Don Shomette

People are the Prize

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One Great Technique To Avoid Unhappy Outcomes

The counterintuitive action is often the best course of action. Because it’s counterintuitive, it can also be the most difficult because you don’t initially think of it and you don’t naturally want to do it.

You have to will yourself to do it.

For those who have had the unhappy experience of rear-ending the car in front of you, the last thing you ever wanted to do, could ever do, was to pull your eyes away from the other guy’s fast approaching bumper as you skidded straight towards it.


That would be counterintuitive, but it would also be the best course of action.

We consciously as well as subconsciously steer towards whatever we’re looking at so you never stare at what you don’t want to hit or you’ll drive right into it. Instead, you steer towards where you want to go and your body will automatically make the corrections needed to avoid the accident. I learned this in high speed and pursuit driver training and I’ve applied it many times to avoid hitting things.

It absolutely works, but dang-gone it’s hard to do because it’s so counterintuitive.

After all, the problem is right there in front of you. You’re racing towards it and you’re terribly afraid of the outcome. It only makes sense to stare at it.

I think this happens a lot in life and not just when driving.

Sometimes there’s nothing we can do to avoid a bad outcome, but often we can. Especially if we don’t dismiss the counterintuitive action. When you find yourself headed towards something bad, don’t simply just hit the brakes. You’re still going to run into it – just at a slower speed.

Instead, look away from the problem and identify clearly where you want to go and then don’t take your eyes off it. Fixate on that outcome. This is not the same thing as ignoring a problem. It’s creating a chance through a determined effort for a different and better outcome that may be right there in front of you if you’re willing to just steer towards it.

It’s worked for me and it can work for you. Just be willing to do the counterintuitive by asking yourself, “Where should I be steering?”


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The Single Greatest Indicator of Your Future Success


As a part of a NATO exercise, my unit spent thirty days living in the snow just north of the Arctic Circle. The snow was so deep that you could dig all day and not hit earth and the nights so cold that it could drop to 75 degrees below zero. That kind of deep cold doesn’t take your breath away, it takes your thoughts. If you’re not really careful and keep moving, you’re a zombie in zero-to-sixty seconds minus of course the desire to eat people. You do moan though, stumble, and your skin does hang off your body. The cold causes your skin to crack and peel, crack and peel, crack and peel, until a finger can resemble a badly sharpened crayon.


On multiple occasions Marines, who had fallen victim to the cold, had to be led around by a safety cord attached to a buddy until they snapped out of it. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where grown men have to be told to wipe their noses since you can’t feel your nose or your lips, or for that matter, your face. Since all Marines speak multiple languages – at least English and Latin (Semper Fi) – we found sophisticated ways to alert each other to wipe our faces.

For example, one might say, “Escargot” and point to the Marine’s face. For those who don’t speak French, it translates into something like this.

“Dude, you’re killing me. I can’t talk to you when snot is running over your lips.”


You always have to wear a glove and not just to stay warm, but to protect yourself from losing a hand. The fuel used to fire the lifesaving stoves is the same temperature as the outside air and if it spills on your hands…hello instant contact frostbite and goodbye hand.

You basically spend every waking moment asking yourself, “Why is everything trying to kill me?”

We didn’t have email, phones, receive any letters or packages from home. We didn’t have any outside contact with anyone for thirty days. Completely alone and cut off from the outside world, I felt as if I was living a giant science experiment where I was a tiny subject in a giant frozen petri dish.

It was here that I learned my single most valuable lesson from the Marines.

For thirty days we all ate the exact same food, wore the exact same type of clothes, lived in the exact same space, and did the exact same work on a daily basis. No one had any special privileges or received a boost in morale from contact with home. Everything was identical. The only thing that was even remotely discernable as different was how everyone reacted to their conditions.

Some were rock stars carrying the entire squad’s tent on their back while others couldn’t even carry their rifles. I found myself asking, “Why, if everything is the same, are some excelling and others failing? Shouldn’t each person be doing just as well or poorly as everyone else since the environment is identical for everyone?”

I just couldn’t understand it.

Then it dawned on me that I had made a fatal mistake. I had placed the environment as the critical piece in the puzzle for understanding what I was witnessing. After all, the environment seemed bent on destroying us and we literally fought it daily if not hourly if not minute-by-minute. I was thinking environment first, everything else second but that was wrong. When I finally placed the environment in its rightful place, then it all made sense. It’s not the environment, regardless of how harsh it is, that decides a person’s success. It’s the person.

The person is greater than the environment. The person comes first, the person is the deciding factor.

And I thank the Marines for teaching me this invaluable lesson.


I recently read an article where the writer argued that the best indicator for a person’s future success was the race and wealth of that person’s parents.

Like me, they too got it backwards.

The person’s character is the best indicator for their future success and not their race, wealth, poverty, gender, family, last name, or any other external circumstance that the environment can throw at them. The best indicator for future success is the person’s attitude and their desire to be successful. As it was for me in the Arctic Circle, the environment might be your single greatest foe but it’s not greater than you.

The person is the decider of their fate, the master of their destiny, the molder of their life.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the environment is greater than you. Don’t let them handicap or imprison your kids with the terrible notion that outside factors are more important than the strength of their character. You want to condemn a person to a life of underachievement and mediocrity? Tell them that their life will be decided not by them, but by someone or something else.

No, it’s up to you. The person is greater than the environment. If they don’t believe you, they can tell that to the Marines or to go to the Arctic Circle and see firsthand.

Just make sure they know how to speak French…


Twenty eight years ago this week I joined the United States Marine Corps. I was just 17 years old when I shipped out for boot camp. Ultimately, my career in the Marines would span twelve years, travel across no fewer than 15 countries, and fight in one war.

This week I wrote everyday about one lesson I learned (sometimes the hard way) in the US Marines. To read some of these lessons, please follow the links below. Semper Fi!

Day 1:
We Didn’t Promise You a Rose Garden:
Day 2:
Learning From the Marines How to Raise Self-esteem
Day 3:
The Marines Simply Don’t Care…And Neither Should You
Day 4:
Freedom Inside Discipline:

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Freedom Inside Discipline

Twenty eight years ago this week I joined the United States Marine Corps. I was just 17 years old when I shipped out for boot camp. Ultimately, my career in the Marines would span twelve years, travel across no fewer than 15 countries, and fight in one war.

This week I’m going to write everyday about one lesson I learned (sometimes the hard way) in the US Marines.

Day 1:
We Didn’t Promise You a Rose Garden:
Day 2:
Learning From the Marines How to Raise Self-esteem
Day 3:
The Marines Simply Don’t Care…And Neither Should You

Day 4:
Freedom Inside Discipline:

Imagine an enormous playground surrounded by high and sturdy walls. Inside the playground there are endless swings, slides, sandboxes, pulleys, and every kind of bar, rope, ladder, and chain imaginable. There’s something for climbing, hanging, swinging, jumping, spinning, and lots of things for falling if you’re not careful. As far as the eye can see, there’s something to have fun. In fact, the playground is so massive that you could spend your entire life and still not have enough time to play on every one of the pieces. To stay on the playground you have to follow just one rule.

Stay inside the walls.

I know this may be difficult to believe, but I have never had so much fun, laughed so hard, or enjoyed so many freedoms as I did when I was a Marine. For those who have watched the movie ‘The 13th Warrior’ there’s a series of back-to-back scenes where a group of Vikings are enduring terrible hardships…and they can’t stop laughing. That was me, that was the Marines, and it’s because the Marine Corps is a playground surrounded by high and sturdy walls.


While the Marine Corps will never advertise that they are a playground (and they certainly will not promise you a rose garden), they do exhaustively promote the concept of freedom inside discipline and our families, work places, schools, and lives would be better if we too adopted this practice.

There’s three simple ways to create ‘Freedom inside discipline’

1. Build a High Wall
Forgot about policies, procedures, and rules. They suck the life out of everything because too many leaders simply use them as a club to beat people over the head with for doing wrong. Instead, develop and demand high standards and hold others to them.


If you let rules dominate you, sooner or later it will come back to bite you. You see this in schools, families, and businesses where there are a million rules that overlap each other, many even contradicting previous ones. Most often it’s because someone once used a rule against the leader in order to beat the ‘system’ or to do the absolute minimum required to satisfy the rule. Therefore, additional rules have to be created just to close that loop hole and the vicious circle goes on and on.

Instead of one high and sturdy wall, now you have a million little hurdles to navigate over that in time will completely sap your energy. And besides, you simply can’t create enough rules to cover everything and this type of constant correction will only create massive confusion, stifle growth, reduce exploration, and kill initiative.

That’s not a playground.

The Marine Corps had one massive wall (standard) and it was to simply act like a Marine. Not a million rules to ensure you did the minimum to be like a Marine, but one very high standard that you strove to reach—to act like a Marine. Like a baseball bat to the kidneys, one only had to say to a fellow Marine, “Why don’t you act like a Marine” for the message to be received loud and painfully clear.

You have failed to reach the standard.

So how could we apply this method with students?

(Good and necessary) rules for students:

  • You must be kind
  • You must be nice
  • You must say thank you and please
  • You must use an inside voice
  • You must not interrupt

Now, these rules turned into a standard:

  • You must be respectful.

When the student is not kind you correct the behavior by focusing less on the rule and more on reaching and maintaining a high standard which is being respectful.

“We don’t say that to people because that is not kind. That is not being respectful.”

You’re not ignoring good rules or bad behavior. You’re trying to develop a standard of great behavior that can be applied in all situations especially where a specific rule has not been identified. If you then live that standard the rules will be followed by default.

If it helps, try to remember that rules are made to be followed, but standards are made to be reached.

2. Play hard on the playground
The Marines promote teamwork while still prizing individualism. They require uniformity but love eccentricity. They value and encourage competition and hard work. They believe deeply that when you’re on the playground that you play as hard as you possibly can and hold nothing back. You owe that to yourself as well as the team. There is no sitting around waiting for something to happen or hesitating out of fear that you’ll fail. This is not tolerated and you’ll be thrown onto the playground and told to have fun, lots of fun!

This type of attitude is infectious, energizing, and completely liberating. It makes you grow and love growing. You go to bed thinking about it and you can’t wait to wake up and start playing because anything goes just as long as you stay inside the walls.

That’s a playground…treat life like a playground.


3. Lose the Zero Defect Mentality
One of the greatest days in the Marine was when General Gray outlawed the zero defect mentality. For the longest time, if you made one little mistake your career was over. You can’t grow, learn, do great work, or have fun when you’re constantly afraid of being punished. It’s impossible.

That’s not a playground.

And who would want to play on a playground where every little mistake you make is treated as a terrible wrong. This type of corrosive environment will sooner than later teach a person that it is far easier and safer to stop trying. When this happens, mediocrity will reign supreme because this is the condition for success you’ve created. Do little—fear little.

Instead, encourage and reward great effort, courage, and boldness. When mistakes happen, and they are certain to occur, give forgiveness, make corrections, demand amends, and get back on the playground.


Last point,

Standard have many different names. Some simply call it knowing right and wrong, good and bad, others define it as ethics, values, principles, scruples, and a host of other expressions that basically denotes right behavior.

The Marines call it freedom inside discipline.

It’s not there to infringe but to expand freedoms and to help the person become who he or she was created to be. If you embrace and live this concept, I guarantee that you can turn any school or family into a playground surrounded by walls…and love it.


The Marines Simply Don’t Care…And Neither Should You

Twenty eight years ago this week I joined the United States Marine Corps. I was just 17 years old when I shipped out for boot camp. Ultimately, my career in the Marines would span twelve years, travel across no fewer than 15 countries, and fight in one war.

This week I’m going to write everyday about one lesson I learned (sometimes the hard way) in the US Marines.

Day 1:
We Didn’t Promise You a Rose Garden:
Day 2:
Learning From the Marines How to Raise Self-esteem

Day 3:
The Marines Simply Don’t Care…And Neither Should You

The Marine Corps doesn’t care about your prior life. They don’t care if you were well-known or unknown, rich or broke, where you lived, what you did for a living, what college you graduated from or didn’t graduate from, your parent’s last name, if you were a gangbanger, drug addict, or whatever else you did prior to joining the Corps.

The Marines simply don’t care.

And you’re wasting your time if you try to argue that any of your past accomplishments should account for something or your negative experiences should influence what you receive or don’t receive in the Marines. You’ll be told in no friendly terms to basically ‘go pound sand’ which is a popular saying in the Corps.

And the Corps would be correct to do so.

One of the best examples is world heavy weight boxing champion Riddick Bowe who left boot camp in less than two weeks. His past experiences and riches, undeniably great, didn’t matter.


The Marines simply do not care about those things because in truth they matter very little. Marine Corps boot camp is a transformation from the old you to the new you. For many, it’s too difficult to let go of the past (good and the bad) and they end up washing out. In my experience, this is the number one reason why a person doesn’t make it in the Marines. They can’t live in the present. And the present can be challenging because it demands action today. And that is what the Marines do care about, in truth what they are obsessed with—the now. The present. Today.

And most importantly what you put into it.


How much you put into it is all you’ll be judged by and nothing else. Marines know that whatever good they put into this day will come back to them, sooner or later, in equal if not greater shares. This type of reward system produces ridiculously high levels of initiative, morale, and a crazy desire for constant self-improvement.

These are all amazing outcomes, but there’s one more element to this system that I feel is the most significant. The one that I’ve personally seen make the greatest difference. The one that is necessary for all the others to be possible.

And that is second chances.

I took over a platoon and ‘inherited’ a young Marine who was waiting to be disciplined upon returning to the rear. We were high in the hills of Norway and convening a board was just impossible. Without a doubt, this Marine was facing loss of rank, pay, and possible time in the brig (which is far worse than boot camp).

One of the things that leaders do when joining a new platoon is to talk with each Marine and try to get to know them a little. What are your goals in the Corps? What is your dream position in the platoon? What do you want to do?

In thirty degrees below zero temperatures and seven feet of snow, it was difficult but not impossible. When I met with this Marine, I was a little shocked when he told me that he wanted to be a leader of Marines. I didn’t expect that so I asked, “What’s the first step to make that happen?”

“Get rid of this machine gun. Leaders don’t carry machine guns.”

Again, I was surprised by his answer and in truth had been hoping he’d say something about personal change. Either way, he had obviously given it some thought so I found another Marine who didn’t mind carrying a machine gun and the two switched weapons. Now he had a rifle, which is what leaders carry, but he wasn’t a leader of Marines yet.

To his great credit and as a testimony to a system that truly allows for real second chances, this Marine worked hard to remake himself and the Corps rewarded him. Within thirty days we left Norway and by the time we landed on ground that wasn’t buried in snow, he had been recommended for meritorious promotion and moved to the position of fire-team leader.

He was now officially a leader of Marines and a darn good one. And all the other stuff that was in the past was forgotten about, never brought up again because it didn’t matter. Especially not compared to the extreme effort he put into every day.

In my experience, second chances aren’t lost by the person trying to change. They’re made nearly impossible by others who refuse to stop living in the past while ignoring real effort. Unfortunately, I’ve only witnessed true second chances in the Marines.

Just imagine how better our country, families, work places, and schools would be if it mattered less what a person did in the past and more what they did now. Today.

In the Marine Corps it’s joked that every meal is a banquet, every paycheck a fortune, and every formation a family reunion. I believe it. I also think that one more thing should be added.

In the Marine Corps every day can be a new you…if you’re willing to work at it.

matter4Don Shomette 1989

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Learning From the Marines How to Raise Self-esteem

Twenty eight years ago this week I joined the United States Marine Corps. I was just 17 years old when I shipped out for boot camp. Ultimately, my career in the Marines would span twelve years, travel across no fewer than 15 countries, and fight in one war.

This week I’m going to write everyday about one lesson I learned (sometimes the hard way) in the US Marines.


Day 1:
We Didn’t Promise You a Rose Garden:

Day 2:
Learning From the Marines How to Raise Self-esteem

There is a false image perpetrated by Hollywood that Marine Corps drill instructors are mean people. It’s not true. Marine drill instructors are very kind, patient, fun loving guys who never yell and always give you the benefit of the doubt. It is not uncommon to see a drill instructor rubbing the back of a recruit and telling him he’s a good boy even though he didn’t do exactly as he was asked (drill instructors never demand).

When there’s competition, which the drill instructors prefer to call group play, everyone receives a reward and no one is ever signaled out individually when they didn’t do as well as the others. After all, in the Marine Corps everyone is a winner.

One can literally see and feel the love in the faces of drill instructors.


Okay, we all know that’s not true.

My drill instructors hated my guts. I’m convinced that had they been able to get away with it, they would have killed me. Certainly they voiced their desire to do so on many occasions as they hit me and cussed and accused me and my family of contaminating the world.

They are not nice guys…

But here’s a question. If we all know this to be a fact, that drill instructors treat new recruits harshly, unkindly, never tell them they are loved or that they’ve done a good job—why upon graduating boot camp do men and women leave with such high self-esteem?

High self-esteem is not the right word. At a recent training, I had a prior woman Marine put it more accurately. She said when she graduated boot camp she had “Crazy high” self-esteem.

Okay, so here it is again.

Why do men and women when they graduate boot camp (for any service) have such crazy high self-esteem even though they have been treated so terribly?

It’s because they have accomplished so much in a very short period of time.

To raise a person’s self-esteem, kind words are not required. They are the icing on the cake and should be spread on generously, but they are not necessary for self-esteem. People have it all wrong. They think kind words first. Instead, think accomplishment first and kind words a very close second, especially when we think of kids. Give your kids (students) many, many, many tasks that they can accomplish and you will by default raise their self-esteem.

These tasks do not have to be difficult, just anything that requires effort. Of course the greater the effort the greater the self-esteem. If the task requires an extreme effort the greater the person’s self-worth (highest and most permanent form of self-esteem).

If you focus on giving your kids tasks that they can accomplish then like Marines, even if someone is not always nice to them they will still feel good about themselves because they have accomplished something that no unkind word can ever take away.

They’ve done it and they know it and no one can ever change that. It’s why when a person accomplishes the extreme task of becoming a Marine, they are a Marine for life.


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We Didn’t Promise You a Rose Garden:

Twenty eight years ago this week I joined the United States Marine Corps. I was just 17 years old when I shipped out for boot camp. Ultimately, my career in the Marines would span twelve years, travel across no fewer than 15 countries, and fight in one war.

This week I’m going to write everyday about one lesson I learned (sometimes the hard way) in the US Marines.

Day 1:
We Didn’t Promise You a Rose Garden:

After every deployment overseas, each Marine unit goes through pretty much the same ritual. Thirty days leave, swap out broken gear for new gear, weapons maintenance, get rid of the ‘old-timers’ (their contracts completed), receive an influx of new Marines, and start training for the next deployment.

After one deployment, I received an enormous number of new Marines. We had just returned from six months in Okinawa, Japan, and were heading out again in less than 4 months. Having already been overseas several times, I tried to take it easy on the new guys so I reduced the level of physical exercise, field training, and combat drills. I didn’t do it because I was being lazy, but because I knew what was coming. Very soon these new Marines would be running at a pre-deployment operational tempo that would be a killer. By cutting them a break now, I thought it would make life easier later. I was wrong. I hadn’t made life easier, but harder.

How so?

One day, one of my young Marines moped by, his face down trodden and sad. Knowing that he had just spent the last two days with his family back home, I asked him if something bad had happened over the weekend leave. He replied, “No, it was fine.”

He tried to push past, but I grabbed his arm and pulled him close. I repeatedly asked him to tell me what was going on but each time he refused. Finally I ordered him to tell me and like a good Marine, he complied.

“My family keeps asking me what I do in the Marines. They think it must be so tough. I’m embarrassed to tell that we don’t do anything. I’m embarrassed to tell them that it’s easy being a Marine. ”

I could have tried to reason with that young Marine, to explain that he just needed to trust me. That very soon things would be different and he’d thank me for taking it easy on him. But I didn’t even try. I let him go, realizing that I had made a fatal mistake.

I had given more concern to his comfort than to his self-worth.

My failure immediately reminded of a Marine recruiting poster.


I think lots of well-meaning people do exactly what I did. We go out of our way to make life as easy as we possibly can for those we care about and in doing so, we actually hurt them. Not in the physical sense, but in the area of self-worth and personal growth. Sometimes the greatest gains are made from enduring and accomplishing difficult tasks.

Students don’t grow from easy school work. Teachers don’t grow from perfect classrooms. Parents don’t grow from flawless children. And young Marines don’t grow from acting like soldiers (sorry! I couldn’t help it!).

I immediately upped the operational tempo for the entire platoon. If it was under ten miles, we walked to it. We ran no fewer than four miles a day and we trained each night until 10:00. In no time I had that young Marine exhausted, but happy. And not simply because he was being pushed but because he was growing and he knew it.

When I left that unit he pulled me aside and thanked me. I should have thanked him because I feel I learned the greater lesson. We don’t do anyone any favors by making life too easy for them. Yes, protect from harm but not from hard work. With hard work comes growth and with growth self-worth is enhanced.

Don’t break them, but push them. Make them work for it, make them earn it, and they’ll thank you for it!

P.S. Just in case you’re wondering if women Marines promise you something else…


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Don’t Wait…

During seminars, when I ask how we can make things better I usually get these types of responses.

More funding.
Better support from leadership.
Get parents to start being parents.
Better curriculum.
Higher pay.

While all of these observations may be true, every single one of them points to someone or something else being the fix. What I don’t hear in response to this question are personal declarations to make things better.

I must provide better leadership.
I need to treat people better.
I have to put others’ needs before mine.
I have to personally be the example of real change.
I just gotta try harder.

I don’t know of any job where you always have all the support, materials, and funds you need to do the job. I seriously doubt that such a job even exists, has ever existed, or will ever exist. Certainly I’ve never experienced it. What I have experienced is the transformational power of refusing to allow less than ideal circumstances hinder your desire for success. When this type of energy is ‘unleashed’ it has the ability to save lives, liberate countries, and alter the very course of history.

This I know for a fact because I’ve seen it firsthand.

I’m not telling anyone to accept less or to do more with less. Just the opposite. What I’m trying to say is don’t miss the opportunity to achieve great things while you’re waiting for someone else to do the right thing. So when the conversation turns to how others must do more in order for things to get better, refo­cus it by asking this one simple but life changing question.

“But what can we do right now to make things better?”