Sometimes the obvious is right there – before us. We miss it. Sometimes history teaches what the present cannot. Sometimes wisdom sits quietly at our feet or fingertips. We forget to look. Consider “The Thirteen Mistakes.”
These days, we are all (or most of us) impatient, tired of being told what to do. By turns, we regret our impatience, then impatiently strive to fix messes created by our impatience. Or we get flush with judgment, flashing our mirror at those who judged us unfairly. It is all very human.
Or we are cocksure our perception prevails, so are quick to insist, slow to concede, elevate little things, get consumed in the fight, forget why. We worry over unfixable things, forget we are limited, and imagine comfort in the idea of sameness, in social conformity, often the opposite of a virtue.
In 1950, the Defense Department (who knows who) penned a little book. It was nothing much; it reflected things about WWII, the Korean War, adjusting to civil society, and what made a good military officer. It was called, rather simply, “The Armed Forces Officer.” Greenback, at first a pamphlet, was easy to read.
About a third in, the author(s) noted the US Coast Guard – always central to America’s defense – had distilled what they called “The Thirteen Mistakes.” These were little life lessons that, if you could avoid them, produce a happier, more collegial, and ultimately more effective life – and officer.
So, without more, here they are. Make of them what you will. They seem oddly fitted, 70 years later, to our world – and maybe you will agree, there is something here, at our feet and fingertips, that is worth our time.
The book is simple; it just lays the truth out for the officer, warfighter, warfighter come home, everyone.
“It is a mistake …”
“(1) To attempt to set up your own standard of right and wrong,”
“(2) To try to measure the enjoyment of others by your own,”
“(3) To expect uniformity of opinions in the world,”
“(4) To fail to make allowance for inexperience,”
“(5) To endeavor to mold all dispositions alike,”
“(6) Not to yield on unimportant trifles,”
“(7) To look for perfection in our own actions,”
“(8) To worry ourselves and others about what cannot be remedied,”
“(9) Not to help everybody wherever, however, whenever we can,”
“(10) To consider impossible what we cannot ourselves perform,”
“(11) To believe only what our finite minds can grasp,”
“(12) Not to make allowance for the weakness of others,” and
“(13) To estimate by some outside quality, what it is that within which makes the man.”
In view of modern trends and sentiments, in and outside defense, these guideposts may seem old and new, relevant and past due, somehow maybe worth remembering or – we imagine – just trite?
Even 70 years ago, those thoughts crossed the author’s mind, a military officer. We dismiss so much so fast, are so sure we are right and have no time to pause, think, and apply. How could anything so old be worth reviewing and internalizing, let alone help us reset our compass? Only it is.
The author, after offering these little nuggets, gives an apology. He says the “unobserving officer will no doubt dismiss this list as just so many cliches.” Then he stops, adding: “The reflective man will accept it as a negative guide to positive conduct, for it engages practically every principle which is vital to the growth of a strong spiritual life in relation to your fellow man.”
Simple, the code of a devoted, effective, internally content military officer – 70 years ago and today. More, a set of little rock stacks to keep us on the trail, nothing too grand, nothing in excess, just a solid foundation on which we can stand, quietly plodding toward success.
To me, the interesting part of rereading those words in a little volume, plucked from a dusty shelf, is the timeless nature of what the author offers. Funny enough, the obvious is still obvious… if we don’t miss it.