What is the maximum effective range of a… garbage can? Crazy question, I know. Until my first day of U.S. Army Basic Combat Training (BCT), or Boot Camp, as the whole world calls it, I would never have thought about that question, either. But no joke, there I was: barely three minutes into Boot Camp, and I saw an old school, steel, Oscar the Grouch, New York-style garbage can flying down the middle of barracks between the bunks. The first 0.7 seconds of that realization were hard to process. “What the heck?”

If it had hit someone, it would have knocked them out clean.

Stuff was flying everywhere. It was like being in a storm of clothes, duffle bags, mattresses, pillows, blankets, uniforms, and anything else that could be thrown. Cleaning supplies, Army gear, boots, training devices, and so on; nothing was safe. If it was not bolted to the floor, it was fair game. And of course, it was accompanied by a lot of screaming. Those three drill instructors sounded like five or six, and it was utter, sheer, pandemonium and crazy chaos. We were also getting a lesson on how to say lots of bad words in one sentence, Army Style.

And I could not help but laugh. I was actually kind of enjoying myself. Luckily for me, it was so chaotic none of the great white shark drill sergeants noticed.

boot camp drill sergeants shouting at soldier
This poor dude looks like he is not having a good first few minutes of boot camp. He managed to get a whole lot of attention already. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Philip McTaggart)

 

The First Few Minutes of Boot Camp

This scenario I am sharing with you now, was of course, not the exact first three minutes of Boot Camp. That was going on within the first three seconds of walking in the door — the first few minutes of only being in the barracks. The insanity had already started. For those of you who have been there, you know what I mean. For those of you who have not… let me help you out a little and fill you in on the fun.

Mind you, the garbage can flying down the middle of the barracks was freaking crazy. But the antics didn’t just start right there. When the bus dropped us off at our training battalion and barracks, that’s when the fun started. It is true… they do start screaming at you to get off the bus as soon as it pulls up. Just random drill sergeants getting everyone off in a hurry and giving you a warm-up and preview for what’s to come. Of course, that can only last for a few seconds, because how long can it take to unload people off a bus when some dude with a big hat and crazy eyes is screaming at you? Not very long.

Once we got lined up in front of the building, the people talking to us were quite calm. Much to our naive surprise, they weren’t our drill instructors. They were just the admin types. “Whew. That’s not too bad, then, right?”

The other guys all quietly lined up behind us… that shark attack waiting to happen… those were the ones to worry about. When “admin time” was over, which wasn’t very long, the panic on everyone’s faces was clearly noticeable in the brief moments of quiet after admin time, and when the feeding frenzy began. I don’t think I have ever seen 160+ people fully laden with duffel bags and backpacks move so quickly in my life. Because when that screaming starts, the game is on.

army drill sergeant shouting
I think she is having a rough go at things, too. And he’s pissed. That duffel bag is about to get really heavy. (Photo by Spc. Darius Davis/U.S. Army)

 

Back to the First Three Minutes…

By this point, as I was saying, the real “boot camp experience” was just a few minutes old. I don’t even think we had really been in the barracks for three minutes when I saw Oscar the Grouch flying down the middle of the room. It was probably less, in fact. People were running into each other, new Soldiers were getting ambushed by the drill sergeants, it was a total mess, and we couldn’t pick up everything as fast as they were messing it up. And I was loving it.

Some people think I am crazy for saying I had fun in basic training. If you are like me, it was a blast. It wasn’t much at the rank of a lowly private or private first class, of course, but getting paid to work out and play with cool toys all day? What’s not to like? Sure, there were hard times, a lot of pain, it was hotter than hell, and we got yelled at for 16 hours a day. All of that was simply to do one thing: make me stronger. Mentally and physically. It’s all a game — a head game. Which, is harder than the physical game. Knowing that going into it, makes it 50 percent less difficult.

At that moment, as everyone is trying to dodge flying… everything… changing out of civilian clothes and into their army camouflage uniform, avoiding getting screamed at, picking up the mess, trying to make the beds as beds are being flipped onto the floor, I heard it.

Above the contradicting instructions from all the drill sergeants, the noise, and the chaos, was the first bit of, Boot Camp Wisdom (my trademark on this is pending) I learned that day. I kept it with me every day during basic training, and every day since “Stuff Never Goes To Plan”

 

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‘Plans Are Useless, but Planning Is Indispensable’

There are tons of motivational quotes on Instagram and Facebook. Tons of quotes from the corporate world, the internet, and from guys like Stephen R.Covey and Tony Robbins. We can find quotes about planning and preparedness, practice and preparation. A lot of famous leaders and thinkers have said many things on the topic.

General and future President Eisenhower famously said: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

It’s completely true. Nothing ever goes to plan. Murphy’s Law is inevitable, and most things we experience in life every given day — combat or not — are out of our control. No matter how carefully you plan, or want, or expect things to be, they are not going to go your way. Being prepared for everything, however, including your plans that will change, is the trick. That is winning the battle.

Above all the noise and chaos of the first few minutes, I heard something unforgettable. A voice bellowed through the barracks. It cut through the chaos, the commotion, and the clutter. This voice was loud, grumpy, and accompanied by angry eyes. The back-woods Tennessee, lazy, Southern Drawl, was a combination of terrifying and hilarious.

Actually, I don’t know if it was Tennessee or not. I think it was. Might have been Alabama. Hard to say.

“Privates! Always maintain a rigid state of flexibility!”

Rigid flexibility? What the heck? The unexpected verbal judo caught most of the young, confused, and frantic Soldiers off guard. This literary ninjitsu took a moment for everyone to process. Poor guys. The oxymoron was lost on many of them at first.

boot camp army drill sergeant and recruits
How many of you know that look? It’s like drill sergeants are issued super-human vision. They have x-ray vision, eyes in the back of their head, and they can see really far away. (DVIDS)

 

Boot Camp Wisdom™ Is the Best Wisdom

He realized he had lost half the platoon, and shouted it again. This time, he banged on the wall for emphasis. A few more of them got it by then, and the wheels were turning. Most of my platoon mates, however, forgot that amazing life hack, that piece of Army wisdom, after about two seconds once the chaos started up again.

I tend to be an optimist. On multiple occasions, I have been accused of being too optimistic. People have accused me of being too “hard-charging.” Being optimistic has always been tempered for me, since learning the boot camp lesson that things are going to go wrong. On the other hand, because of that, I have also been accused on multiple occasions of being a pessimist. And cynical, and an a******. Probably, all of them are true.

However, because I know things will go wrong, even when it’s hard for people to hear, it does not make me an a****** or a cynic. I know that mental preparation keeps me from being surprised, or as surprised when things don’t go my way.

Pessimistic? No.

I’m skeptically optimistic.

It also helps all of us know we have to move on, continue the mission, the task, our day, or the emergency we are facing. I try (I don’t always succeed, and sometimes I fail) to remain optimistic, because there is a way out, and a path through to the other side. It might be hard, painful, and extremely messy. Yet, there is always, another way.

This gold nugget of Boot Camp Wisdom has helped me in training, in combat, in life, and in the corporate world. Remember, the “enemy” always gets a vote and will mess up your plans.

Maintain “rigid flexibility,” go out there, and win.

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