any JMO can become the CEO of any Fortune 100 company, be the next Steve Jobs, or go win a Pulitzer/Nobel prize within the next 5-10 years. I’ve been trying to beat that out of my friends’ minds, but now I think I have the statistical tools to do so: probability and standard deviation:
Probability: When the weatherman says there is a 50% chance of rain tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that there is a 50% chance that it will rain tomorrow. It means that out of 100 days with similar atmospheric conditions as tomorrow, it will rain 50 days out of 100. So if I said, if you give me $1 million dollars (and that is all the money you have), there is a 70% chance that you will make $1 million dollars off of that and 30% chance of losing everything, that isn’t necessarily a good deal for you, because you could be a millionaire today, but tomorrow you don’t have anything to support your family with. If you look at probability in this light, it should make you more risk averse. The Black Swan talks about this, although this isn’t the central theme to the book.
Standard Deviation: To modify that a little bit for more realistic applications, let’s take the GMAT as an example. What does it mean to do “great” on the GMAT? Does it mean 800? 700? 750? And how are you going to prepare for that score? Are you going to study 1,000 hours? No, why would you? Your approach to the GMAT should be the same as the weather. I’ve put in x amount of hours (most recommend 100 hours), and out of 100 tests, I would usually get 680-720 on the practice exams (although practice exams aren’t a good indicator of actual GMAT score, it is an indication). So if you get a 680, I wouldn’t say you did very poorly and if you got a 720, I would say run with it. Standard deviation measures how much variation exists from the mean. The better you get at the GMAT, the more you lower your standard deviation. If you can consistently get a 695-705, that is better than a 690-710, which is better than 680-720.
Hard work can lower your standard deviation of success in life, but you will always end up with a range. Nobody ever gets a specific score consistently on anything, i.e. getting a 700 on 20 attempts at the GMAT. Luck and other circumstances will make you a 680, a 720, or anything in between. So JMOs should stop worrying about the end goal – 720 (or 800 for my ambitious friends), and look at what they really want to get out of their next job, or their long term career.
Each job pays you in two currencies: US Dollars and Experience. Everyone needs money, but make sure you get some worthwhile experience as well. When you look back at your life 20 years later, you should feel comfortable being a 680 or a 720 because that is what you have built your life around. Luck might take you to 800 (Steve Jobs success level) or 600 (Mediocre level: stuck in middle management at a Fortune 100 company).
This is obviously much easier said than done and I struggle with this as well, but I think taking this approach to life is at the minimum, more fun and less pressurized.