Executing is a Commodity: Sizing Up a Situation & the Race to Figure it Out

January 19, 2018 in Learning About Learning


The video above features an all-star line up of General Stanley McCrystal, Chris Fussell and Reid Hoffman. In case you are unfamiliar with any of them, Reid Hoffman is the co-founder of LinkedIn. General McCrystal is the former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the former commander of ISAF (NATO’s Afghanistan Security Mission). Chris Fussell is a former officer within the Navy’s DEVGRU/SEAL Team 6, co-authored the book Team of Teams with Stanley McCrystal and the author of One Mission. This hour-long conversation highlights many of the lessons that McCrystal and Fussell learned while transforming a large organization, JSOC, to operate faster than the insurgents they were hunting in Afghanistan and Iraq, which was written about in the book Team of Teams. While the conversation is one that many leaders and managers will find interesting, I’m sharing it because of a specific statement that General McCrystal makes about the importance of increasing the speed of learning for individuals and organizations.

At about the 34:30 mark in the video, General McCrystal explains how the problem in war has historically been that, because you could find the enemy relatively easily (it’s hard to hide tank divisions), the problem was having the ability to hurt them. But that is no longer the case. McCrystal goes on to explain:

The problem wasn’t finding the enemy, it was dealing with them. But that problem has completely changed.

The problem now is that you can Continue reading »

Building Confidence in Your Ability to Learn

January 15, 2018 in Learning About Learning

When preparing for war and for the unknown challenges that protectors and warriors will encounter in the future, a person’s confidence in their training is an essential element of their development. Because confidence is a significant contributor to a person’s belief that they can overcome adversity, improving confidence minimizes the risk of hesitation in the face of threats.

Confidence in the ability to hit a target when they pull the trigger is why infantry Marines and soldiers spend so much time practicing their marksmanship. It is why magazine reload and malfunction drills are done to the point of muscle memory and why people spend countless hours firing from a variety of positions and conditions.

Confidence to act is one of the reasons why first aid training is repeated until each member of a unit is comfortable and competent enough to provide a certain degree of medical care to themselves or others. These drills are done until the person knows they can perform the task in the most time-constrained and stressful situations possible.

These are tasks that require such a high degree of self-confidence that there is nothing about a person’s ability to perform the task left to chance. In an age when our enemies and adversaries can adapt at a breakneck pace to avoid our strengths and attack our weaknesses, we need to develop the same level of confidence and proficiency in our ability to bring our most powerful weapon system, our brain, to the fight. In order to ensure that we are prepared to out-adapt our future adversaries, that in turn means we must ensure that we are confident in our ability to learn.

Building Resilience in Confidence

The purpose of this post is to address some ways that you can develop confidence in your ability to rapidly learn in dynamic, complex and changing situations. But before I can address some of these methods, it is worth noting that there is a difference in self-confidence that has been earned and the perceived self-confidence that is the result of bravado and the mindset that someone can simply “do anything,” even without putting in the work to master it. The difference between earned confidence and shallow bravado is important because it can help determine how resilient or how fragile your confidence is.

Something that is fragile will break when it is exposed to stress, while something that is resilient will stay the same when exposed to stress. To understand this distinction, you could put a pint glass and a plastic cup next to each other on a table that is at least three feet high. Push each of them off the table onto an uncarpeted floor. While the “stressor” of falling off of a table is not what the glass or the cup were designed for, you will see that the plastic cup is resilient (it has stayed the same) while the pint glass is fragile (it is in a hundred pieces on your floor). Confidence in your abilities should be thought of in the same way. The choices you make about how you develop confidence determines whether that confidence breaks or remains steadfast no matter what stressor it is exposed to.

In a future battle or conflict where our adversaries are adapting in unanticipated ways, our skills will Continue reading »

Learning How to Learn: The Steps

January 5, 2018 in Learning About Learning

This article is part of an ongoing series to help subscribers of The CP Journal’s Practice Section pursue mastery in behavioral observation, situational awareness and decision-making.

Being able to learn and adapt more quickly than our adversaries is a key skill as we prepare for war. But do you know how to learn?

It’s a funny question to ask, and I’m willing to bet you’d say yes without much hesitation. You may have graduated from high school or college or obtained an advanced degree that gave you a piece of paper to prove that you know how to learn. If you’re in the military, law enforcement or the security industry, you’ve likely spent countless hours in training to learn what is needed to succeed in your field. You probably have a great number of experiences that allow you to confidently state that you know how to learn and have proven it.

Because it’s usually answered without much thought, I’ve found that asking this question framed in this way isn’t the best way for someone to assess their actual ability to quickly break down and understand new concepts. For self-guided learners who need the ability to objectively determine how quickly they can acquire a new skill the better questions may be:

Can you take any subject in the world and outline the steps that you would need to go through to progress from the point of not knowing anything about it to becoming a true master in the field?

Do you have a defined process and framework that allows you to outline the steps of learning without talking about the subject or topic itself?

Answering these two questions might not come as quickly as they did to the more general, “Do you know how to learn?” Learning isn’t just about reading, going to trainings or finding a mentor. Those are all elements of the development process, but they aren’t the process that you can apply to any subject you may want to learn in the future. Learning how to learn means that you are able to know what information and experiences you are looking for at each step of the learning process in order to become self-reliant in your development. It means that you have a process to learn; a process that you are able to refine, develop and improve upon throughout your life. Not having a process that is broadly applicable and generalized enough to apply to any subject, yet specific enough to identify critical components and steps to improve upon, means that we have a limitation and gap in our armor. It is a limitation that needs be corrected for as we prepare to face our adversaries in the future.

Dissecting the Learning Process

In creating, designing and developing a system of learning that works Continue reading »

Combatting the Strengths of Our Adversaries and Learning How to Learn

December 17, 2017 in Learning About Learning

This article is part of an ongoing series to help subscribers of The CP Journal’s Practice Section pursue mastery in behavioral observation, situational awareness and decision-making.

Following the overwhelming shock and awe campaign that characterized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, America’s enemies and adversaries faced a very simple and straightforward dilemma: give up, adapt or die.

For the Iraqi insurgents the American military was searching for, it didn’t take long to realize that wearing any sort of identification that made it clear they were an enemy of the coalition would have swift and tragic consequences for them. As a result, Iraqi insurgents learned how to blend in with the local population, avoid detection and defeat many of the equipment and technological advantages American troops had over them. After observing where so much of the American military’s strength came from, insurgents learned what was needed to survive, and they adapted. The Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Course, which was created in 2007, was one method to counter the advantages the insurgents had as a result of blending in with civilians and disguising their affiliations, but the question that I often find myself asking is why it took four years for the American military to adapt to this new reality of the situation being faced on the ground. While that’s a question that historians may examine in years to come, the more important question for warriors is to ask is, what can our military do differently in future wars to shorten the time required to learn from our enemy and make the required adaptations to win?

Anticipating Future Wars: What We Know and What We Don’t

It is difficult (if not impossible) to successfully predict the way future wars are going to be fought. While the creative exercise of anticipating the wars to come can be helpful in many ways, the sheer number of variables involved in the specifics of future conflict make any attempts at prediction merely speculation. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning economist and author Daniel Kahneman dedicates numerous chapters to explaining the biases and limitations that prevent people, especially “experts,” from being able to make accurate long-term predications about the future.

Despite the limitations in making predictions, there are still opportunities for warriors to discern some high probability assumptions about the future of conflict. Consider a likely sequence of events that a future war might follow:

1: Both sides of a conflict enter a war with a Continue reading »

Defining Success in Your Personal and Professional Development

December 1, 2017 in Learning About Learning

This article is part of an ongoing series to help subscribers of The CP Journal’s Practice Section pursue mastery in behavioral observation, situational awareness and decision-making.

For self-driven learners, one of the biggest obstacles to making the most out of the time and money you invest in your development is not having a clear picture of what success looks like. When the end goal for your training or education isn’t clearly defined, it can be hard to know what skills need to be developed in order for “success” to be reached. It can be challenging to track your progress. It’s difficult to attain a high level of confidence in what you’ve already learned. From my conversations with students who have gone through our Tactical Analysis course, the problem isn’t in knowing that having a clear goal is helpful, though. It’s in knowing how to put that goal into words.

Opposite Ends of the Spectrum: Thinkers and Doers

One of the reasons why we love working with members of the military, police officers and security professionals so much is because they are some of the few groups of professionals who truly understand the fact that learning a skill is not enough. For them to be successful, they have to be able to put what they learn into practice. They are people with their own skin in the game and who constantly (and willingly) put themselves into situations where there are life and death consequences for failing to solve a problem. For them, proving knowledge by Continue reading »

Three Ways To Make Situational Awareness Second Nature

September 2, 2016 in Learning About Learning

This article was originally written for the Illinois Tactical Officer’s Association

We all know that person at work who can seemingly read every situation they find themselves in and turn it into something beneficial for them. It’s like watching action heroes like James Bond or Jason Bourne, people who can seemingly pick up on everything that is happening around them and then use that information to make better decisions than those with untrained eyes. We find ourselves in awe of those naturals who have learned how to dissect situations, find the patterns and seemingly predict the future.

Life might not be like the movies, but those same deliberate observation skills can be developed. While it certainly takes a lot of work to become skilled at recognizing pre-event indicators, for police officers looking to get and stay left of bang, here are three tips to make situational awareness second nature.

#1: Begin With The End In Mind

The way that these naturals so adeptly navigate complex and difficult situations is what often attracts our attention and carries an air of mystery. However, how they find the solution isn’t the first step, it is the last. Before you can Continue reading »

How Team Rubicon “Knowledge Bombs” Can Help Self-Taught Professionals

August 17, 2016 in Learning About Learning


As I write this, much of Louisiana is underwater due to flooding. People in New Mexico are digging out after floods of their own, and residents in California and Utah are rebuilding their homes in the wake of widespread wildfires. Because natural disasters often don’t provide a great deal of advance warning before they hit, for the military veterans, first responders and medical professionals who volunteer with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster relief organization, the ability to provide relief to communities affected by natural disasters is the result of ample preparation before disaster strikes. With only a minimal amount of time to ramp up efforts once Mother Nature hits, the work of each volunteer while left of bang of the storm is what allows for a fast and effective response.

To help educate their highly experienced volunteers, Team Rubicon has produced over 40 “Knowledge Bombs,” one-page infographics that educate responders about the various risks they can expect to face in their duties. As understanding risk is a crucial concept for warriors, police officers and security professionals, these easily sharable reminders about dangers on the job offer a great opportunity for professionals to deepen their knowledge about how to prepare for threatening situations. To make the most out of these bite-sized lessons and better retain what you have just read in the long term, self-taught students need to have a strong mental model to quickly make sense of what they are learning that will allow them to improve how they operate when they get to the field.

The Challenge of Being Self-Taught

Team Rubicon as an organization is comprised primarily of volunteers, meaning that the people they are seeking to educate often also have day jobs that bring their own sets of continuing education requirements and have families and other commitments that need to be taken care of before extra-curricular activities can be pursued. These time constraints aren’t unique to Team Rubicon volunteers and are obstacles that any self-taught learner faces as they seek out resources and experiences to improve themselves. This challenge is compounded by the fact that, in our current “knowledge economy,” for any topic you want to learn about there are insurmountable numbers of resources available to you online, making it difficult to filter through it all and fill specific gaps in your understanding Continue reading »

The Consequences of Failing to Deliver on Audience Expectations

January 29, 2016 in Learning About Learning


I was sitting through a presentation recently and almost walked out of the room, which is something that I never do. With the understanding that comes with choosing to speak, present and teach for a living, I know how challenging it can be to design a presentation and how nerve-wracking it can be to face an audience. With that understanding comes empathy for speakers, so the threshold to push me over that edge to want to walk out of the room during a presentation is pretty high.

One of the reasons for my hesitation about staying or going during this particular presentation was because I get asked from time to time if, since I am an instructor, I find myself judging every presentation that I sit through. The answer to that question is, no, absolutely not. If I am sitting in the audience during a presentation, I am there to learn from the speaker, not to be a critic of their work. While I do often think that there are things that speakers could do to drastically improve the quality of their presentation and their delivery, those observations don’t play a role in my decision about whether my time spent in the audience was worthwhile or not. One of the most significant factors that I consider when assessing my “return on investment” for sitting through a presentation is whether or not the speaker met my expectations for the content they delivered. Did I walk out of the room having learned what I believed I would learn walking into the room? While great presentations exceed your expectations, the ones that fail to meet the minimum of expectations are the ones that leave you disillusioned.

What I will cover in this article is, firstly, the reason why I almost walked out of this recent talk so that I can provide a concrete example that leads into the second part of the article. The second half of the article will look at some things that instructors and presenters can do to shape, deliver upon and exceed the expectations that their audience has.

The Talk

The particular presentation noted above was about the lessons that were learned in the aftermath of a well-known mass shooting, and was presented by a person who was on the ground in an organization involved in the incident, so it had the makings for what should have been a great talk. The invitation to the talk was Continue reading »

Holding Yourself Publicly Accountable For Learning

January 8, 2016 in Learning About Learning

apprenticeEach year The CP Journal has been in business, we have always established goals for ourselves personally, professionally and for the business. As an education-focused company, the end of the year usually presents a much lighter workload than the year’s earlier months, as most organizations that we’re training don’t try to squeeze seminars into what is already a chaotic December calendar. Over the last four years, I’ve come to truly appreciate that piece of our yearly rhythm, as it provides a natural break in the daily grind to take a step back, assess the previous year and think about the transition into the next.

While I’ve never made those goals public, I’ve come to realize that, if we are going to hold our students accountable to putting in the work to truly learn and integrate behavioral analysis into their lives, they should see that we also practice what we preach. In an age of self-guided education and unstructured lifelong learning, we go through the same process of determining areas and skills we need to master to be true professionals in our field. We design adaptable and personal training programs that we believe will get us to the level of proficiency we are seeking. We go through the same ups and downs that come with learning and do it all while trying to remain motivated and holding ourselves accountable to the standard we set for ourselves.

When it comes to choosing the areas I am pursuing in the coming year for personal development, I always try to consider the two axes (for clarity, this use of axes is the plural of axis, not multiple versions of the tool to chop wood) that go into lifelong learning. There is one skill that I am always looking to go very deep on, and there are a number of skills that I want to develop in order to have a broad scope of knowledge across a range of topics. If you are a fan of Brett McKay’s writing on The Art of Manliness or enjoy frequent Mr. T references, here is a great article that Brett wrote a few years back on being a “t-shaped man,” which encompasses both deep and broad skills. Thinking about development in this way has helped me to ensure that I make progress without becoming a dilettante.

The skill that I continue to focus a great deal of my deep development on is Continue reading »

3 Ways That Tactical Analysis Supports the Future of Security

August 25, 2015 in Learning About Learning

In his article, “The Fox and the Hedgehog: Contracting Approaches to Anticipating the Environment,” Dr. Randy Borum talks the type of professionals who will be well prepared to deal with the violent, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions that characterize our current and future security environment.

Navigating the contemporary environment requires a different mindset than was needed during the Cold War. Leaders most likely to succeed are those who embrace uncertainty, are highly adaptive, constantly learning, and know how to maneuver incrementally and with agility. [i]

Dr. Borum’s article, which you can find here, talks about how our next generation of leaders and strategists in security related fields need to be adaptive and need to be able to function effectively in the dynamic and ever-changing situations that will likely characterize the future global security environment. Dr. Borum refers to the type of leader capable of not only embracing uncertainty, but also being able to maneuver incrementally and with agility within it, as foxes. He contrasts the characteristics of the fox with those of the hedgehog, a leader who only has one response to potential threats and is unable to adjust their approach as the situation faces. I happen to agree with Dr. Borum’s perspective. With my experiences as a Marine and how I assess the current challenge faced by America’s police officers and security providers, I believe that the professionals who are able to excel in ambiguity are the ones who will quickly prove their value to their organization.

Embracing uncertainty, however, doesn’t mean that we will avoid attempts to see through the “fog of war.” It means that by acknowledging the presence of uncertainty, adaptive leaders are the ones who Continue reading »

Our Answer To a FAQ About Training Online

August 11, 2015 in Learning About Learning

Q: I am thinking about taking an online course but I’m not sure if I will be able to learn as much as I would if I were in-person?  Can you shed some light?

A:  Because we offer our training programs both in-person and online we often get asked about the online learning environment and whether it is right for you.  The short answer is that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.  If you are the type of person that needs the physical environment to fully understand and grasp new material then online learning could pose a challenge.  One of the biggest challenges to online training is that there is no community of students physically in a classroom with you, no teacher/professor at the front of the room to answer immediate questions, or stimulation of people around you to help enhance the learning process.  However, there are benefits to training online.  Based on the feedback we have received from students in our online learning courses, here are the top three reasons people like learning online: Continue reading »

How To Evaluate A Plan

June 4, 2015 in Learning About Learning

The career path for many protectors in the security industry often starts with a position as an operator on the ground. Eventually, there is usually a promotion to a position as a security manager or a detail team leader. As a new manager in one of these roles, the rising stars of the security industry then face one of the most challenging situations that leaders can face in any field. How do you balance the professional development of the members on your team without compromising the security of the building or the principal you are tasked with protecting? Progressing from the ranks of the operator to a team leader comes with a steep learning curve and is a transition in which the new manager must be able to maintain this balance. Keeping in mind that intuition, as defined by the father of recognition-primed decision-making, Dr. Gary Klein, “depends on the use of experience to recognize key patterns to recognize key patterns that indicate the dynamics of the situation” (Klein, 31), the question security leaders to answer is, how do you develop the judgment and critical thinking capabilities of the members of your team? How do you evaluate someone else’s plan without micromanaging and stunting their development?

There is a right way and a wrong way to assess the effectiveness of someone else’s plan of attack. The right way is to use the situation as a teaching experience. The wrong way is to hear the plan that someone created and give him or her a  Continue reading »

The Demand For Autodidacts – The Self-Taught in an Age of Shrinking Budgets

February 18, 2015 in Learning About Learning

The New Reality

During wartime, budgets for the military and law enforcement go up and, in turn, the training and equipment that our nation’s protectors need to do their jobs well becomes more readily available. Since the beginning of the “War on Terror,” the military saw the Department of Defense’s budget nearly double from $287 billion per year to $530 billion per year.[i] At home, law enforcement has seen a similar expansion. Following September 11th, the Department of Homeland Security was formed and, through DHS, local police departments had access to grant money for training and equipment through a number of different programs.   However, during peacetime or when the public loses interest in the “war,” budgets shrink. After the Korean War the defense budget shrank by 43%. After Vietnam the defense budget shrank by 33%. After the Cold War the budget shrank by 36% and, while it will be a few more years before the final cuts from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are realized, the amount of money allocated to the defense and law enforcement communities continues to decline overall.[ii]

When people without any experience in either the military or law enforcement listen to the outcry that will come from people within those communities as budget cuts are announced, the first image they often have is of the life-long bureaucrat.   This is the person who only cares about the fact that because his or her budget is going down their department is going to be smaller, which means that their “status” has just been reduced. When administrators feel like they have been slighted, there is usually a lot of concern that trickles down the chain of command to the men and women who are on the ground.   They realize that the bureaucrat (who doesn’t have anything personally at stake when making decisions about how much training those people should get) has also just been incentivized to cut corners and show how they are “doing more with less,” because that is how they will get ahead and be promoted in an era of shrinking budgets.

This often results in check-the-box training events where standards are lowered, class sizes are increased and training hours are reduced to the minimum amount required for a certificate. Maximizing the number of man-hours trained helps an organization to look like they are mission capable, at least in the bullet points of a PowerPoint briefing up the chain of command. For the operators and protectors on the ground, though, shrinking budgets can be terrifying because there is nothing scarier than being deemed “paper-ready” by someone far removed from the actual danger. People who work on the ground realize the very real difference between sitting in a classroom to learn a new skill and being able to actually perform those skills in a real-life situation when your life could be on the line for making a correct or incorrect assessment. Since the allocation or the size of the budget is a “third bucket problem” for protectors and is likely outside of your control, this article is about understanding the impact of budget cuts on your personal development and knowing where you should focus your time, attention and energy, so that you can truly succeed in your profession.

At the time that I am writing this, our country faces an enemy who wants to destroy the freedom that America was built on, one IED and one beheading at a time. We face criminals who have studied our legal system, understand what law enforcement officers can and can’t do, and continually adapt to grow their illegal enterprise. We face the risk of online self-radicalization and the anger of people who believe that opening fire in a public area is the only way to be seen as important and powerful. For the members of the military, the law enforcement community and security professionals, the public expects that you are capable of stopping these attacks and protecting the freedom that allows them to live their lives. Because they expect this of you, they are going to hold you accountable when a criminal succeeds. The public is going to see each successful attack as a failure of the government and the security professionals who were present at the scene. Despite shrinking budgets, these are the conditions that you have to learn to thrive within. Is it a double standard and hypocritical when the same people who want you to do more with less get mad and criticize you in the press when an attack is successful? Of course it is, but whether this is “what you signed up for” or not, this is the new reality.

What you do in response to this reality is your choice. The first option is Continue reading »

4 Reasons Why You Will Never Learn To Read Body Language

August 7, 2014 in Assessing Individuals, Learning About Learning


This morning, I posted on LinkedIn the “4 Reasons Why You Will Never Learn To Ready Body Language.”  The article highlights some of the common pitfalls new students encounter when learning to read behavior.  Whether your goal is to recognize threats or improve your negotiation skills, assessing the nonverbal communication plays a significant role in understanding those around you and the people you are interacting with.  Hopefully this will help you avoid some of the obstacles you face.  You can find the article here.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

How I Use Evernote

June 29, 2014 in Learning About Learning

In the article I wrote last week, Learning How To Learn, I mentioned that one of the goals of reading, attending classes, and developing yourself, is to create an expanding digital library of the “things that you know.” I recommended that readers use Evernote as a tech platform because of the speed at which it can help you locate and recall information that you have previously consolidated.  I was recently having a conversation about how we structure notes in Evernote and wanted to use that conversation about how we use it as a company to provide a little more clarity on how you can use the app to build the library.

As I begin to discuss the way that I structure a note in Evernote, I want to remind you about the difference between searching for information that you don’t know and searching for information that you do know.  When you’re looking for information that you don’t know, you likely turn to Google so that you can find out what other people have to say about that topic.  The goal of the Evernote library is to consolidate everything that you learn so that you can find it when you need it.  While I distinguish between the two types of information for conceptual purposes, Google and Evernote have also teamed up to make it easy for you find information regardless of which of these two categories it falls into.  If you use the Evernote Web Clipper, which is an extension that works with many the Google Chrome browser, you can have your own Evernote notes appear in your search results.  Let’s say you were looking for a recipe for macaroni and cheese and turned to Google. This is what you would see:

Google Mac-n-cheese results

On the right side of the search results, you will see that my own Evernote notes appear as part of those results.  Therefore, even if you had you forgotten that you took a picture of my mom, Lucy’s, most amazing macaroni and cheese recipe (yup, she reads this blog – thanks Mom!) you would be able to open that up as well. You could also be reminded that you ate macaroni and cheese at Steuben’s in Denver during your last trip there, and that it was so good that you felt the need to add the restaurant in the Evernote Food app.  The point is that even though the information is stored in different places (the internet or in your Evernote account,) you can find all of it in just one search.

Starting With The End In Mind

I personally search for content in one of two frameworks, either by event or by function.  I consider “an event” to be  Continue reading »