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Defining Success in Your Personal and Professional Development

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 writing a thesis or a summary of research on a topic is rarely sufficient to ensure success on the ground and in the field. If knowledge can’t be put into practice and applied in stressful, dynamic and time-compressed situations, it isn’t actually helping that warrior, guardian or protector succeed. In military and law enforcement training and in the culture of these organizations, we idolize those “doers” who don’t hesitate to do what is needed to save people or win the day. Taking action is the standard that we measure ourselves against, and we constantly evaluate those we meet to see if they walk the walk or just talk the talk. “Doing” is tied to earning the respect of our peers.

When striving to be a “doer” is taken too far, however, I have seen it lead people to create an “us vs. them” mentality against those who ask questions. People who ask why you are doing something, what the goal of your actions are, or questioning if there is a better way than the way it has always been are often condescendingly labeled as “thinkers.” In its extreme, a thinker is a person who might have a great deal of academic or book knowledge but, since they have never served in a certain field, held a certain position or have the same experience as someone who puts themselves at risk, their ideas or opinions are minimized because they have not put their own skin in the game. However, just because a person hasn’t held a specific job before doesn’t mean that their observations are inherently wrong. But when a “thinker’s” ideas are dismissed without consideration, you might see them label “doers” as being short-sighted or ignorant.

The reality, however, is that neither one of these two extreme ends of the spectrum are how you want to define success in your personal or professional development. Success, and the point that we believe you should be aiming for, is in the middle, which is where you find the people who have attained true mastery in the given skill.

Pursuing Mastery

In his great book, Mastery, Robert Greene defines a person who has reached mastery as someone who is able to fuse both the intuitive and the rational elements of a skill. It is a person who has developed a deep tacit understanding of a craft that can only come from years of practice and experience. Yet intuitive decisions are also grounded in a deep analytical understanding of the skill that can only come from having a great depth of foundational knowledge for whatever it is they are doing.

Neither the pure “doer” who can make intuitive decisions, but can’t pass them on to others or explain their actions, nor the “thinker,” who has read all of the research on a topic but doesn’t have the real world experience of putting their thoughts into action, get to label themselves as a master of their field or their craft. The title of master is reserved for only those people who have developed themselves in both their ability to think and do.

Is it a high bar and difficult standard to meet? Yes, it absolutely is. But that is the price for admission into entering the ranks of the truly elite. It is why we have such a high degree of respect of those who have put in the work to reach that level. It is why our Secretary of Defense and former Marine General, Jim Mattis, is referred to as a warrior monk. He has earned his reputation as being both deeply thoughtful and extremely aggressive, a balance that reveals his mastery of war. There are other warriors who have been as courageous as he has been in battle and countless historians who can hold their own in a conversation about military history with the General, but there are only a few who can do both.

Mastery is the fusion of the rational and the intuitive. It is the goal we should set for ourselves when determining what we want to achieve with our personal and professional development.

Charting the Course

There is a famous quote from Richard Feynman that gets used a lot more frequently in today’s internet-enabled world that applies to this conversation. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he says, “There is a difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something.” This mentality can be a great way to distinguish the charlatan from the professional. But there is also a difference between knowing something and knowing that you can do something. Yet neither of these options on their own are the goal. The goal is to know both and to become capable of leveraging a deep base of knowledge about a field with a vast pool of experiences that have put your research and learning into practice. The pursuit of mastery begins with having a clear definition of what we are striving for, so that we will know where are, where we are going, and what we need to do to accomplish our goals.