Athletes refer to it as the speed of the game.
To compete at The Next Level requires adapting inherent ability to the environment around you. Players are bigger, stronger, more experienced. The game is no longer a hobby, but an obsession.
Everything moves faster in real time. Judgement defaults to instinct, the product of meticulous attention to detail and exhaustive preparation.
Some will focus on being the best. Most will focus on being better than you.
Elevating performance to an increased tempo separates amateur from professional, good from great, today’s headlines from yesterday’s news.
My message to the wonderfully talented graduates among the class of 2021, and everyone else facing new beginnings this spring: Be ready.
Society can be equally competitive and unforgiving. The Big Picture grows even bigger, your role at risk of becoming smaller without dedication to elevating performance.
Maintaining pace with the opportunities in front of you is often what separates success from failure.
Realize people are committed to pursuing their dreams, which includes being better than you. Develop an intuitive nature through meticulous attention to detail. Prepare, prepare, then prepare some more.
Most importantly, recognize change happens at the speed of life.
It was a beautifully sunny day, a few scattered clouds partnering with the sea breeze to help keep temperatures under control.
I was one of 194 classmates participating in the Commencement Ceremony at the United States Coast Guard Academy, located in New London, Connecticut, along the picturesque bank of the Thames River.
The ceremony celebrated dual accomplishments, one being a Bachelor of Science degree, the other a Commission as an Officer in the U. S. Coast Guard. My father was bestowed the privilege of presenting the latter, reflecting his service as an Officer in the U. S. Marine Corps.
He pinched my cheek after handing me the Commission, smiling, and saying “Nice’a little boy” the way his Italian grandfather would do to him. The Commandant of the Coast Guard, a four-star Admiral, looked at me and said, “You don’t have to take that anymore. You’re an Officer now.”
“I’ll let him slide this time Admiral,” was my response, as we all smiled together. It was an affectionate, feel good moment.
At the end of the ceremony, we all threw our caps into the air. I was surrounded by classmates, my family, and girlfriend at the time. We hugged, kissed, and sipped champagne. It was like something out of a screenwriter’s imagination, only Live!
Soon after that, word passed that we had to have our worldly belongings packed and moved to the shipping area by the end of the day. I said good-bye to my girlfriend, sent my family back to the hotel, and spent the next several hours packing four years of memories into an oversized trunk and a few cardboard boxes.
This was the Academy’s way of communicating that life as we had come to know it was over.
Thirty days later, I would report for duty as a Deck Watch Officer onboard the Coast Guard Cutter Bibb, homeported in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
I was in a positive mindset leading up to that day, ready for adventure and whatever would come my way. Yet there remained a nagging element of uncertainty. Everything we had been through as cadets was temporary by design. It was easy to view life from the perspective of “Survive the next five weeks, we’ll be back at the Academy in no time.”
Most of the summer programs charged with preparing us for this moment were accomplished in groups, easing the burden of a singular first impression. This time, it was for real, no easing the burden. While two of my classmates had also selected the Bibb, I knew enough about life to realize we were on our own.
Each of us would bear the responsibility of establishing an identity and earning the respect of both Officers and crew. Taking that into account, I traveled to New Bedford a few days early and dedicated myself to polishing what needed to be polished and pressing what needed to be pressed.
I visited a local barbershop for a fresh trim, which went well, considering my discovery that our new apartment was in a Portuguese-speaking neighborhood.
The barber just smiled and said, “Okay, okay” when I described how I wanted my hair trimmed, then returned to the lively discussion (in Portuguese) that I had interrupted upon arrival.
Looking good and feeling fine, I did a dry run from my apartment to where the Bibb was docked. It was not a good impression.
Seeing it for the first time, the ship not only looked old, but it literally felt old and tired. Nevertheless, it was my unit, and while nervous, I was also extremely excited and eager to perform.
Time for the world to see what I was made of.
My time spent as a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy had prepared me to perform in that first assignment.
How well I performed would result in the opportunity of a lifetime. Less than eighteen months after graduation, I was selected for Command of the Coast Guard Cutter Point Whitehorn, stationed in St. Thomas, USVI.
Everyone dreams of having a shot at Command in their second assignment. Over 1500 Officers were eligible for Command that year, with only 38 assignments available. That’s an extremely narrow window of opportunity and I am forever grateful for having been selected.
My path from Academy Graduate to Commanding Officer serves as a constant reminder that change happens at the speed of life.
While the sequence of promotions was a structured time frame, what happened within that structure was totally up to me. I had complete responsibility regarding three aspects of performance:
Mindset – Belief in Yourself
If you have chosen something you love, have approached your skill development with passion, and understand the ultimate purpose behind what you do, the only thing left is to believe in yourself.
I realized after graduation that we were on a level playing field. Everyone was to be the new Officer at their units.
Believe that you can perform at the next level. Let that confidence and perspective guide your efforts from the very beginning.
Resilience – Grow from Your Mistakes
I didn’t exactly shoot out of a cannon my first few months onboard the Bibb.
My performance was tentative, part of a natural preference to “see” before “do.”
But I learned from mistakes and the sting of missed opportunities, then applied those learnings to improve our Department.
Success built confidence, which became the momentum I would ride to improved performance and a Next Level assignment.
Humility – Maintain Perspective
Strive to be the best you can be. Recognize the competitive landscape, but don’t let it become a distraction to your efforts.
Remember to celebrate your success with humility. Learning comes with its share of ups and downs. Dedicate yourself to preparation, establish habits and routines that support goal achievement.
Once I reported for duty as a Commanding Officer, there was a whole ‘nother world waiting for me. Maintaining the proper perspective allows you to remain confident that you’ve earned the opportunity, while embracing the challenges in front of you.
Go Forth and Prosper
Life is an incredibly long journey. It’s important to take a moment and celebrate milestones, such as graduation or beginning a new adventure.
Dedicate time to reflect on what got you there . . . then get to work.
Be ready to perform. Begin each new chapter with the Mindset of Believing in Yourself. Practice Resilience to grow and learn from your mistakes, applying those lessons to improve your performance.
Finally, celebrate your success and achievements with Humility. Life is for learning, and learning comes with its share of ups and downs. Maintain a proper perspective through planning and preparation.
This is your future you’re creating. Remember, the Next Level moves at the speed of life.
Thank you for spending your Tuesday with Tall Tim Talks!