On lessons learned late…
Ever have one of those moments when you realize you were super slow on the uptake? I have had ever so many of them. It’s like I have all these awesome teachers and life lessons from mentors/leaders/friends/etc, and yet somehow the message never sinks in until I’ve royally screwed something up. This is a pattern I have. It’s been going on for years. Of course, the first time I really became aware of it was a shock to me and came from my mother.
I was in Nav School, and I think I’d had my first (or only?) failed check ride. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure it came during the radar phase of training, phase three. I was on the phone talking to my mom about it, hoping she’d cheer me up and instead, these words came out.
“You can’t just slide by in this like you did in college. You’ll fail. This is real life here.”
Wait, what? How could she say something like that? What was wrong with my college career? I’d been super on top of things my first two years. Perhaps even in over my head a bit what with crew, ROTC, band and choir, a work-study job, and an overload nearly every quarter. What did she mean slip by? I worked my tail off – staying up to finish projects till midnight then getting up at 4am and hitting the river for 3 hours, coming back, going to work, then class, then homework, right up until midnight the next night. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Of course, once I knew my ROTC place was secure, had received my scholarship and stipend, and then determined that I’d get an aircrew assignment after I graduated; I’ll admit, I did slack. Too much. I loved and respected my primary professors and thoroughly enjoyed the subject matter of my major and minor courses, and yet, they were easy for me. So, while I worked hard-ish on my few remaining core courses, I’ll admit, I took advantage of the ease of the Spanish and communications courses, and of my professors’ good faith based on my earlier performance in their courses. Still, my mother shouldn’t have known any of that, I’d never given her details.
My second “lesson learned late” moment came near the end of my Air Force career. I chose to separate honorably. I’d served my time, and opted out of an assignment that was just a bit too late in coming. Of course, my aha moment came a little bit before this, maybe 6 months to a year earlier.
I had somehow ended up on the fast track to a good Air Force career. I didn’t consciously intend to end up there, but I had taken my mother’s warning to heart and repackaged it as “straighten up and fly right.” So, as I had never been one to back down from a challenge that was handed to me, and was a people pleaser who in some ways lived to serve, I did well in the military. However, I was probably one who over-volunteered and had a pattern of doing so.
On the second day of field training (the officer’s version of basic), I found myself stepping up to take over the position of Flight Physical Training Officer when the cadet who was intended for it injured his back and had to withdraw from training. Our Officer in Charge (OIC) called us all together and told us what had happened and then asked for a volunteer to take over. As you may imagine, crickets. He asked again, and then again, and finally, I rolled my eyes and said I would do it. I was not cut out for it truly, and I think my OIC knew this, but when he asked if I could handle it, strong rower that I was, I said I could. I was fit, sure, but didn’t really know how to train others. He gave me the benefit of the doubt and the group PTO who happened to be assigned to our flight helped me out a lot. A week or two in though, another cadet emerged as far better prepared for the job and he took over while I moved on to something else.
Later, after arriving at my second permanent base after flight training, I was moved quite quickly from just being one of the squadron navigators to flight commander (CC) for 11 of the guys. I happened to be one of the more senior navs in the squadron, so while it caught me by surprise, it wasn’t all that unexpected. My mentor in this case gave me the bare minimums of a briefing on what was required – showed me how to use the computer software needed to manage the paperwork that went along with the position, imparted his impressions of my guys and then took off for another duty title. I lasted a few months and did fine from my superiors’ perspective, but when a position for a squadron executive officer opened up I asked for volunteers from my guys as instructed. When none appeared, I again stepped up to the plate martyr-like and took what I knew was a not-very-desirable-job from the flyer’s perspective.
Similarly, after the squadron drawdown due to BRAC was underway, my boss came to me and asked if I wanted to be the Wing Air Force Assistance Fundraiser Officer. I absolutely did not, but again, my eager to please and live-to-serve attitude kicked in and I accepted. It was just as tough as I’d imagined, but I managed to do well enough to later be offered a position at the group level doing a lot of the same things I’d been doing as a squadron exec. Again, I worked hard, but I got so caught up in the details that I was taken aback a year later when my boss came to me and said he was bringing up another airman from my squadron because he wanted to be able to mentor someone who intended to stay in.
That comment finally made it click. I’d been doing all the things a good follower should do, and somehow performed well enough in the leadership positions I was given to please those above me. But, the heart of the positions didn’t reveal itself to me until that conversation. As a leader, it wasn’t really my job to be volunteering for all the “un-wanted” jobs. Instead, I should have been getting to know my own people and grooming them for or sometimes pushing them into positions that while not necessarily flyer-desirable would be good for their growth, fit them, and benefit their career. Leadership isn’t just about being able to “straighten up and fly right,” it’s about taking time to mentor, to learn about, and then to encourage in the right direction. I’d learned all about leadership during ROTC in college and field training, yet somehow, I didn’t truly comprehend those lessons until it was almost after the fact.
More recently, I recognized a missed lesson when I started a creative writing course after grad school. I was a media communications major in college with a focus on video production. As mentioned, I thoroughly enjoyed the material we covered in classes. It was very practical, hands-on, and fun. I especially loved being behind the camera – framing, calling shots live, and editing after the fact. My final project for video production was to make a short film. The idea (I now realize) was to apply everything we’d learned over our four years from story-boarding to screen-writing to selecting actors, directing production, filming, and then finally editing in post-process.
I decided to do a music video to one of my favorite songs, Be Still by the Newsboys. I took a video camera with me on a trip to our family farm in Nebraska and filmed some scenes of my sister and cousin in the snow. I think I forgot the story-board part, or did it after the fact. At any rate, I got hung up mostly on the post-production and editing part. This was in the earlier days of AVID’s video editing, long before iMovie and Movie Maker had become ubiquitous. I was, true-to-form, working late the night before it was due – so late that Campus Safety kicked me out of the editing lab and sent me home. I thought I’d recorded my tightly edited work well, but didn’t have time to check it. I submitted it the next day, and was chagrined to get the feedback from my prof that it was a blank tape. I’d saved my work on the hard drive of the computer as well, but the day it was due, the football team came in and deleted everything, so they’d have space to edit their end-of-season video. My prof gave me grace, I’d always done pretty good work for him in the past, and assigned me a passing grade, which looking back I may not have fully deserved despite the hours of work.
My first creative writing conference in 2014 taught me that my problem then as now has always been plot. I’m good, or at least decent, at capturing scenes or moments, in writing as well as in film. Blending those moments into something more coherent that demonstrates character growth and entrances the reader or viewer however? Well, that’s not my strong suit. Sure, I can have a vague idea of where I want my characters to get to in the end – sometimes, but getting them there…um, not so much. It’s not my professors’ fault, this lack of mine. My media prof did everything right. I remember my notes, impressions, and respect for him and his work. And, while I was enrolled in his courses I’m sure that I was really trying to apply those principles. I think though that here too, I got bogged down in the details and lost the big picture.
I just sent an extremely rough and incomplete first draft to a dear writing friend of mine and as I clicked send, I realized that even though I’ve now “learned” this lesson about plot, it’s extremely hard to put into practice. Although I don’t think I’ve screwed up beyond repair yet, I’ll admit it is disheartening. But, contrary to the lessons learned post-college and post-AF; I’m not post-leading, post-learning, post-writing. I’m just beginning these really. So, it’s time to “straighten up and fly right” once again and keep working to really implement these going forward. Thanks to all the teachers, mentors, and friends – writing and otherwise, who keep imparting lessons as we walk through life. As my wise mother often says, “please (continue to) be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet.”