Any honorable career or job has heroes in it: banking, retail, education, you name it. Because of people who choose time and time again to forego the more comfortable option for the benefit of the bigger picture, you can find heroes in “ordinary” citizens as well as in war.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Barnum, from Achieving Family Goals. Ryan and his his wife Lettice are co-founders of the website, where they blog about all things goal-related. They chronicle the experiences and lessons learned from working on their own 100 Life Goals list, while encouraging others to do the same by writing about goals, habits, productivity and reviewing any kind of product that might help people achieve their goals. Ryan is still active duty in the military, so the website is a side hustle they enjoy running together.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
Thanks for having me! I grew up in a small, southern Nevada community of about 5,000 people. It was a great place to grow up because it was safe with a lot of good people, and had plenty of space to run around in without getting into too much trouble. Every time I return to visit it still feels the same. However, I didn’t get to grow up with much diversity. 90% of the community’s population is white with about 7% hispanic. About 60% of the population is the same religion. So it was sheltered in a way. That’s one reason I love being in the military so much: it fills gaps that I missed throughout my childhood.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Regarding the military, I’m still in the active duty Air Force, going into my 10th year now.
In other areas, my wife and I run the website Achieving Family Goals. We decided to start this website so we could chronicle the accomplishment of our Life Goals and hopefully help other people to do the same. One goal my wife and I decided on was to visit every national park together. So every chance we get we plan a trip. Just last weekend we finally took the opportunity to visit Big Bend and see the amazing Chisos Mountains. That visit will be the topic of an upcoming blog post. We’ll share the details of our trip with any added lessons that we learned — lessons as general as goals and planning, or as specific as what I wish I would have packed to go to Big Bend.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I grew up without any real military influence. I had to look this statistic up: only 5% of my community’s population are veterans (like I already mentioned: very little diversity). Nobody in my immediate family was military. It was actually a college teacher, and Air Force vet, that nudged me in this direction. He told me, “If you’re going to join the military, go officer and go Air Force.” I had no idea what an officer was, but I did know that the Air Force had an ROTC program at my school. I also knew a guy who had been in the Army. When I asked him about it, his reply was even simpler: “Go Air Force!” It’s one thing to have someone who was in the Air Force recommend the Air Force, but it’s even more impactful when a soldier didn’t recommend joining the Army. That was enough for me; I joined the ROTC program, earned a scholarship, and have been a part of the Air Force ever since.
As for my active duty background, I’m a support officer by trade. And since I’m still active duty, because of security reasons I cannot release more details than that.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I was deployed on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I was worried that it would be particularly eventful for the airmen I supported and I was right. I interacted with a group of them that encountered a dangerous experience and my job was to support them afterward. What I learned from it is that when you learn your job, you need to know it. I say this because after the incident I needed to help these airmen immediately. I didn’t get any prep time. I couldn’t say, “Hang on a second while I review how to do this one thing.” No, I only had enough time to react and do my job. Life is like that sometimes. “When the time to perform arrives, the time to prepare has passed” is the saying I’ve read. You’re either ready or you’re not. Military service, or not, it’s best to be prepared and not worry.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
I’ll share two, both of which are from my first duty station. I had one airman who joined our flight (which is the Air Force’s term for a small group of about 15 airmen) as he was on his way out of the military. The Air Force had trained him in one specialty, but later reclassified his entire career field. This meant that they would need to attend technical training all over again, but because he only had about a year left in his commitment the Air Force decided that training him wasn’t worth the money. I watched this Airman struggle to catch up with his peers. But even though he was separating from the military, he put in the hours to ensure he could get the job done. He went on training exercises and even deployed. It may or may not have been the right decision for the Air Force to forgo his training. But it was heroic for this young man to sacrifice so much of his time for the good of the other airmen he supported, the Air Force, and our mission in the Middle East.
Another airman I worked with was deployed when I arrived to our base for the first time. I didn’t meet him for several months, but I heard our other airmen mention that he and his wife were having marital problems. Come to find out that his wife was having an affair while he was gone. I understand that there are always two sides to a story, but infidelity is still inexcusable. This airman had to live through it, helpless, while he was on the other side of the world. We worked together for at least another year before the Air Force asked him to deploy again, this time for a whole year. When he returned home the second time, he was ready to accept another assignment elsewhere when one immediate family member died and another committed suicide. Imagine how heart-wrenching that must have been for him! But this airman was a hero because he kept going. Thankfully, the Air Force did right by him and moved him close to home, where he continued to serve in other capacities.
These are simple stories, but they are still examples of heroism.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Based on my experience and learning, there are two criteria for someone to be a hero: He or she needs to 1) sacrifice a personal desire for the needs of someone or something more important, and 2) on a consistent basis. This is my definition, of course, but it fits well with and builds on most people’s concepts of heroism. First, this definition includes the typical heros we might think about, like Ryan Murphy, the Navy SEAL killed in action during Operation: Red Wings (from the book and movie Lone Survivor). He gave the ultimate sacrifice, which definitely counts as giving up a personal desire for the needs of someone else. Nobody really wants to die, but he did it willingly to save his men; they were more important to him than his own life.
But other service members are heroes even if they don’t give their lives in combat. Why? Because, for a long time, they have consistently sacrificed their own desires of comfort and ease for something more important, which is the freedom and welfare of the country they serve. That’s heroism. People killed or wounded in action meet both criteria, but that doesn’t diminish the heroism of the many small, selfless acts that millions of others have made and continue to make.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
Absolutely not. Like I mentioned already, facing a life and death situation is only part of the equation. Most people who make selfless decisions when they are faced with life and death situations are already heroes because of what they have done so many other times before. My dad is a hero even though he’s never seen combat. He and his siblings grew up on a farm in Washington and were required by farm life to give up hours upon hours of their own personal desires to help my grandparents. As an adult he adopted this mentality and did it willingly for several years. If we don’t have farmers we don’t have food in our grocery stores. So yes, farmers are heroes. Teachers are heroes. Any honorable career or job has heroes in it: banking, retail, education, you name it. Because of people who choose time and time again to forego the more comfortable option for the benefit of the bigger picture, you can find heroes in “ordinary” citizens as well as in war.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
My lessons come from people much smarter than me, supported with my own experiences.
- First and foremost, READ! I’ve heard it said before that foolish people don’t learn from their mistakes, average people do learn from their mistakes, but the wise learn from the mistakes of others. I’ve been all three in my lifetime and career. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis (or Saint Mattis, as some of us service members like to call him), is quoted at length about the importance of reading. He says the problem with not reading, or not making time to read, is that you learn from experience, which in the profession of arms (even for a support officer like myself) is that you waste valuable lives, time, and taxpayer money. Being a reader has helped me know what to say at critical mentorship moments with airmen who were facing a dilemma or needed correction. One young man got in trouble because someone was injured on his watch. He tried to explain to me that he shouldn’t have been fully responsible since someone else had let him down and should also be partly to blame. Because I had read and learned from Jocko WIllink’s Extreme Ownership, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to explain to him that as the leader, he must own every mistake his team makes. Reading is the way to receive world class mentorship for a fraction of what it would cost via seminar or coaching. Making a habit of it will set anyone apart from the pack. If I could only give one piece of leadership advice, this would be it.
- Be great at what you do. Cal Newport writes about this at length in one of his books, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Hopefully this doesn’t sound too cheesy, but this book may have saved my career. For for the first three years of active duty, I hated my job. I planned on separating as soon as my four year commitment was over. I was even considering other job offers around that time. But luckily I found Cal’s blog and realized I wasn’t the only one who felt like I wanted to quit my job in favor of finding something “I loved.” Apparently, it was going around for my generation. Cal explains that many searching for the career you are passionate about leads to chronic job hopping, stress, and even depression. I might have fallen victim to this too, if the military didn’t have me on a contract. Instead, Cal proposes that to love your job you first have to develop expertise, which will then give you options and likely more autonomy, which will then help you love your job. So I changed my attitude about work and finally got good at my job. It hasn’t always been easy, but now I enjoy my career and have liked it more and more as the years have gone by. Thanks, Cal.
- Leadership requires two things: a job to do and people to do it. You must balance them. Most people tend to lean more toward one side than the other, so be cautious about that. If you lean more towards the people side be careful that you don’t spend so much time building relationships with people that your team doesn’t accomplish as much as it can. If you’re like me and lean more heavily towards getting the job done at the expense of building relationships with the people you lead, then be careful. You need those relationships to be strong, so don’t neglect them. One of my biggest regrets is that I took too long to build good relationships with my subordinates. For too long I was busy typing away at my desk when I should have carved out more time to walk around and talk with people. It’s a lesson I’m glad I’ve learned, but I have to continue to guard against falling back into my old habits.
- One of the easiest things to do as a leader is to sincerely ask, “What’s your recommendation?” This comes from Pete Blaber’s The Mission, The Men, and Me. Blaber posits that leaders should trust the man or woman that is the closest to the action, the expert. This question shows that leaders care about what their subordinates have to say and are humble enough to take feedback. It’s usually the best thing for the job too. If you ask the expert what she recommends and are willing to follow her advice, you will likely make the right choice. This is not to say that the leader should shift the decision responsibility to someone else. The leader, and no one else, bears that responsibility. But getting recommendations for a course of action is one of the simplest, yet most useful, pieces of leadership advice I have ever used.
- Know that you can be 100% respectful and 100% honest in your communication. I’ve learned this through the book Crucial Conversations. It’s the best book on communication that I’ve ever read, hands down. About a year ago, a peer paid me one of the nicest compliments. She had observed me address a superior about some deficiencies his team needed to fix. She said that I was tactful, yet I said what needed to be said without shying away from the hard stuff. Though I still have plenty of work to do, I took that as a sign that I am on the right track with my communication skills. I attribute it all to Crucial Conversations.
Do you think your time in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Even though I’m still active duty military, my wife and I run a side hustle together and I can answer that question with a confident “Yes, absolutely.” Whether a service member wants to leave the military and join corporate business or strike out on her own, almost everything about military life will make her better prepared to join business. Discipline is one reason. The military trains you to get up early, work long hours, and stick with a mission until it is complete. You can’t say no to the mission and you can’t just quit when it gets hard, because you made an oath and are now bound for three, four, five, or six years. (If you quit you can go to jail!) So instead of quitting, if you don’t already have the discipline, you learn to stick with something until it is complete. Professional communication is another reason. Every military trainee learns how to speak respectfully from day one and refines that skill throughout his or her service time. These are just two examples of valuable skills in any sector. Of course, the military isn’t the only place someone can learn them, but it certainly does a good job at it.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
Yes, some service members suffer permanent injuries or PTSD because of their deployments. It’s a real thing. But those individuals are in the minority nowadays. The numbers I’ve seen are anywhere from 20% to less than 10%. They also fluctuate depending on the year and current operations abroad, but the idea is still the same. Most service members play supporting roles to the few men and women pulling the triggers to rifles, tanks, jets, etc.
Now that I’ve said that, I’ll step down from my soapbox and answer the questions directly. Since I’m one of the majority in a supporting role, I had very few struggles when my deployment was over. I’m still active duty too, so I haven’t had to deal with the transition portion yet.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes. Our new website is about goals and how to achieve them. My wife and I have been fascinated with goals our whole marriage (we’re about to hit our nine year anniversary!). Shortly after getting married we learned about John Goddard and how his amazing accomplishments started with a simple list. So we figured why couldn’t we do the same thing? And we came up with our list of 100 Life Goals. We’re also fans of the Youtube channel The Bucket List Family and all of their adventures. We’re up to five kids now, but we’ve been doing the same sort of traveling as them ever since we got married, albeit on a much more local scale. Also, one aspect that we feel is missing from travel sites is that so many of these people have already struck it rich and retired early before they began working on their bucket lists. Well I’m still a working professional, and we don’t have any plans in the near future to get out of the military. So another goal of this blog is to show those who are still working full-time that it’s possible to accomplish their goals. Whether they are to travel, build a treehouse, or run a 5k, it takes hard work and sacrifice, but it is possible and worth it. We write about accomplishing our own goals, not just to brag and say “Look at what we’ve done,” but to share the lessons learned from them and help anyone else interested in doing the same thing. We also write about anything goals- or productivity-related that will help readers accomplish their own list of 100 Life Goals — planning, goals-related finances, habits, etc. So far the feedback we have received is exactly what we had hoped for: it has inspired readers to go accomplish their own goals.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Most people want to do good work. They want to perform. My most successful leadership moments have been when I worked hard to communicate a vision effectively, train and empower my subordinates to do the job themselves, and then get out of the way and watch them accomplish great things. The best leaders I’ve worked for have done the same thing for me. It doesn’t mean don’t get involved or don’t ask questions. But it does mean to not do their work for them and don’t hover.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Break the large team into smaller teams with their own leaders. That has to be number one. There are only so many people that any one person can lead directly and effectively and I have yet to see an exception to this rule. Then, have the leads of the smaller teams report to you so you can still lead the whole team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of my previous bosses was one of the first people to see potential in me. He relied on me for important jobs and made me feel like I had something to contribute. This was around my third year in active duty, right when I discovered Cal Newport’s writing about not worrying about my passion and instead to start getting better at my job. It was a crucial time for my career. If this boss hadn’t trusted me with some extra responsibilities that I succeeded in I might not have been motivated enough to keep going. I have had other great mentors along the way, but I credit him for his playing that role in such a critical time for me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath, he quotes one of the leaders who says, in essence, that unless you can list the names of each person you have developed, you’re not a real leader. That hit home to me and since then I’ve been trying to develop the people that I lead, especially the ones that are younger and will someday fill my shoes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This may be a controversial answer for many people, but here it is: raise a good family if you can. Doing this will have the largest long-term effect on the world. Suppose you raise two children, just two, to become honest, productive members of society. They are selfless and giving to others. Hard workers, who don’t care as much for recognition as they do for doing the right thing. Twenty to thirty years later, these two children do the same and each raise just two children in the same manner. In the next generation their children do the same. How much good could you do for the world throughout the generations by taking this simple approach? How many lives could you touch? The numbers are so high that you really can’t count it. This is why it makes me sad to hear people declare that they will never get married or have kids for the sake of travel or focusing on their careers. They claim that there is so much more to life than “just” raising kids and that they would rather “do something with their lives.” They are missing out on their true potential to do the most possible good they can do.
I mean no disrespect and I certainly am not judging myself as better than those who choose to not have kids. I also understand that it takes two to tango; one cannot just go start having kids. Many people long for that opportunity but it never comes their way. But to recap my answer to your question, it would be for all those who are able to have kids and who want to make this world a better place, consider the long-term, positive outcomes of raising children.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A favorite comes from a William Blake poem: “I sought my soul, But my soul I could not see. I sought my God, But my God eluded me. I sought my brother, And I found all three.” As I mentioned already, I have wasted so much time trying to figure out what my purpose is or what my calling is in life (my soul). But Blake’s quote explains that If I’ll just get over myself and go help someone, I’ll find that purpose as a side benefit.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Tim Ferriss. I credit him for turning my attention toward entrepreneurship. (Thanks, Tim) The 4-Hour Workweek gave me the motivation and blueprint to start a profitable business. We’ve both lived in Argentina and enjoy learning foreign languages, we’re both currently Texans, and we both seem to enjoy reading so much that it can keep us from action if we’re not careful (Tools of Titans, page 225). But perhaps most importantly, Tim has influenced me to experiment with everything in my life and eliminate whatever is unhelpful. I’d love to talk experiments, books, fitness, and writing with him.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.