As I age in years, I realize more and more how blessed I was to attend The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. While there I wasn't a particularly great cadet, but there were many lessons I learned from my four years in the Corps of Cadets that has served me well both personally and professionally. One of the most important lessons that I learned was that my limits are often not my limits. Let me explain.
More often than not we set what we think is the best we can do. Whether this is in athetic performance, academic performance, sheer amount of work we can accomplish, etc., we set our limits subconciously, even if we don't set them intentionally. And more often than not, we're dead wrong. This was made clear within a few weeks at The Citadel. One of the things about The Citadel is it's a military college. And The Citadel takes pride in the fact that it's a hard military college. As a matter of fact, about the time when the seniors receive their class rings, the "Last Class" speeches begin during lunch time mess (meal). This is where someone gets up and points out that the current senior class was the last class to do something hard and difficult. For The Citadel's class of 1995, this included reminders that we were the last class to high-step in the barracks as freshmen (high-stepping, according to The Citadel's terms, is when you run but bring your legs up to where your thighs are parallel to the ground) and the last class to have a full Hell Night to introduce into the "fourth-class system." This idea of being a hard school militarily carries through in everything that we did. And as cadets we continuously found ourselves pushing past the limits we thought we had. Here's how:
Find Someone Who Will Hold You Accountable
As a freshman, or "knob," you were expected to always be in an impeccable state of dress with respect to uniform. You were pushed regularly in physical fitness. And you always have a lot to do that you're expected to complete at a high level. Ensuring these high standards are the upperclassmen, who yell, scream, threaten, and enforce standards within the rules set by The Citadel. Most folks are initially intimidated by the sheer volume and intensity of the upperclassmen. I know I was. But it all serves a point and purpose. The upperclassmen exist to push knobs past any self-imposed limits they think they have. And they do so in a way that doesn't give you time to think about those limits. You just want that sharp-tongued corporal to leave you alone. So you do exactly whatever he or she tells you to do as quickly as you can do it. If you're looking to push yourself and overcome your limits, find someone who can hold you accountable. Find someone who isn't going to take it easy on you. If you're talking about physical fitness, that's the role of a personal trainer. If you're talking about increasing your technical skills, find a mentor and give that mentor permission to call you out when you aren't pushing hard enough.
Change Your Attitude
As we approach our limits, a normal response is to say, "I can't do much more." That's the wrong attitude to have. At The Citadel, the right attitude was something pushed on us constantly. Usually it was, "I better get this done or I'm going to pay," but it simply can be, "I'm going to do this." A friend of mine named Robert Young, who I knew from junior high and high school, sat me down one day and showed me how to get a really good shine on my shoes. I had the technique right. But I didn't have the confidence to get my shoes to the point where they were black glass. A thirty minute lesson from him made a huge improvement. I wasn't the greatest show shiner, but the improvement in my performance was immediate. At The Citadel we had all kinds of phrases to change our attitudes. Some I still quote nowadays. Things like:
When you start approaching your limits, don't let your attitude limit you. If it's a motivation phrase or a picture of your kids or something else, find something that motivates you to keep pushing past your limits.
Intentionally Take on More Than You Think You Can Do
I've had a number of folks remark that they don't see how I can possibly be involved in and do all the things I do. I use that opportunity to tell them about my mentor in ministry, a man by the name of Doyle Roberson. Doyle, back in the mid to late 90s, had already retired from a full career as a federal civilian employee. He was our church's pastor to senior adults and that man did not stop. He did hospital visitations, he taught at 3-4 nursing homes each day, and he usually made it back to service on Wednesday and Sunday nights, too. Plus he had time to mentor me. Doyle had learned early on that most of the time we don't get as much done as we can do because we simply don't think it's possible. Doyle reinforced for me a lesson I had learned at The Citadel. As a knob at The Citadel, your schedule is designed to be too full. You aren't supposed to be able to get everything done. There are several reasons for this:
As bad as freshmen have it at The Citadel, the worst schedules actually belong to those who are on Cadre. The Cadre are the upperclassmen who are responsible for teaching the knobs while they are still considered "recruits." The rest of the upperclassmen can't get at them until after Parent's Day Weekend, which happens in late October. So from mid-August to late October, the Cadre train the freshmen. Being on Cadre is hard. You have to be up before the freshmen are. You have to be the perfect example with respect to dress and attitude. This meant preparing multiple uniforms for each day. When I was on Cadre I had three different uniform shirts prepared each morning, all with the proper creases ironed in them, with nametag, rank, Air Force contract badge, and company identifier all perfectly placed using a ruler. I had two pairs of "blitzed" shoes that were shined to a mirror-like finish. That's what's expected of Cadre. And you are usually in bed after them, especially if there is a Cadre meeting held. Add on to this all the normal requirements of college (classes) and Cadre is a hard deal. But my time on Cadre taught me a lot about time management and pushed me to do more with my time. Without that experience I don't think I would be able to do as much as I do today. So push yourself. Take on more than you think you can do. Not a whole lot more, but just a little bit more. And I'm pretty sure you'll find that you'll be able to adjust to handle more. Then do it again and again.
Don't Give Up
As with anything, there's always going to bet setbacks. But don't let a setback cause you to quit. The setback doesn't cause you to quit. You decide whether or not to quit. During my whole time at The Citadel, I never considered quitting. Yet I know quite a few folks who are more physically fit and better suited for a military school not make it through the first year, much less all four. They let quitting enter their minds. And the longer it sat there, the more and more they considered it. Don't do that. Don't let quitting get into your head. If it starts to seep in, intentionally toss it out.
You can be surprised at what you can do if you don't quit. I learned this lesson the hard way while at Air Force Field Training (officer training). On day 2, I collided with someone while carrying about 20 pounds of water in canteens. I had them all in my left hand and I was clipped on the inside of the shoulder. I knew immediately I was in trouble. I didn't know how bad until a couple of weeks later. The next day we had to take the physical fitness test to stay at training. I was paired up with one of my knob year platoon mates, Corby Lawrence. I told him I was hurt and I didn't know how bad it was, but my fingers were numb. He went Cadre corporal on me and didn't let me even consider quitting. I did enough pull ups and did well enough in every category except push-ups (I didn't even try it as Corby told me to get up after I did two in excruciating pain) that I passed the test and stayed at camp. Two weeks later I would see an orthopedic doctor who would diagnose that I had a partially separated shoulder and had damaged the soft tissue of the shoulder. He was amazed I did a single pull up, much less enough to pass my physical fitness test. That's when he asked, "What school are you from?" And when I told him The Citadel, he smiled and said, "That figures. I went my first two years there, too, before transferring up to school in North Carolina." He had been trained to have the same mentality me and Corby did. It's simple: don't let yourself quit. Don't even consider it. Just keep going.
Set New Goals
When you've broken past your limits, set new goals. At The Citadel, this was done for us, courtesy of the upperclassmen. When I figured out how to shine shoes properly, if I showed up with anything less, I got royally chewed out. When I had mastered one thing, I was expected to perform at that level and reach for the next one each time. This was true of dress and appearance, and it was true of physical fitness. As the year went on, our physical training (PT) runs got longer and more grueling. But we were able to keep up because we were continuing to press ourselves. When you've shattered one limit, think about where to go next. How can you do more? How can you do better? Don't stop and say, "I'm good." Keep pushing yourself.