I have a small journal in the back of my head. It is full of all the things Air Force Academy graduates said to me as a cadet that I resolved I would never catch myself saying. These fell into two categories:
- The things they said which were valuable lessons that I took to heart as a cadet so I didn’t repeat their mistakes
- The things they said that revealed they forgot where they came from
The most common of the second variety were variations of, “life is so much easier as a cadet,” “life is so much better when people are telling you what to do,” etc. As a cadet, few things chafe as much as the restrictions on one’s personal freedom, and listening to an “old guy” pontificate about wanting to be in my shoes with less freedom and less responsibility was neither inspiring nor, did I think, actually representative of how they felt. Even on my worst days post-graduation I have never once truly wished to be a cadet again. I’m holding true to that entry in that imaginary journal.
There is, however, one issue on which I have definitively changed my mind.
By it’s nature, a service academy breeds cynicism. Whereas Dilbert and company go home after a day of dealing with the proverbial pointy-haired boss, a cadet lives for four years in the immediate vicinity of his boss’s office and within walking distance of the offices of four general officers. The annoyances of office life take on a whole new dimension in this environment. Daily life begins to mirror passages from Catch-22. I watched more than one problem be “resolved” by the renaming of root causes.
As a result, cadets gain an acute sense for BS. Everything that leadership says gets filtered and parsed:
- “Is this something they have to say to support the party line?”
- “This seems good for me, but what’s in this for them if I go along with it?”
- “Do they really believe what they’re saying?”
To return to a favorite Katt Williams bit, you quit believing and trusting anything. And this is often a great skill. This keen sense for ulterior motives protects a person from the worst in others.
Leadership is aware of this cynicism and address it from time to time. During my time there, one of the generals referred to cynicism as a “cancer.” This of course failed the above filters and was widely lampooned by the cadet population. I discounted it and kept my filters up.
And it is this issue on which I have changed my mind.
The same disbelief and mistrust in others that protects you from the worst in others simultaneously prevents you from being your best. When turned inward, cynicism turns every good idea into self-doubt. Every opportunity to succeed becomes and opportunity to fail. Every chance to do a good thing for others becomes a calculated, self-serving, manipulative move. While an unmerited abundance of self-esteem might be annoying and permit a person to do good deeds that are merely an exchange of back-scratches, a world full of people actively refusing to back-scratch just results in a world full of itchy people.
Exactly like cancer, cynicism will feed on the healthy energy around it and destroy its host.
So I have resolved in my own life to be a little more trusting of myself and others and to tolerate criticism of my motives moreso than I have in the past. I think this is going to be a good move.