When you’re learning how to hold your own in combat, there are all sorts of things you need to know. The practical skills come to mind first — how to shoot, how to change magazines and reload, how to react to contact, how to operate various military vehicles, how to conduct effective first aid — the list goes on. Then come the more abstract skills that lend themselves to learning the physical things — discipline, perseverance, loyalty, fostering trust, earning respect — these are all qualities that are required if a good warrior wants to become excellent at the physical tasks that need to be done.
But there is one skill that comes before them all: the ability to learn. It sounds obvious, but it’s a skill that many lack.
The military forces this ability upon you — if you go into the Army and act like you know anything, you’re liable to get knocked down a few pegs. You don’t have a choice, because if you don’t learn the necessary skills and tasks, then people will die and it will be your fault. It’s that simple. It sounds dramatic, because it is.
Learning to learn is a process everyone in the military goes through, but it is not exclusive to military circles. Veterans are just lucky enough to, at some point in their lives, have had someone force them to sit down and learn something new whether they liked it or not. Many parents do this too, but not everyone is so lucky. And many veterans even have a hard time transferring this skill into civilian life.
And in the civilian world, many people ask themselves, “Can I really do that?” Be it playing an instrument, learning to write well, learning a language, taking some classes, getting a certificate — the question is always whether or not it’s possible. Many people only try what they’re good at, and if they aren’t immediately good at it, they compare themselves to people with tons of natural talent in the field. I don’t know how many people I’ve seen try to learn the guitar, only to give up because “my fingers don’t do that,” after a couple meager days. They think that if they are a slow learner, that must mean that they simply can’t do it. However, in the military I have seen plenty of slow learners chip away at the task at hand, and (after much pain and suffering) eventually become proficient experts, far beyond those with overrated talent on day one. All because they realized they realized that learning was possible.
The question people ought to be asking themselves is, “How do I learn that?” The how being the key word instead of the can.
Learning enables all technical skills to be had, but it also allows the more intangible qualities to be useful in the real world. Perseverance in a field means nothing if the person cannot learn — one can persevere as they bash their head into the same wall over and over, but learning allows them to continuously adapt and attack the problem from other angles. Courage means nothing on the battlefield if the soldier never learned the technical skills that allow him to use that courage in a way that can actually help his friends in need.
When you step off the battlefield, it’s the same thing. If you’re working a new job and there is some duty that needs to be fulfilled, asking yourself if you can do it is sort of a strange way of attacking it. Sure, there are literal handicaps — I’m literally not smart enough to go to medical school and become a surgeon in the next few years. But can I learn that new operating system on a computer? Of course, I just don’t want to. Can I strive to learn the best way to handle problems in my relationship? Of course I can. Can I learn how to manage my finances responsibly and mitigate financial stress? It’s just a matter of doing, really.
Part of learning is simply realizing that the problem isn’t that it can’t be done, but that people simply just don’t want to learn new things. The ability to learn is a habit that must be developed and then constantly nurtured, just like any other habits.
Featured image: A U.S. Army Green Beret takes one knee during a noncombatant evacuation exercise, as part of Southern Strike 16, on Meridian Naval Air Station, Miss. | By U.S. Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Muncy