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Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “You don’t work hard enough when you’re comfortable” With Jason Matias

You don’t work hard enough when you’re comfortable. You don’t work hard enough when you’re comfortable. Life lesson from survival school. Being uncomfortable sucks, but being uncomfortable keeps you alert and working on survival. In order to survive in arctic survival school, you had to build shelters, fires and rescue signals. You had to hunt for […]

You don’t work hard enough when you’re comfortable. You don’t work hard enough when you’re comfortable. Life lesson from survival school. Being uncomfortable sucks, but being uncomfortable keeps you alert and working on survival. In order to survive in arctic survival school, you had to build shelters, fires and rescue signals. You had to hunt for food, scavenge for gear and avoid freezing to death. If you sat down for a moment to rest, to make yourself comfortable while you work, you died. Being uncomfortable sucks, but it’s necessary and desirable to thrive in difficult situations.


As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Matias.

Jason Matias, a former New Yorker now calling the Pacific Northwest home, is a full-time professional artist, photographer, and educator. He started off adult life in the United States Air Force as a Munitions Systems Specialist. Basically, he built and maintained bombs and missiles for fighter aircraft. He enlisted in the Air Force in 2005 and moved to Hawaii in 2011 after his enlistment ended. There, he completed his master’s degree in Organizational Leadership before pivoting into a career in photography and eventually art. Jason’s work has been featured in National Geographic, The Weather Channel, The Huffington Post, among others. He’s well-known for his TEDx Talk from TEDxTacoma “Beautiful Things That Are Gone,” about his photography and the transitions he’s witnessed.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Hi! Thank you for having me. Yes, I’m happy to share a bit about my childhood. I grew up in New York. My parents split when I was four, and I grew up experiencing both the city and upstate New York (or, at least what city folk referred to as “upstate”). My mother works in mortgages, and my father is a marine biologist with his own research firm. I was raised mostly by my mother and stepfather, who owned his own landscaping business and loved building racecars. So, I had a broad range of influences as a kid.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I am a full-time artist. I make a living selling my works. Mostly, I create with a camera and follow a very painterly postproduction process. I’m also a teacher. I’ve always been in some sort of instructor role and today I teach my own online course called The Art of Selling Art. A story… well, I created a body of work that I call “Skyward.” They are artworks of old military aircraft in a boneyard in Arizona. I spent my day today developing a marketing plan to present this body of work to collectors who are interested in such things. Then, I created a tutorial on how I created the marketing plan and launch lists to sell this artwork. That’s pretty much my life right now.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I am a 6th generation military. Every first son in my paternal family has been a soldier. My grandfather was a captain in the Philippine Army. My father was an artillery officer in the US Army. So, I always knew I was going to sign-up. I thought I would eventually become an officer, but that never worked out.

I ended up as a 2W0X1 (Munitions Systems Specialist). This wasn’t the job I signed up for (and I could tell you an extended story about why I would punch my recruiter in the face if I ever met him again), but that is all negative. What is positive, great actually, is that the AMMO community is incredible and the family I found there was exactly what I needed.

My first station was at Eielson AFB in North Pole, Alaska. My second station was at Creech AFB in Indian Springs, Nevada. Yeah, I went from the tundra to the desert, and it was miserable. I built bombs and missiles for A10, F15/16, and the Predator Reaper mission. I did one tour in Jalalabad, Afghanistan where I was in charge of my own munitions facility or “bomb dump” as we called it.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

One afternoon on the flight line in Alaska I was loading 2.75” High Explosive rockets into an SUU rocket launcher on an A-10 Warthog. 2.75” refers to the diameter of the rocket, they were actually as long as I am tall. My crew member stopped, turned to me while holding a rocket that was longer than he was tall, and said, “Most days, I hate my job.” To which, I nodded and he continued, “But then sometimes I realize I’m on a flight line putting missiles on fighter jets and I remember, ‘this is fucking cool.’” Then he held the rocket up to the SUU and the Weapons airman slide off the foil that held the fins compressed and pushed the rocket into the launcher. We loaded over 100 rockets that day.

I always think about that moment when I look back at 6 years “humping bombs.” It was a really cool job. It didn’t bridge into any sort of tangible career in the civilian world, and it didn’t set me up for success after my career ended but it was one, large adventure. A chapter opened and closed in my life, and I really like that thought.

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 did not experience or hear about stories of heroism during the six years I was enlisted in the Air Force. I think the idea that we will experience/perform acts of heroism is one of the naive notions we all enter the military with and then are disabused of as we mature.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

I think acts of heroism are measured in large part by perspective. For instance, a fireman entering a burning building is seen as a hero by most. Others see it as a regular Tuesday. The civilian world brand’s military member’s heroes where most joined for reasons other than the pursuit of the heroic; college, obligation, or to change the momentum of their lives. So, I feel like you can be a hero to someone while being a regular person to everyone else.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

Stereotypically, or as an archetype, yes. But in reality, no. Being a hero to or for someone is simply doing or becoming what a person needs at that time in order to change their lives for the better. That could be pulling a person out of the street before a car hits them or it could be showing up every day to make sure a person doesn’t succumb to their addictions. It’s a spectrum.

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.)

1. If it opens, close it. Life lesson. One day, on the edge of a cliff, I was eating an especially sticky sandwich on a break during a hike and I knocked over my water, spilling it all. I was so dehydrated and my mouth was so sticky that the six-mile hike home was miserable. It may sound simple and silly, but, I’ve found this lesson to be applicable to everything. It’s about taking care of your gear, your habits, your people.

2. You don’t work hard enough when you’re comfortable. You don’t work hard enough when you’re comfortable. Life lesson from survival school. Being uncomfortable sucks, but being uncomfortable keeps you alert and working on survival. In order to survive in arctic survival school, you had to build shelters, fires and rescue signals. You had to hunt for food, scavenge for gear and avoid freezing to death. If you sat down for a moment to rest, to make yourself comfortable while you work, you died. Being uncomfortable sucks, but it’s necessary and desirable to thrive in difficult situations.

3. Focus on the individual. A good leader takes care of his people so that they can take care of the mission.

4. Lead from the back. In the military, I was never in charge of anything. I was an E5 Staff Sergeant when I got out. Sometimes I didn’t agree with choices or the direction of those in charge. As an organic leader, you don’t always need to be in front of the team to be a leader. You can lead from behind. You can help steer the mission by offering guidance and tactfully sharing your thoughts. You don’t have to accept an outcome merely because you are outranked. First, you do what you are told, and you lead your troops by example. Then, you bring your feedback as a subordinate to your betters to influence when appropriate. Often, you learn more about why something is done or ordered to be done a certain way. Sometimes, you help your leadership steer the ship by bringing a perspective and information that was not known at the time.

5. You don’t have to like a person to be their leader. But it’s still your responsibility to know that individual and take care of them. I’ve had good bosses and I’ve had bad bosses. That is all.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

No, it didn’t. But it did impart on me a life lesson that might be a little nihilistic, but I’ll share it with you. Nothing is really that important. This is a difficult idea to put into words. When I was in Afghanistan, the enemy was firing mortars at us (quite unsuccessfully) from a nearby hill and an A-10 came and tore them apart. Another time, they set off a car bomb outside the base where the munitions were stored (again, unsuccessfully). When I think about those experiences alongside the stressors of life on the civilian side (I am piloting a luxury business through an economic collapse at the moment), it’s difficult to lay any weight to things that happen. It’s not apathy, it’s just perspective. As a result, I have been known to be very, very even-keeled and levelheaded. I think that has helped me a lot.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. 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?

When I came back from Afghanistan, I was different in ways I didn’t recognize. My girlfriend at the time ended up leaving me. I was angrier. My temper was short and my behavior was aggressive. That all just kind of faded with time, minus the perspective I still carry with me. I wasn’t directly inserted into civilian life after my deployment as I was active duty at the time but leaving the military a few years later did come with some challenges. Civilians offend easier. They have a magic curtain pulled around them that blocks out experiences as the one’s veterans have. It’s ignorance, but the kind that is not your fault. Because of that, you have to communicate differently. I learned to talk slower in order to give myself a chance to filter my words. I self-edit a lot. I also learned to keep a lot to myself. Not every opinion needs to be heard and, knowing my typical audience, would not be understood. So, I save those thoughts for someone who can reflect them back to me with understanding.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Well, I’m an artist. Whether or not I am doing something of value or of consequence has always been a struggle for me. Being in the military mattered and creating art doesn’t always carry that same weight for me. So, how do I think I will help people? I feel like the answer is less tangible than I would like.

My main body of work is built around an idea I call “Comfortable Isolation.” It carries a message of meditation and introspection for growth. I like to share that message and when I see it touch someone personally it revitalizes my drive to create.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be person-centric. People work well when they know that they are understood by their leaders. Focus on knowing (and acting on the knowledge) your team, and your team will thrive.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

If you have a large team, train good leaders. Then see above answer.

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?

I have this one collector who doesn’t answer texts or phone calls or emails. In order to talk to him, I have to go sit at his restaurant and wait for him to come chat. He helped teach me the value of tenacity. He owns over $35K of my work and reminds me that he believes in me. Luckily, I like the food at his restaurants.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I created and teach a course called The Art of Selling Art, where I help artists do what I’m doing and create an income with their art.

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. 🙂

I am really attached to this idea of Comfortable Isolation. Especially the part regarding introspection. People don’t really know themselves. They don’t confront their “inner demons” or the beliefs and motivations that cause them to behave the way they do. Those inner confrontations are easily avoided though the distractions of constant media. So, if I could inspire a movement it would be one toward self-awareness.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“There is no greater waste of time than to be inspired and do nothing.”

I keep this quote on the top of my vision board and it reminds me to act now.

I also have “nothing changes” written on the mirror in my bathroom. It’s half of a thought. “Nothing Changes Unless You Do,” and it reminds me that my outer world reflects my inner world, not the other way around.

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 🙂

I’m always looking for new collectors or someone who’d want to invest in an art gallery. I can’t think of anyone specific, though. If you’re reading this and are in the Seattle area, I’d love to share a meal and a drink with you.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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