“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle
Really, it was not just the Air Force Military Training Instructors who’d told them “don’t”; they’d been hearing that word a great deal throughout their lives. I stood in front of a group of young Airmen at the First Term Airmen’s Center (FTAC) as they sleepily waited to hear what the old colonel had to say to them. With few exceptions, they were about 19 years old and living away from home for the first time in their lives. They had all volunteered to serve their country in a time of war, most of them in Kindergarten or Elementary School during the 9/11 attacks. Before they appeared in new Air Force blue uniforms in that FTAC classroom, they had been through 12 weeks of Basic Military Trainingfor indoctrination into the Air Force, and Air Force Technical Training to learn the skills each would employ in their Air Force Specialty. For their first six months in the Air Force, they had heard their leaders give them a lot of “don’ts.”
As we raise young people into adulthood, we spend a lot of time setting boundaries. In fact, most of what young people hear as they grow is a list of “don’t’s.” When we’re very young, we hear “don’t throw food on the floor”, “don’t speak disrespectfully to your elders”, “don’t take toys away from your friends.” As we grow, the “don’ts” begin to pile up: don’t play in the street, don’t forget your manners, don’t use bad language, etc. Even in adulthood, we are inundated with “don’ts” regarding our behavior: don’t say those words, don’t wear those clothes,don’t eat this, don’t touch that.
All these “don’ts” form the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and within reason, boundaries are a necessary part of establishing appropriate behavior. Manners, after all, are intended to make everyone comfortable so each person’s dignity and feelings are safeguarded. All human groupings develop norms for behavior each group member is expected to adhere to. They vary in complexity and formality, but norms…boundaries or “don’ts”…are common. Of course, we can overdo boundary setting, and when there are too many boundaries, we call that tyranny. In general, however, boundaries and standards of behavior (“manners”) are necessary to the function of any human society.
What we generally left unsaid when establishing our group norms is a target to aim at. It’s not sufficient to merely describe the outside bounds of the target, you also have to show people what the bulls eye looks like. That’s what this book is all about.
People can function in a world of “do’s and don’ts,” but knowing what to do and what not to do really only describes external behavior. What people, particularly young people, really need is a vision of who we want them to be. With that vision, people are then empowered to reach for something rather thanavoiding something.
To illustrate that point, imagine the following:
You’re in a pitch black room with the task of finding a door somewhere in the room. What would you do? Most people would find the walls first, feeling their way slowly around the walls until they find the door, then opening the door to exit. But what if the door were a trap door in the floor? Or a staircase in the center of the room? What if there’s no walls or the walls give way when you push on them? Simply being told there’s a door in the room isn’t enough information to find the door. You have even less chance if the walls are missing or not firm enough to help guide you. Giving a person a vision of who we want them to be is like turning on an exit light in the room. The light illuminates the exit and gives you a direction to walk. It could even be bright enough to illuminate the entire room.
What this little thought experiment illustrates is the need for both boundaries and a target: standards of behavior and a positive vision of who we want to be.
That’s what I wanted to give those bright young Airmen at FTAC: a positive vision of who I want them to be. A vision of a person who is healthy and integrated, balanced and free. the kind of person who can be as proud of themselves and who they are as we are of them. I wanted to give them a vision to aim at, so they could grow into the kind of people others would follow.
And now I offer that same vision of who I wanted them to be to you. It’s the kind of person I want to be as well.
Watch for my newest title, The Five Be’s, in October 2015!!