After serving almost 24 years, I chose to retire early from the military in August of 2013. That decision was the culmination of my journey recovering from the decompression following my tour of duty in Afghanistan. During this one particular bout of internal combat when I questioned my own mortality again (some call these episodes, the “Survivor’s Guilt”), the dots just connected.
In that defining moment, I learned two things about myself.
First, things always happen for a reason! From that day on, I shifted from asking “Why?!” to “Why not?!”. By embracing this new mindset, I learned to go with the energy of “Yes!”, in the belief that my choice will take me where I need to go or receive the experience I need to feel. The reason for the choice will appear when I am ready to receive. In a way, you can say, entrepreneurship is about having faith.
Second, there is an inexplicable push propelling me to be an entrepreneur. It took over 20 years for me to realise how the West Point Experience and the ideals of Duty, Honor, Country, had suppressed who I was. With this acknowledgement, I made the hard decision to walk away from the soldiering profession that I had only known in my life. Having survived at least two near-death experiences in Afghanistan, I thought what could be as challenging or worse, right?!
I am into my fourth year along my apprenticeship as an entrepreneur. I realise now how wrong I was. Combat stress and business stress are simply two different worlds. Yet, upon reflection, this Monday morning, I am clearer that the military experience has given me the best startup preparation to succeed as an entrepreneur. Allow me to share the 4 attributes through the acronym FIST.
FIST stands for Focus, Initiative, Service, and Trust.
All startup entrepreneurs go through similar phases of experiences. We first learn to work in the business. This initial phase teaches us to handle all aspects of operations to survive the business. We next learn to work on the business. This second phase teaches us to put in place the business system and the management team to sustain the business. We finally learn to apply strategic planning to scale the business for growth. I now elaborate how FIST works for you.
In those early days of starting up, you are extremely resource poor. Survival consumes all of your energy. Naturally, your military training instinctively Focuses you on the mission (to survive), which channels your efforts to take actions that generates revenue, and to ruthlessly shutout everything else. In your hunger to generate revenue, you seize the Initiative to create opportunities and make things happen instead of standing still and waiting for things to happen. It is here that you take calculated risks to experiment, test, and innovate. Yet, you know these actions alone do not create the outcome you seek. Your military training to perform actions in service of a higher intent, now kicks-in to sharpen what you do in Service of the customer. Relentlessly, you ask: “What else can I do for you?” Because you have served, you epitomise trust and teamwork. Honed from years of daily practice in leading soldiers, your leadership by example eventually instils that Trust in those we serve. Ultimately, your success is predicated on you being – who you are. “Never settle!”
The only thing that limits you in your transition is your military mindset. The business world operates on the extreme opposite of what you have been conditioned to operate under. Hence, the crucial first step required of you is to unlearn to relearn, rearm, and reset your mindset.
I want to encourage my fellow veterans, regardless of race, language, or religion: “Fear not, when you transit. Your military experience has given you the best startup preparation to step-out and step-up to the entrepreneurship challenge. You already paid it forward when you served your country to now succeed as an entrepreneur. FIST will guide you to deliver on your dream to make the Positive Difference in service of others, beyond the military.”
So here’s my FIST pump to you, military veterans. Thank you for your service.
Chris is a proud Singaporean husband, father, and son, who graduated top 1% with the Class of 1995 from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Chris’s business specialises in making the messiest data sets usable through decision-driven data mashups and then synthesising those insights into visually meaningful choices to simplify decision making.