Commentary by Lt. Col. Arlene Collazo
21st Space Operations Squadron Detachment 2 commander
I recently read a book called “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. I found this book to be very interesting as it explained accomplishment in a different way. In this book, Gladwell studied highly successful people in various fields and determined what they had in common. You would be surprised that, although, they were all very smart and had a great amount of talent, those were not their only similar traits.
The first thing they had in common was the amount of time they spent developing their skills. The book quotes a study done by neurologist Daniel Levitin, who assessed experts in different fields: composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, etc. According to the study “10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.” Most notably, Levitin did not find any “naturals” who floated effortlessly to the top. When analyzing successful people, the author noticed that even Bill Gates and The Beatles had to put in extra time to sharpen their skills. For example, as a high school student, Bill Gates spent 20-30 hours a week programming either at his high school or at the University of Washington computer laboratories. The Beatles perfected their skills playing eight-hour shows, seven days a week in Hamburg. That’s 56 hours a week playing live.
The second thing successful individuals had in common was the ability to find and seize great opportunities. Bill Gates’ high school started a computer club and installed a time-sharing computer terminal in 1968. This was very unique and “forward” for its time, as back then only a few universities had computer clubs. He could have easily walked by the computer lab and ignored it, which is probably what most of his classmates did. Instead, he taught himself how to use the computers. When the money ran out for the school computers, he seized the opportunity to test out the Computer Center Corporation’s software programs, in exchange for free programming time. Likewise, The Beatles could have easily walked away from playing eight-hour shows in Hamburg. They had to learn an enormous amount of songs, from rock and roll to jazz, to be able to play for eight hours straight. But it was that experience that allowed them to become disciplined on stage, to perfect their skills and to develop their sound.
So, how does this apply to us in the Air Force? We all have talents and skills, but what are we doing about them? Are we setting ourselves up for success?
First, are we spending time developing our skills? I am not insinuating that we must spend weekends and evenings sharpening our skills at work, unless, of course, you are working the night shift! We can do most of that development at work. Most units have a robust training program that members have to complete on a monthly or yearly basis. But are we taking advantage of our time at work? When we are at work we should ask questions, read Air Force instructions, talk to the experts and figure out how all things function together. I’m pretty sure Bill Gates did not spend all his time at the computer lab typing the same few commands he knew on the computer. He taught himself more and more to the point that while still in high school, he was sought out to design a payroll program.
Second, are we seizing the opportunities we have? We are very lucky in the Air Force to have so many chances to develop our professional skills. The Air Force offers many developmental courses, starting with professional military education, used to enhance our skills at different stages of our military careers. Air University also offers Airmen an opportunity to get an academic degree, such as associates, masters, doctorate degrees, etc., or professional certifications to help sharpen their skills. Additionally, the Air Force offers advanced technical education to develop space professionals through the National Security Space Institute, Advanced Space Operations School and the Weapons School. The Air Force Personnel Center also offers many opportunities for development through exchange programs, special duty assignments and deployments. They are available for the taking.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” Talent alone is not enough. Go out, set yourselves up for success and make things happen.