Breaking Through

Let me start by saying if you’re a civilian I know your gonna laugh at me, and that’s fair. For the first time in my life, I have to make a career choice without the military making it for me. It turns out it’s harder than I thought. (I can hear a chorus of people giggling the word “duhh” right now). But what’s surprising is that it’s also lonely. Don’t get me wrong I have

tremendously supportive family and friends. But they’re so supportive they’re good with whatever I do. Which is absolutely no help, so thanks for nothing. Just kidding 😊. This odd sense of vulnerability reminds me of the feelings I haven’t had since I was a kid. I offer this article to others who may be in a similar situation as part of a conversation rather than a solution. Perhaps there should be a support group for this sort of thing?

In 1980 I was six and I lived in Everett, Washington in an isolated neighborhood sandwiched between two commercial zones. It was a small and secluded neighborhood but there were many kids. I have nine siblings, so my family provided a disproportionate amount of the neighborhood chaos. On nice days our mom would kick us out of the house and make us play for several hours.

My older sisters, Marie and Tonia, always took charge of the neighborhood gaggle and often organized us into games. They had an assortment of them. We played tag, hide and seek, capture the flag, tug of war, Simon says, and many more. One of my fondest memories is playing the game Red Rover. In later years I would recall this game whenever I saw depictions of Revolutionary War battles where the British Redcoats carrying muskets lined up against the American Colonist. Taking turns, they would fire volleys across the gap at each other. In Red Rover, however, it’s the kids who are crossing the field between the two warring sides instead of musket rounds.

Like the revolutionary battles, Red Rover involves two teams in a line facing each other. The rules of the game require each team to stretch out their arms and hold hands to form a chain. The tighter the grip the better, as winning demands holding the line when players from the opposing team attempt to break through. The two teams alternate calling out someone from the other line whom they wish to capture. All the members of the team doing the calling must scream the words “Red rover, red rover send Johnny right over!” When the runners' name is called that player has to leave their line and run at the opposing sides as fast as they can and with enough power to break through. If the runner succeeds in breaking through they get to take back one of the two people whose hand grip they just broke. If they fail they must join the line at the point of their failed attempt. They have been captured. The team that wins the game is the one with the most people on their side at the end.

As a small child, it’s a great feeling to have your name called. At that moment you are the center of attention and being fought over by everyone on the field. Your name is screamed by everyone on the other team as your team cheers you on in hopes you will break through and bring back the spoils of your skirmish. The smaller kids could not be trusted however. They knew they had a disadvantage in size but they also had a trump card which could make up for it. On many occasions, they took their fate into their own hands. Rather than try to break through as instructed they intentionally sought out the bigger kids on the other team (like my sisters) and ran intently at them stumbling and giggling the whole way. They knew they would not just be captured, but due to their irresistible cuteness, they would be rewarded for their treachery by being picked up and smothers with affection in the form of hugs, kisses, and a ridiculous amount of tickling. It was such an obvious attempt at getting attention everyone had to laugh. But that was the point, games are supposed to be fun and they had a way of ensuring it was. That is how they won the game, they simply played by different rules. This was a powerful lesson; you don’t always have to follow the rules especially when they are designed to produce outcomes that don’t work for you.

This game has entered my thoughts on several occasions lately. At retirement, the choices I have to make are very similar to the ones we made 40 years ago playing Red Rover on the lawn. Back then when my name was called I had to pick where to break through. Military retirement means my name is being called again as I have to leave my current team in the government. The difference now is that I have a few more options. The first option is to take a job in industry. In this scenario, I choose from many teams to focus my attack with the intent of being captured. The second option is to go back to the government as a civil servant. A third option is to take the entrepreneur route and start my own business and start my own team. Finally, I have the option is to abandon the game altogether and leave the workforce.

If I choose to be captured, will it be by my old team as a government employee or by another team such as a company in the private sector? In either case, when I take a run at the line I must choose the point of impact carefully. Should I try for a stronger position on the line or a weaker position? If I take a run at a link that is locked down tight and I’m judged not worthy I may just bounce off and be humiliated. If I shoot at an entry point too low I will likely be stuck there and it will be considerably harder to move up. Just like in Red Rover it’s a matter of choosing the right place and focusing all of my energy and speed on that one position. Secretly, I think we all want to run giggling with excitant knowing we would be embraced upon our arrival.

Then there is the entrepreneur route which I’ll call the breakthrough strategy. This is a new wrinkle that does not follow the Red Rover metaphor very well, unless of course, I decide to not follow the rules. Imagine an enterprising child, when their name is called, they leave their previous team’s line and make a breakthrough run but rather than return to their old team they create a new team. Being an entrepreneur means breaking through many lines. Breaking through the barriers to entry, building a network, finding investors, and the hardest task, breaking into the industry itself.

At this point in my life, Red Rover is a game about deciding my future employment situation but I’m not the only one playing. Red Rover is a game we all play quite often. The next time you decide you need a change in your life, personal or professional, this is your name being called and you have options. Will you join a team or make a breakthrough run? If it’s a breakthrough you desire but don’t succeed, you don’t need to accept being captured. Break the rules and call your own name again, and again if necessary. There is no limit to the number of breakthrough runs you can attempt. Make sure to gather as much speed as you can, focus your attack, and hit it hard. You may be an adult now but the six-year-old inside you has been waiting to play this game for a long time.

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