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!