18 Life Lessons I Learned at Boot Camp That Even Civilians Should Follow

This veteran was bursting with pride and advice when his son enlisted. Civilians might learn something from the blunt wisdom he passed along.

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A decade ago, when my son raised his hand and vowed to “support and defend the Constitution” while being sworn in to the U.S. armed forces, I felt a collision of emotions: burning pride, aching loss, jubilation, consuming worry—and the passing of years. How had we gone from pacifiers to camouflage uniforms so quickly?

A big part of my pride came from the fact that I had served a generation before my son, so his enlisting felt like the beginning of a family tradition. In fact, he was born at Ireland Army Community Hospital in Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1987.

As my son prepared to follow in my boot steps, I was eager to pass along advice on how to succeed. I began to craft a list of suggestions, as any dad would when his child was venturing into the world.

But the more I wrote, the more I realized that this wasn’t a guide to surviving boot camp. It was a guide for life. Substitute department manager for drill sergeant, and the advice rings just as true for the civilian world as it does for the military. (You’ll also want to steal these 5 things successful people do at work every day.)

My son survived boot camp and is thriving today as a NASA engineer. Perhaps these words of hard-learned wisdom contributed to his success in some way; I certainly like to think so. If this advice worked for him, it just might work for all of us as well.

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1. Never argue with drill sergeants. If you have a differing opinion, ask whether you can give yours. They’ll tell you whether there’s any room for discussion. If not, salute and move out smartly. Don’t roll your eyes or let your attitude show, either. The drill sergeants will pick up on it and eat your lunch. (Got an attitude problem? Take these 6 steps for a positive attitude.)

2. Give 110 percent effort, all the time. Everyone and anyone can give 100 percent. More effort means more stripes.

3. If things go wrong, reflect on the lesson taught, then move on. In the words of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, “Lick ’em tomorrow.”

4. Stand straight, but don’t lock your knees in long formations. You’ll pass out if you do. (Civilian application: Sit up straight in staff meetings so you’ll doze off less easily, but also remember to be flexible.)

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5. Smile even when it sucks. The drill sergeants will think you are crazy but tough. They like that.

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6. Never criticize the president (who is in your chain of command) or your boss. And never talk politics. Nobody cares what you think. Save your viewpoints for close friends only.

7. Appearance is key to success. Press uniforms, shine shoes, and keep your hair neat and short. Look better than the average, and you’ll be treated better than the average. Bosses will take notice. (Here’s the ultimate guide to dressing for work.)

8. When you are tired and frustrated, keep telling yourself, “I can do anything for six weeks.”

9. Always volunteer. They’re going to pick you eventually. You may as well seem motivated and helpful. Then, if there is something you truly do not want to do, you can choose not to volunteer. They probably won’t pick you, since you are always volunteering on your own.

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10. Your opportunities are limited only by your desire to work and your imagination. Once you come through this crucible, you can guide your own life course.

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11. You are smart but no better than anyone else until you prove yourself. Conversely, no one is better than you, so take a back seat to no one. You will be as good as you choose to be.

12. Fear of failure can weigh you down like an anchor. It will prevent you from ever going places. Don’t fear failure, but know that getting where you’re going will take work.

13. You are part of a team, not just an individual. Look out for your buddies, and help the weaker links. It is no longer about “me.” It’s about “us.”

14. Never do controlled substances. Never! They are illegal, and they are bad for your health. Also, you don’t know when you will be administered a urinalysis, and if you flunk, you are finished. Less than honorable discharge!

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15. Everybody is scared, nervous, and homesick. Everyone will try to act tough, but they’re as scared as you.

16. Write home once in a while. Darn it, I raised you; I’m interested in how you are doing.

17. If you go to a war zone (or are put on a difficult assignment), do your duty. Don’t be foolish, but be brave. Don’t let others take risks for you. You’ll respect yourself more in the years to come. Being a coward is like a grass stain on the knees of your pants: It leaves a mark forever. Leave no regrets.

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18. This opportunity is a springboard to your life’s future success. If you treat it like a job, it will never be more than that. If you treat it like a quest, an adventure, it will be. Squeeze the experience for all it’s worth. You’ll never be 18 years old again. You’ll never have opportunities like these again.

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