General James T. Mattis is an interesting guy. When I was playing Marine*, he was the person I most idolized in uniform. General Mattis (Call sign “Chaos” How cool is that?) has been in the Marine Corps since January 1, 1972. He has commanded Marines in every situation from rifle platoon commander; to the commander of the 1st Marine Division’s 17 day, 500 mile sustained march into Baghdad (the longest march in Corps history); to the head of USCENTCOM and one of the key authors of the Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual. In all the diverse billets that General Mattis has held, he has stuck to diligent study of previous wars for guiding wisdom (he assigns hundreds pages of reading to his junior officers), and been an evangelist for the key principle that he has found to be the defining characteristic of success in war: Risk.
The risks we take in our daily lives—a diving tackle, asking someone out, karaoke— are quaint and petty compared to the risks of combat. But Mattis is not an evangelist for managing risk. He’s also not an evangelist for acting brashly or even boldly. He’s an evangelist for the paradoxes of risk:
- Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.
- Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.
- The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted.
- Sometimes, doing nothing is the best reaction.
The lesson that General Mattis has learned is that the delivery of force (i.e. blowing things up and killing bad guys) needs to be simultaneously slow and fast. Marines need the courage to show great restraint, even when being fired upon. But when the opportunity arises to eliminate enemies (and only enemies) Marines need the courage to act with the upmost ferocity. And knowing they can act with more ferocity allows Marines to show more restraint. The two qualities feed each other and drive progress. By sacrificing either of these qualities in the name of “safety,” you create an environment of compromise. You slide to the middle and progress stalls.
"Every Attempt To Make War Easy and Safe Will Result in Humiliation and Disaster"
If you don’t know why I’m talking about all this war stuff, then I suspect you have been cruising on medium for a long time. Medium is the same. The status quo. Medium is when you run 5 miles every day; do chest every Monday; or can’t remember the last time you improved a lift or dropped a pound of fat. Medium is a rut of risk averse behavior that sacrifices improvement for fear of doing too much or too little. Ever do a recovery run that turned into a tempo run? Ever go in for a light workout that kicked your butt? Ever read US Weekly while on the elliptical or between sets of curls? You’re on medium.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, everything in nature has a wave pattern to it. Intensity followed by recovery done consistently leads to progress... eventually. If you look at the park bench workouts (Easy Strength, the 40 Day Program, Grease the Groove), there is no medium. There’s “pretty easy” peppered with “pretty tough” for about a month, then you move up in weight. Twice a year, you throw in a month of bus bench workouts (Big 21, ETK, RTK, Kettlebell Muscle, Afternburn, 5/3/1, etc., whatever) and you have a lot of intensity (read: hard). Then you go back to the park bench stuff and you have the recovery (read: easy). The result is the weight keeps going up. If it doesn’t, you try a different wave of intensity followed by more recovery. But you have to have the courage to go hard enough then the courage to go easy enough for months at a time. And after years and years of slowly nudging up the progress, sometimes you even have to have the courage to stop altogether and reassess your path. And by “stop” I mean “STOP.” And by “altogether” I mean for a few months. After all those years of “up” you might need a bit of “down.”
So if you know you’re at medium, what do you need to do? You need to go harder or go easier. And if one of those sounds more appealing than the other, then you probably need to do the opposite one. Have the courage to embrace the paradox and beware of medium.
*So we're clear, I was never a Marine. I was not selected for, did not attend, nor complete OCS. I was an officer candidate from November of 2008 to February of 2010 and that alone was enough to be a formative experience in my life. The picture is actually Gunnery Sergeant Mata yelling and my friend Gram. I'm 3rd in line to get fucked with.