There are a lot of stories and folklore about the interviews that Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the Father of the Nuclear Navy, conducted on prospective nuclear officer candidates. These are not fiction. I have spoken to many officers who were interviewed by the KOG – Kindly Old Gentlemen (as some called him – behind his back!) and they all have some great stories to tell.
There is the story of the young midshipman from the Naval Academy who was engaged to be married. The Admiral supposedly asked him to call his fiance and tell her the wedding was off because he needed to focus on his academic studies in the Nuclear Navy program. The midshipman picked up the phone, dialed her, and told her the bad news. As soon as he set the phone down, the Admiral told him he was NOT going to be in the program. His lack of commitment to his fiance displayed a character weakness the Admiral did not want in his program.
There was also the office closet where candidates would be sent for hours to think about their answers to his ridiculous questions. Perhaps that tactic was just a claustrophobia test for potential submariners. I don’t know. I have also read about a chair that had the front legs cut off shorter than the back so the candidate would constantly slide down in the chair while trying to compose himself and answer impossible questions from the Admiral. That chair is real. It sits in the office of the Director of Naval Reactors at the Navy Yard in DC or at least it did the last time I saw it in 2010 when I had to pay an unpleasant visit to Admiral Donald (Rickover’s successor at the time) while in command of USS KEY WEST (SSN 722). (That’s a story for another time…)
So why did the Admiral use these insane tactics and why am I writing about them? Some may say he just enjoyed watching the candidates squirm but most people who were close to the process would tell you the Admiral wanted to see how the candidate reacted under the pressure. He was looking for leaders of character as well as intellect.
This weekend I dropped off my daughter at Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps for her orientation. This was a harder thing to do as a father than I expected. I had been an instructor at an NROTC unit in the late 1990’s and, of course, I had been through a bit of this type of training myself over the early years of my naval career. So, I knew what she would be facing. As a loving father, I wanted to protect her from the discomfort that was coming her way. I am confident they are not going to harm her physically as we have finally rooted out physical hazing in these types of “rites of passage.” But, there will be some intense physical and mental training which she will need to become a good Naval Officer. As I write these words I am picturing her doing push ups for not knowing who the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy is…I don’t know who that is either and I need the push ups more than she does! Koonce, drop and give me 20!
Over the last few years as my children have approached adulthood, the one thing I have tried to instill in them is the concept of “being comfortable being uncomfortable.” I have tried to nudge them towards trying out new challenges out of their comfort zone. My standard pep talk goes like this “You must learn to push yourself beyond what is comfortable. You will feel a little scared. You will be uncomfortable and feel that you don’t belong or that you don’t know what you are doing. Those are normal emotional reactions to being out of your comfort zone. Everyone who tries something new and learns a new skill or ability will experience those emotions. People who learn to push through in the face of those emotions will succeed and reach their goals. You have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
I think as career professionals we all need to remember this idea and push ourselves and our team members in the same way. As I watch my children face new challenges and I give them advice, I have to think to myself “Am I taking on new challenges? Am I getting out of my own comfort zone? Have I become too comfortable being comfortable?” One year ago, I left my comfortable corporate job and launched our little consulting company with little more than some ideas and a lot of experience. It was scary even for this 49 year old former nuclear submarine captain. But, with the help of friends, family and great clients, we are growing stronger each day. It has not been easy but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Whether you are 18, 81 or somewhere in between like me, don’t let the discomfort of the sliding chair or a little time in the closet hold you back. Let’s push ourselves towards new challenges and continue being uncomfortable. Only then can we reach new heights and achieve great things.
Now, where did I put that brochure for learning how to skydive? Yikes!