“You don’t have to go around proving how smart you are.” These words, spoken to me by my First Sergeant, a person of substantial authority in my military world, surprised me. I had never thought of myself as smart. In my mind I was scarcely above mediocre when it came to brain power.
It took a good while for the notion of my own intelligence to sink in. It was like having a door unlocked, and suddenly realizing I could walk through it any time. With that realization, my ambition was sparked. Maybe I could get a college degree. I still lacked the discipline to put any amount of rigor into my studies, but at least I tried.
In reality, my ambition wasn’t yet fully formed, as my accomplishments were few. I was easily distracted, and didn’t focus as I should have. But, I at least started to excel in my military education. I wanted to be promoted, so I focused heavily on that.
The military maintains a vestigial class system of Enlisted personnel and Officers. Officers require a degree to be commissioned. There is a strong sense of “therefore we are smarter than you,” between the military classes, and, it goes both ways. Enlisted personnel who learn leadership and problem solving, often see Officers as educated, but without common sense.
Late in my third year of serving overseas, I was finally sent to the month long leadership school required for my promotion. I wanted to do well. I knew that graduating in the top ten percent on the Commendant’s list would be worth a military award.
I pushed, and anguished throughout the course with that goal in mind. I was desperate to prove myself worthy. When I graduated, I was 27th out of 450. I was proud of the achievement, but then suddenly realized, I failed in another way. I could have done better. In my mind I was still in the middle of the pack. I hadn’t set the bar high enough. I limited my own achievement. This is where my ambition finally took hold.