Don Shomette

People are the Prize

Freedom Inside Discipline

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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.

Author: Don Shomette

Don Shomette is a trainer, speaker, consultant, and owner of People are the Prize, a violence prevention company that helps people to prevent and survive a school attack. He has spent a lifetime working with police officers and principals and is consistently evaluated by those who attend his trainings as one of the best instructors ever. Don challenges, entertains, and helps school personnel to think of preventing violence in a new and positive way.

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