Four years ago I began a professional journey that profoundly changed me. Having burned out after spending seven years as a commercial real estate lawyer, I decided to change careers and study stress, burnout, and how people can build their own resilience reserves. I never in a million years thought that part of that journey would one day include working with drill sergeants and other soldiers and their spouses in the US Army.
I wanted to be part of this work because of my grandpa. He was in the D-Day Normandy invasion and was forever changed by his experience fighting in WWII. Getting “help” wasn’t what he chose to do after the war, and instead his demons got the better of him on many occasions. I wanted something different for other families.
Part of my training included learning how to speak Army, figuring out the rank structure, and understanding a vast alphabet of acronyms. It was all worth it because I learned so much from the soldiers I taught. Here are just a few of the biggest lessons I learned:
Let go of who you think you should be to be who you are. I was pretty angry at the world when I left my law practice. While I was relieved to be done practicing law, I didn’t understand what had happened to me and what burnout was. As I started this new chapter in my life, I vowed not to let people see who I really was or know the full extent of my story, because if people knew who I really was, the perfect veneer I had spent years trying to build and maintain might shatter. Instead of connecting with people heart to heart, I connected with them through facts, figures, and knowledge – I wasn’t about to take that emotional risk.
But then the soldiers started to tell their stories, and I got to witness their “aha” moments. They talked about the mistakes they had made both personally and professionally, friends and loves lost and found, and regrets they had. That made me think, “If the toughest men and women on the planet could open up a little, maybe I could too.” And then it all changed for me. Thanks to the soldiers and their spouses, I had the courage to finally step into the fullest version of my story. As a result, my mission became clearer, my writing became richer and my connections with others deeper. I learned that vulnerability is not weakness, and while I lost my own vulnerability fight, I won my life back.
Take good risks. I realized that seven years of practicing law caused me to play it safe in life. I got comfortable in my little corner of the world and stopped taking good risks. Being part of this training team required me to get outside of my comfort zone on a number of occasions. I traveled to the Middle East and rode a camel in the middle of the desert (I never imagined that this sentence would ever have come out of my mouth), acted out skits to illustrate teaching concepts, and danced in front of rooms full of soldiers (considering I dance like Elaine from Seinfeld, I nearly gave myself a panic attack the first time I had to do this – no joke). When you push your boundaries and succeed, your brain asks, “What else can you do?” Thanks to the push I got in this program, taking good risks has become a fundamental part of my life.
Have a battle buddy. Connection is a fundamental tenet of resilience. In the military, a battle buddy, or battle, is the person a soldier assists both in and out of combat. In the military, a soldier always has someone to count on for assistance, and I think it’s a concept civilians should adopt. My battle, Lorrie, has helped me in countless ways both personally and professionally, and it’s so comforting to know that this “bestie” exists in my life.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. When you put your life on the line for a cause, as soldiers do on a daily basis, things like waiting in a long line at the grocery store become less of a big deal. When you get deployed multiple times in a few short years and miss family events and births of kids, a little traffic jam isn’t so stressful. Getting the wrong order at Starbucks isn’t the end of the world. I gained a new appreciation of what it means to sacrifice.
Humor is a survival strategy. When I first started this work, I was taken aback at how many soldiers cited “humor” or “laughing” as a resilience strategy. Given the intensity and seriousness of the situations they often encounter, using humor as a coping mechanism seemed misplaced to me, but I was wrong. Humor is often the very thing that gets them through the intensity and the seriousness. I try to find the funny in stress now.
Soldiers know how to lead. One of my colleagues said that we should create a hotline for civilians to call a solider in times of adversity because they are that good at solving problems (she called it “Dial an NCO”). Whether it’s creating a mobile hospital in the desert from scratch, securing a forward operating base, or organizing the mass exodus of 200+ people from the basement of the Sheraton in Philly during a fire drill (which actually happened), soldiers understand the core of what it means to be a good leader.
Connect with something bigger than yourself. For some soldiers this means God, for others, it’s a sense of spirituality. For others still, their “something bigger” is their service in the military. The Army soldiers we train also live by a specific set of values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
I helped teach resilience skills to thousands of soldiers and their spouses, and every time I said goodbye to a class, I got choked up because I saw my grandpa in every one of their faces. He would have been so proud of this work, and I thank these men and women for changing my life in the best possible way.
_____________________________________________________________________________________Paula Davis-Laack, JD MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, a practice devoted to helping busy professionals prevent burnout. Paula is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.
Paula has been featured in and on the Steve Harvey TV show, US News & World Report, Forbes.com, Working Mother and Women’s Health magazines and speaks regularly about burnout prevention. Paula is available for speaking engagements, training workshops, media commentary, and private life coaching. To learn more, contact Paula at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.pauladavislaack.com.
Connect with Paula on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.