Life Lessons from West Point
The four years I spent at the United States Military Academy were amongst the most grueling and challenging years of my life. There were several times when I thought “I can’t go on anymore, this is my breaking point.” These moments of vulnerability and the ability to persevere beyond them taught me some of the most valuable lessons in life.
Read on to learn five life lessons from West Point that I gained the hard way, and how they apply to your finances.
1. Embrace the Suck
I didn’t coin the phrase “embrace the suck,” it’s common in the military community. Simply put, it means to put your head down, push and persevere through the “suck” that life has thrown at you at this moment. It could be a screaming meathead in your face or the realization that you’ll never stop working. “Embracing the suck” also means acknowledging that you will emerge from this experience stronger and better than you were before.
Personal finance requires the embracing of a lot of suck. If you’re new to it, the temptations of meandering from paycheck to paycheck and buying whatever trinkets catch your eye that week are a strong pull. Like the sirens luring Odysseus to his death, the habits that can wreck your finances must be resisted at all costs.
Deviating from the norm can be uncomfortable at both a personal and societal level, but take solace in the fact that you will emerge on the other end of this challenge a better version of yourself.
2. No Excuses
I have a lawyer’s mind. In fact, my parents gently pushed me to pursue that career path. I have a great memory and am adept at finding loopholes. I can argue/negotiate myself out of almost anything.
My excuses didn’t stop at West Point. I’d have an excellent reason for why my boots weren’t shined or why my hair was longer than regulation. I was a douchebag cadet and, for the most part, wriggled my way out of everything.
It wasn’t until the final months at the Academy that I began to realize how self-sabotaging this behavior is. Yeah, I wasn’t getting in trouble, but I was holding my development back. I now fully embrace the “no excuse” mentality.
One of the first things we’re taught at West Point is the Four Responses.
- Yes, sir/ma’am.
- No, sir/ma’am.
- No excuse, sir/ma’am.
- Sir/ma’am, I don’t understand.
Beyond those four short phrases, the cadre of upperclassmen doesn’t want to hear anything else escape your mouth. Why? It’s likely a complaint or an excuse. Holding us to these four responses begins the long course of discipline that is known as “Beast,” or basic training at West Point.
The bigger the goal you have, the more excuses you have not to achieve it. It is said that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” but I say that “being part of the masses is an opiate.” There’s a level of comfort in being just like everyone else.
Becoming financially independent and retiring early are massive goals. Most people cannot and will not achieve them. “No excuse” is your new mantra; repeat it any time you start to justify your failure. Even if you have a good excuse, do you want to imbue it with the power to hold you down?
“I don’t have time for a side hustle!” No excuse, do you watch TV? Then you have time.
“I’m scared to invest money!” No excuse, you don’t need to know much to invest in basic index funds.
You have no excuses, step out of your own way and get after it.
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3. Take Ownership
“Step up to my line, not on or over my line.”
“New Cadet, get on my wall!”
It was incredibly odd to hear the upperclassmen refer to a line or a wall as theirs. It’s not normal. Little did I know, these are all signs of taking ownership.
If you are assigned a task or project at work, take ownership of it. It is YOUR project, and the burden of its success is YOURS to shoulder. If it fails, it’s YOUR failure. It’s the role of the older cadets to whip us into shape, and taking on that responsibility is how the line on the floor or the nondescript wall is theirs.
You can’t succeed if you don’t take ownership of your goals and tasks. If it’s always someone else’s problem, you’re not going to take the requisite amount of interest in the target and invest the time and attention to succeed. It’s as simple as that.
Recently, Jocko Willink (a retired Navy SEAL commander and all-around badass) has popularized the phrase “extreme ownership.” This simple concept caught on for a reason. Most people do not take extreme ownership of life, and it sets them back.
Your finances are highly personal. Hence the term, personal finance. It’s entirely on you whether or not you’re a success which is financially independent and retired decades before most, or if you keep working until the day you die.
4. Be Decisive
“An ok plan now is better than the perfect plan too late.”
In the military, hesitating for a split second in combat can be the difference between life or death. This is why the quote above was beaten into our heads repeatedly. I continued to hear this phrase in the Army, especially during my time as an infantry officer.
You don’t have to read every single personal finance book out there to start down the path to financial independence. It isn’t necessary to read ALL THE BLOGS (thousands and thousands at this point) to retire early. You cannot hesitate to take that first step to FIRE because you don’t know everything.
I don’t know everything. Mr. Money Mustache doesn’t know everything. [Insert name of favorite PF blogger] doesn’t know it all. We know SOMETHING, and we act on it. Sticking to one principle of personal finance is better than holding to none.
Do not use the excuse that you don’t know enough (see Lesson 2) to keep you from improving your finances. START NOW!
5. Habitual Assessment
In the Army, we use a powerful habit that I don’t see in civilian life. It’s called an “after action review,” or “AAR.”
During an AAR, you huddle together with your team to assess your latest mission. What went right, what went wrong. The typical format is “Three Up, Three Down.” What were three things that went well? What are three things that didn’t go so well or can be improved?
This habitual assessment is necessary to ensure continued progress. Without it, you’ll keep making the same mistakes or doing the same unproductive things. When you adopt a new plan, give yourself an AAR and keep moving forward.
AARs are especially useful in a group setting. If possible, go over your plans and tactics with a personal finance buddy (in person or online) and make sure you take the time to conduct AARs together. The most useful features of AARs is in creating an open forum where anyone can speak up regardless of rank. I learned the most by hearing perspectives from other people that I hadn’t even considered.
Habitual assessment is your friend. Use it in personal finance and other aspects of your life!
While there are many more invaluable life lessons from West Point, I went over five crucial lessons that you can use today: embrace the suck, no excuses, take ownership, be decisive, and habitual assessment.
Depending on the feedback I receive on this post, I may make this a series and do a deep-dive into individual lessons and publish more lists like this, so make sure to leave feedback if you have a comment or question!
Have you learned some of these lessons as well? How did you learn them? Is there anything you’d like to add?