If you're a parent, it's hard when you don't like your kids' choices. Sometimes you have to step in, like when they're acting illegally or risking their health. But what do you do when your kids simply seem hard-headed, or following a track that doesn't make sense to you?
Sometimes, as much as it hurts, the right reaction turns out to be to do nothing at all.
Meet Ken Marlin. At 19, he dropped out of college to join the U.S. Marine Corps. The year was 1970, and the Vietnam War was raging. His mom was in tears; his dad, who had seen combat in World War II, wasn't exactly thrilled either. But they couldn't stop him.
If you talk with Marlin now, he'll tell you that his determination to succeed (he's had a very successful career in business and on Wall Street) was a result of his choice to enlist. While he ultimately went back to college, got his MBA, and spent 10 years on active duty, he points most specifically to 11 core principles and strategies he says he learned in the Marines.
Disclosure: Marlin has a book out, The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street, and I first met him because I did some writing and editing for him as part of my consulting and ghostwriting work. Of course the Marine Corps isn't the path for everyone, but his pathway to determination and discipline make a lot of sense.
1. Take the long view.
The Marine Corps teaches leaders to think strategically: identify your true objective, then work backward, identifying smaller wins you'll need in order to achieve your ultimate goal. As part of that, Marlin says, you need to train yourself to identify the battles you should avoid, if they don't help you achieve your biggest goals.
How many people do you know who seem to spend their time fighting battles or climbing mountains that simply don't matter? (As a parent, this is a good bit of advice to remember, too. Think hard about which battles you shouldn't bother fighting with your kids, because they won't affect the ultimate outcome.)
2. Take a stand.
One of my favorite quotes is by George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Part of the Marine ethos is that when the facts on the ground aren't favorable, you work hard to find a way to change the context. This also means that you have no excuses not to stand up for what you truly believe; it's almost never "too hard" or "not worth it." No, you don't have to be a zealot, but when you identify things you feel strongly about, have the courage to be an evangelist. Be a winner, not a wimp.
3. Become an expert (or find one).
Every Marine enlistee trains as an infantryman--a ground warrior, Marlin notes. But they also learn quickly in the Marines that nobody can be the expert in everything. So, individual Marines are sent to learn to develop expertise and experience in particular domains.
While it's good to have a background in many things, the world's least interesting people are the ones who are an inch-deep in everything, and truly proficient at nothing. ("Beware the well-meaning generalists," Marlin says. "They can get you killed.")
4. Know your adversaries.
Life is full of negotiations. Marines learn that if you want to overcome almost any challenge or win any negotiation, you'll be in a much better position if you seek to understand the motivations, capabilities, and constraints of the people on the other side.
Too many on Wall Street, in politics, and in life don't get this. They don't bother to learn anything about the people they deal with--and see them only as enemies or challenges to be overcome. That puts them at a huge, self-inflicted disadvantage.
5. Know what the objective is worth.
Sometimes, achieving objectives in life are worth it at almost any cost. However, many people get sucked into challenges--whether we're talking about business goals or simply things that "others" say they should accomplish to become successful--and wind up investing far too much.
During World War II, 7,100 Marines and soldiers were killed taking Guadalcanal, one of the most important battles in the war. But Marlin himself talks about how many Marines struggled with whether the Vietnam War was "worth it," even while they were fighting it. The cost of achieving anything should always be weighed against how important that thing is to begin with.
6. Know yourself.
In the Marine Corps, you spend a lot of time assessing your strengths, weaknesses, capabilities, and constraints. In the business world and life, however, there are countless people with no idea what they're truly good at--and even worse, no idea what they're not good at.
Marine General James Mattis might have put it best: If you "avoid the brutal facts ... and start living in a dream world, it's going to be bad."
7. Control the timing.
They say timing is everything. So your odds of succeeding in just about anything are increased if you can find a way to control the timing. It's true on Wall Street and the world stage as much as it is our individual lives.
People sometimes confuse "timing" with the element of surprise, but it's more than that. To use a military example, back in 2003, Saddam Hussein wasn't at all surprised by the U.S.-led coalition that build up in advance of the attack on his forces. He probably watched it live on CNN, but it didn't help.
8. Negotiate from the high ground.
Negotiating from the "high ground" implies a degree of leverage, but it's also about understanding that after the negotiating is done, you usually have to wind up living with the other side. That's a concept some bankers, some CEOs, and too many politicians don't always get.
The first rule of negotiations is that you can't negotiate well unless the other side thinks you are willing to walk away from the table. You also want to mange the other side's perception of your "BATNA," your "Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement."
9. Seek foreign adventures.
The key to success in modern business and life, Marlin says, is to embrace the fact that we live in a truly global world. Look out for opportunities beyond our national borders. Travel, learn, and explore.
Of all the armed services, the Marines embrace this the most. They're an expeditionary force that tries to fight wars on other people's soil, rather than our own. The most successful businesses in the world do so as well.
10. Trust and verify.
Growth and profit often require risk, and there are no sure things in life. No contract or plan can eliminate all risk. In war, for example, there is always the risk that the enemy has developed a new weapon, or that that they know something important you don't.
The best leaders evaluate things thoroughly. While trust is required--or no action would ever be taken--they also verify as many of their assumptions as they reasonably can.
11. Be disciplined.
If you think of the Marines, you might think of the uniforms and discipline. They go hand in hand. For the Marines, discipline is about developing repeatable processes that work--and it all goes back to the idea of identifying big objectives, and then systemically doing all the things you need to do to get there.
The same principles apply in business and life. Find the things you truly want to achieve, formulate a strategic plan to get there, and discipline yourself to achieve all the intermediate steps.