The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Mundane tasks

In his 2014 commencement speech Navy SEAL commander Admiral William H. McRaven shared 10 lessons he learned during basic SEAL training. He describes them with the impact they can have on one’s ability to change the world transforming them into life lessons.

The first lesson addresses a simple and somewhat mundane task: making one’s bed. It may not seem relevant to do it well, but he aligns it with the human need for structure and order. The simple fact of having done something in the morning that one will come back to in the evening adds a structure to the day. By paying attention to this task and acknowledging it when stepping back into bed, the day has a recognizable start and end.

Integrating this simple task into the SEAL’s training adds establishes an intention to do it well and the possibility to benefit from it. It may be an obligation at first, but it develops a benefit over time that contributes to a sense of control and satisfaction. Once the task has been recognized for its benefit, the obligation disappears. It becomes something one decides to do, with a sense of caring for oneself.

As the day continues, more of these mundane tasks will be handled. It may for example be dealing with the dishes, cleaning one’s shoes, preparing something to eat, or tidying one’s space. Whatever these tasks are, they repeat themselves day after day and become a kind of structure establishing how one cares for one’s circumstances. They are the habits one develops as well as the appreciation for small details one has dealt with during the day.

A maybe astonishing detail about these achievements is how the sum of them all also establishes an ability to feel in control of one’s day. That is, if they are attended to regularly and if one has decided to deal with them despite the obligation they also imply.

However, if the overall sense of dealing with them remains an obligation, the locus of control of our daily tasks is given to some external entity. Doing so contributes to a sense of having little control over one’s life.

This is especially relevant for leaders.

Leadership involves dealing with uncertainty and making decisions that make the future more predictable to their teams. That is, they are responsible for the structure others rely on. But they can’t do this, if they are not able to create a structure for themselves nor if they don’t know how to find a sense of control within this structure.

It’s not about having control of it all.

It’s about developing a way to feel in control of what one can control. It gives a sense of stability one can come back to.

And so, whenever it feels like a project failed, there still is the “bed” one can come back to. It is something that worked.

And beware, for those who aim at perfection Admiral William H. McRaven also shared a life lesson on the impossibility of achieving perfection. Making this fact a possibility that has to be accepted.


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