Think of your career as a cross-country race. Maybe you are a good runner; maybe you are a bad runner; maybe you are a reluctant runner. Nonetheless, like it or not, you are in a race. Here’s the thing: While you may expect that the course is level, smooth, and equally understood by all, it is not. In truth, for you to run your race well there are some things you should know when the gun sounds.
It should be said that there are successful people who genuinely believe in the idea of a cue-ball-smooth track. There are also those who have a vested interest in you believing that every aspect of the system is fair and equal. In the case of the former, some of these persons may be so laden with talent and charisma that from their unique perspective it all does genuinely appear to be effortless. In the case of the latter, it seems as if (and for whatever reason) they have a vested interest in maintaining the general impression that the system works with a fundamental and graceful fairness, rather than its true nature, which may be more akin to a sausage factory.
Having said all that, what you should know is that the course you will run is infinitely subtle, and those who succeed best are seldom doing so by accident. The most successful runners know, at the race’s start, where and how and when to step.
Further, understand that this discussion involves generalizations. Unlike absolutes, exceptions can be brought forward for every generalization, and those who either possess unshakable faith in the justness of the process or guard it thrive by finding a single example that purports to give the lie to a more general argument.
Here, for example, is a generalization, which is often picked apart by persons who wish to tell a wholly sunnier story: Most line officers will fail to attain their original, long-term career goals. For example, fewer than half of the officers who become department heads will ever attain command.
While true, this is not a happy, morale-boosting generalization, and it may be more palatable for the organization to say that those who depart the path to command have chosen to do so independently, knowingly, and in order to actively pursue some other worthy and satisfying career path. Believe as you wish, but the hard truth is that four of four of those officers aspired, on the day they arrived, to command-at-sea.
In short, something went awry in their run, and it may not have been simply a lack of want or effort. At the start of your race, there is much, and of great value, for you to understand in the stories of those who succeeded—and in the stories of those who failed.
In the course of this column, different perspectives will be included and regularly interspersed with what might be called the “normal content columns,” which will be aimed at looking more closely and carefully at how things work, whether that be the detailing process or Judge Advocate General investigations or simply the attributes necessary for success in a complex organization.
As for those other perspectives, they are provided by fully credited experts, from the four-star level on down, who are asked to respond to questions such as “What frank advice would you want to give to a young ensign reporting to his first command?” These perspectives will not in any way be shaped toward a desired view. Rather, if they present a different or even diametrically opposed idea from the normal perspective, it is the expert’s that will be represented.
In addition, while at first blush it may seem that this column is directed to the ensign level, that is not the case. Indeed, the columns will be geared toward a wide audience, ranging from major commanders to junior enlisted.
In any case, my desire is to offer food for thought. Whether you agree or not is entirely your choice, but at the end of the day you deserve to understand—or at least be given fuel to think hard about—the way the course is actually laid out. In some cases, peculiarities may be the temporary result of purest accident. In others, they may be carefully and consciously orchestrated, with a specific end in mind.
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three of them: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62). He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.