The world of special operations is a small shark tank. Some may even say it’s a dog-eat-dog world. It’s a place where you must be tough, fearless, and willing to do whatever it takes, no matter what.

Working in special operations is very competitive. Who’s the best on the team? What team is the best in the company? Which battalion is the best to be in? These are questions that we all think about. To top that, defining success is nearly impossible. One bad rumor can ruin a soldier’s career; one DUI and you’ll lose your long tab; one bad act can ruin your team’s flawless reputation. Blood in the water.

All jobs involve stress. I believe that a certain level of stress is a good thing; it can motivate you to perform better. Living in the shark tank is absolutely stressful. There was a time on my team where it seemed as though nobody could pass a school; four guys in a row had failed. My team was seemingly cursed. This added to the stress of everyday life and our team began to feel like we were the worst of the six teams in the company, rather than the top special operations team we knew we could be. It was as if the sharks were beginning to circle us searching for a weak link.

What Exactly Is Success?

Army Career Expo A Success
Students from the Killeen Independent School District participate in the 2020 Army Career Expo at Fort Hood, Texas, March 3. (Photo by Pvt. Richard Barnes/ DVIDS)

What is success? Sir Richard Branson, Virgin’s founder, is worth some five billion dollars; he equates success with being fully immersed in your work. “My definition of success?” he asked himself on Virgin’s blog. “The more you’re actively and practically engaged, the more successful you will feel.” Is he basically saying that the more you do and the more you are engaged, the more successful you feel? Is success something so minuscule as a feeling?

What if true success is, first and foremost, a feeling? People whose feelings depend primarily on external realities also rely on them for their sense of success. So if the team is doing good, you’re doing good, and everyone feels successful.

Before retiring, I struggled with defining success. Had I been successful? Was I the highest-ranking? No. Did I make mistakes along the way? Of course. Did I try my hardest? Absolutely. Success is not defined by position, status, or rank. Really the only person that can define success is you.

There is an essential distinction between experiencing the inner feeling of success and meeting the prevailing culture’s external criteria for identifying success. If we vacillate between the two, we won’t really know what we want. If we don’t know what we want, we are unlikely to attain it. If we think of success as an emotion, we can keep our eyes on the prize. The essence of real success is going about our activities moment-by-moment and day-by-day with a sense of joy. Real success is inner peace.

Now, if the team had a tough day in battle and ultimately failed a mission, but everyone was happy, does this mean the men were successful? Absolutely not. But I think we can agree that if the mission failed, nobody would be happy about it.

The Tight-knit Shark Tank Community of Special Forces

In Afghanistan, my team was called out for a quick reactionary force (QRF) by our sister team. On our way to help another team in need, one of our vehicles hit an IED, injuring some guys, and leading to us being attacked by dozens of Taliban fighters. Green berets are warriors in battle and do incredible things, and that day was no exception. We fought and defeated all the enemy fighters. However, we would all say the day was a failure because we never reached our sister team, even though we felt good about dealing death to the Taliban.

We are all one person removed from each other. This means that I may not know you, but we do know someone in common. If you were to say my name around Group, you would get mixed reviews. I imagine it’s similar for most people. Some would say that I’m absolutely terrific and that anyone would be lucky to have me. Others would scoff. If pinpointed or confronted, they couldn’t really ever say why they didn’t like me (yes, I’ve tested this many times). I would say they didn’t like me because I told them the truth they didn’t want to hear or because I didn’t go along with the status quo. My unpopular opinion is that maybe some people talk others down to make themselves appear to be the bigger shark.

Throughout my career in special operations, I carved my own path, exactly how I wanted it to be. And I was fortunate enough to say that I went to every school I wanted and passed all of them. Without a doubt, the toughest school I went to is the Combat Diver Qualification Course (CDQC). Therefore, I can say that I survived in the shark tank, despite getting bitten a few times along the way, and came out successful.

So how do you survive while living in the shark tank? You must come to work motivated, on time, and ready to go every single day. You must constantly strive for success. This will lead to successful actions and a feeling of success. When this is happening, all the other sharks will leave you alone. However, they are always carefully watching for you to slip up, so they can attack.

De Oppresso Liber


This article was originally published in April 2021.