What do you do when life kicks you hard, below the belt? Have you ever been fired, divorced, lost a close friend or family member, house burned down? Maybe all of them in one day? It’s amazing how much shit can hit us in an instant and even more amazing how some people are able to overcome and rise like a phoenix yet some never truly recover and wallow in despair and misery. What’s the difference between them?

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities – brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”
John W. Gardner

My belief is that the only difference is mindset. Gardner’s quote above sums it up. If you’re looking at every problem like it’s an opportunity to grow, you’re going to own it and be thankful for the chance to overcome it. I’m an old infantry soldier so a morbid sense of humour is a really good antidote to fucked up scenarios but the mindset that the infantry instills in its soldiers is one of a growth mindset.

Only recently, once I left the army and started my teaching career and graduate study did I come across a great book called Mindset by Carol Dweck. Her thesis is based on the idea that you can have two different mindsets that can set yourself up for success or not. Essentially, A growth mindset is one that encounters a challenging problem, for instance a job loss, and rather than think, “Holy shit I’m never going to be able to get back on my feet,” you say, “I’m not back on my feet yet.” This produces a cognitive shift to find novel solutions and adopt an openness for change. The latter is what is called a fixed mindset and Dweck maintains that this is the one that leads to pessimism because one believes that they cannot develop new skills and that the skills and knowledge they have is fixed. An example of this is the athlete who says, “I’m a bad runner, I’ve got short legs, I’ll never be able to run 5km in under 25 minutes.”

Really? Never?

When I was a young buck, I secretly yearned to become a SOF warrior. I started running my guts out at the track and started really improving my strength levels and then, bam, I got hit with a virus that took me out for the better part of a year. With all my progress lost, I succumbed to the fear based impulses of my reptilian brain and accepted that I’d probably never make it anyways. If my thirty-seven year old self could go talk to my twenty-one year old self, it would be a very one sided conversation with plenty of knife-handing and chest poking.

“There’s always a way – if you’re committed”
Tony Robbins

This fixed mindset usually starts to manifest itself in high school; I know, I used to see it every day when I was a math teacher. “I’m just not good in math, my mom wasn’t good either.” Like somehow, there’s a genetic transference of shitty math skills like eye colour. There was a transference, however, but not of genes but of mindset. Look at children before they reach their teenage years and they believe than can literally do anything, for the most part, or are at least receptive to a new idea. Once high school rolls around, our world begins to become a lot more difficult which is a reflection of the complexity of the problems we need to solve. Think back, yourself, to that moment in high school or maybe it was college where your said, “I’ll never get this, fuck it, time for some MarioKart.” We all had one, how did you overcome? Or did you? Did you reflect upon it? These are important parts of what I call the PROTOCOL.

I was inspired to write my protocol based on a podcast done by Jocko Willink awhile back. It was based on how to handle break ups but resonated with me since he outlined, in his stoic fashion, how to get aggressive and get back on the “warpath”after a set back. Here’s a transcript from Jocko Podcast #3:

When things are going bad, there’s going to be some good that is going to come from it…

Oh, the mission got cancelled? — Good…. We can focus on the other one.

Didn’t get the new high speed gear we wanted? — Good…. We can keep it simple.

Didn’t get promoted? — Good…. More time to get better.

Didn’t get funded? — Good…. We own more of the company.

Didn’t get the job you wanted? — Good…. You can get more experience and build a better resume.

Got injured? — Good… Needed a break from training.

Got tapped out? — Good…. It’s better to tap out in training, then tap out in the street.

Got beat? — Good…. You learned.

Unexpected problems? — Good…. We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.

That’s it. When things are going bad, don’t get all bummed out, don’t get startled, don’t get frustrated…. No.

You just look at the issue and you say “Good”.

And I don’t mean to say something all cliché and I don’t mean to sound like “Mr. Positive”. Find the positive, but do that! Focus on the good. Take that issue, take that problem, and make it something good. It’ll bring that attitude to your team too! You go forward.

And lastly, to close this out. If you can say the word “Good”, guess what….it means you’re still alive. It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, well then you still got some fight left in you.

So get up, dust off, reload, recalibrate, reengage, and go out on the attack!

With my clients, we go through how our weekly wins and losses and how to overcome and smash through our goals.

Not getting stronger? Good. We need to mix up our methods in the gym.

Can’t put on weight? Good. Time to figure out a better nutrition plan.

This process is based on habit formation but also on the idea that any goal can be attained with the right mindset. Therefore, I have them read and reflect. All the benchpress and fitness tests in the world won’t do you any damn good if you crumble once presented with an unexpected challenge to your progress.

The last few years have presented me with some very difficult challenges since coming back from Afghanistan, namely a back injury that I described in an earlier post. Most recently, I embarked on a complete career overhaul. I was dissatisfied with myself professionally and emotionally and needed to make a change. I left my comfortable teaching job for a new position at a tech start up. I felt relieved to be out of the classroom and in a new environment but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t the right fit and I eventually got let go.

If you’ve never been let go, it’s kind of stressful. If you don’t know what the most stressful life situations are, I present you the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. This scale takes common problems and events and assigns a number value to them. Based on your score, your likelihood of getting ill can be calculated. The higher the score the higher the likelihood of illness.

Here are life’s 10 biggest stressors;

  1. Death of a spouse (or child*): 100
  2. Divorce: 73
  3. Marital separation: 65
  4. Imprisonment: 63
  5. Death of a close family member: 63
  6. Personal injury or illness: 53
  7. Marriage: 50
  8. Dismissal from work: 47
  9. Marital reconciliation: 45
  10. Retirement: 45

There are plenty more but I’ll calculate my score based on what I’ve been going through.

Personal injury or illness: 53

Dismissal from work: 47

Pregnancy: 40

Change in financial state: 38

Change to a different line of work: 36

Change in number of arguments with spouse: 35

Mortgage over $20,000 (updated for 2018 = ~$150,000): 31

Christmas approaching: 12

For a grand total of 292!! Big Winner Chicken Dinner!

According to the scale:

  • 80% likelihood of illness for scores over 300
  • 50% likelihood of illness for scores between 150-299
  • 30% likelihood of illness for scores less than 150

So, I’m skirting the line of becoming ill due to stress but thankfully, I haven’t succumbed to any illness to date and I attribute that to feeling in charge of my destiny because I wrote out my Hardship Protocol. I wrote this out immediately after being let go. The greater intent is to pass it along not only to you but my children so they can learn from their dad’s experience and have a framework for becoming resilient. Here’s The Protocol:

The Protocol – To be initiated when life kicks you in the pills

Step 1: Thank your boss/partner/wife for the experience, then;

  1. Call your wife/partner/best friend
  2. Treat yourself to a latte
  3. Get to work and start thinking of your next move
  4. Run 8 miles HARD & FAST or something equally physically painful
  5. Play a game of something with your son/buddy
  6. Write your Battle Plan (write what you intend to do, the first mission in seeing out your intent, how your going to execute it and what resources you’re going to need to do it!)
  7. Go to bed early
  8. Get up at o’dark thirty the next morning


Step 2: Work on your improving yourself. What have you been putting off that would make you a better employee/member of society? For me this was;

  1. Finish my project management certification modules
  2. Finish my paper on concussion management for submission to PhD program.
  3. Take business courses on marketing.

Step 3: Actionable steps and habits you can adopt right now. Mine were and still are;

  1. Volunteering
  2. Attend networking meetings
  3. Push broadly into networks.
  4. PT everyday
  5. Wake up 0500

Step 4: Write out your Perfect Day. This is crucial. If you don’t have your vision for the future then all your efforts are lost in the sauce. Don’t skip this step;

Sea air mixed with a brewed coffee swirl around in my nostrils and I take a moment to write down my goals for the day. I have an important conference call regarding my newest school project being built in Africa. I’ll also need to find some time for a little gift for my assistant who lives in town.

After my call, I can go crush some heavy deadlifts. I’m heading to the gym I own just down the street. I love the people here and I still teach one class a day to stay sharp and interact with my community.

After training, I make a huge breakfast with my wife and we sit outside and enjoy the sun. It’s time for a 30 min siesta in the hammock.

Before supper, I’m volunteering at the local school to help teach English and science. Once this is complete, I head back home, all by bicycle, to ask X how his day was at school and grab a nice cold beer and sit on the patio. The day is nearing completion and we eat a lite supper of squid and antipasti and go to bed early after reading a good book and making out for like 15 mins.

I’m far from being out of the woods and this all speaks to a greater issue of veteran transition into the civilian workforce. I’ll be sure to write something about this topic in the near future. Whatever your method for overcoming set backs, it’s really important to remember that you can’t do it alone. We’re conditioned in the military to “sort your shit out” and its implication is that you have to dig deep and do it on your own. Well, I can assure you that, yes, introspection is really important but when you’re on the receiving end of life’s shit stick, you need to call in support. I’m always free for a chat but there are also great networks of really supportive veterans on Linkedin and Facebook that have been become massively important for me as well.

I’m far from any sort of veteran transition guru but I know that whether you use my Protocol template or not, the big picture is that you create a plan to deal with adversity and gain some control of your situation. I know this works because I’m living it right now; my vision is clear, my objectives defined and my resolve, hardened.

#veteran #veterantransition #mindset #canadianveteran