In the Warrior Elite, Dick Couch follows the training of a group of young men on their way to become US Navy SEALs (pre-9⁄11). I’m fascinated by the training of special forces. Not so much the physical aspects – impressive as those are – as the overall process and approach. The effort and resources dedicated to training each individual are unheard of in other professions, save for elite athletics and performing arts such as tennis, ballet, classical music, or gymnastics. But software engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, politicians, architects, and builders don’t come close.
In the best case, after a few years of comparatively leisurely university studies and some professional exams, training
By training, I mean focused and effortful deliberate practice.
is limited to a day or two per month, if you’re lucky. If you think health care takes training seriously, say because doctors spend several years in school, Atul Gawande writes about easily preventable mistakes that cost lives in The Checklist Manifesto. Good intentions are not enough. Eric Greitens emphasises the distinction between the morality of intentions and the morality of results: it doesn’t matter what we hope to achieve if we don’t actually achieve it.
So why do special forces and elite performing arts take training much more seriously than other professions?
The work special forces do stands out from most other in that the stakes are high (death or serious injury) and the costs are borne directly by those performing the job. But health care and politics
Politics determine what wars are fought and is abundant with indirect influence over people’s lives through regulation, education, or justification/acceptance of murderous regimes. The real job of a politician is to make sure good decisions get made for their constituency, but they are instead incentivised to become good at getting elected, which is a very different job.
are also high-stakes endeavours and they don’t take training as seriously. Furthermore, performing arts don’t have as high stakes. So is the difference that soldiers risk their own lives rather than those of their patients or the citizens? I don’t think so. Special forces training is not instigated by the soldiers, but by their superiors who will not be in the literal line of fire. And again, performing arts do not carry those risks.
My guess is that special forces and performing arts simply have unusually strong incentives to perform well and the best tool to perform well turns out to be training.
For special forces, the incentives to perform well comes from a combination of clear, direct feedback and a culture of accountability. The success or failure of an operation is hard to dispute and individuals are held responsible up the chain of command (stopping short of politicians, usually). Similar incentives exist in the performing arts, because assessments are similarly hard to dispute and individuals are accountable for their own performances. The effectiveness of training to enhance performance is backed up by research on deliberate practice.
Could it be that most organisations don’t take training seriously because they lack the incentives to perform well? I think so. This might seem odd – aren’t many professions highly competitive? They can be, but there are dynamics that counteract that.
First, the effects of decisions can take months or years to reveal themselves and then be so intertwined with other decisions that even the person who made the decision is still around and someone bothers to assess it, it is hard to do so. People are therefore rarely held accountable to the same degree.
Second, most work is time constrained rather than quality constrained. We set deadlines instead of standards.
Speed matters, but only if your output is of a sufficient standard. That standard needs to be determined by considering the overall purpose of the work. Many tasks performed in a wide range of professions could be done both faster and better with the right training.
We think short-term, not long-term. Therefore, organisations fail to develop both the appreciation of high standards and the ability to demand, train for, recognise, and deliver them. Short-term focus is pervasive – from quarterly earnings reports for CEOs to daily quotas for sales staff. Incentives to perform well are replaced by incentives to deliver on time regardless of quality.
Special forces have a culutre that allows leaders to demand high standards. Many professional and societal cultures do not. They see high standards as “elitist” or they think high standards put too much stress on individuals. Politicians, parents, and talking heads seem to argue that absence of even moderate strain – physical, emotional, and intellectual – is a good thing and they compete to protect people from such strain. I believe this does them (and society as a whole) a disservice because they become unable to handle the stresses life inevitably throw at us. Couch makes a similar observation:
It’s obvious that many who arrive at [the training programme] have logged more than a few hours in the weight room. But life in these United States is good—and often soft. On balance, the feel-good generation may be less prepared mentally for the crucible of [the training programme] than their predecessors.
So we have good news and bad news. The bad news is that cultural change is hard even if there is concensus that change is needed (and there is no such concensus today). The good news is that there is significant value to be realised by taking training seriously. We can pursue higher standards for ourselves and our work without anyone’s permission, even if the only reward is the feeling that comes with a job well done.
Dick Couch, The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228 (New York: Random House, )
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right (London: Profile Books, )
Ericsson, Krampe, Tesch-Römer, "The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance" Psychological review (American Psychological Association, )
K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things (London: Vintage, )