What The Army Special Forces Can Teach You About Adapting to Anything

I just finished a fascinating book called Horse Soldiers that was almost impossible to put down. It tells the story of the US Army Special Forces’ incursion into Afghanistan directly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers.

For those that don’t know (I didn’t), Special Forces is a branch of the military that flies a bit more under the radar than the well known Navy SEALS or Rangers. Army SF traditionally operate alongside the CIA and are tasked with not only guerilla warfare during a conflict, but also the multi layered tasks of creating alliances and nation building once the conflict is finished.

In briefly chronicling the daily lives of the main soldiers leading into the 9/11 attacks, we get a feel for who these men are as fathers, husbands, and friends. This early part of the book also serves to juxtapose the monotony of typical Special Forces (SF) life in the States in comparison to the world in which they’re thrown post-9/11. Their life at home is built around routine: training, daily deliverables, and family life.

After the attacks, a series of events are put in motion that find these soldiers sent immediately to Uzbekistan as a staging area before being flown in midnight darkness over high mountain peaks via helo into the desert of Afghanistan. It is there that they meet the Afghan warriors of the Northern Alliance who they’ll fight side by side with in battles against the Taliban.

These dozen or so Special Forces soldiers are tasked with making alliances with a few key generals and lieutenants of the Northern Alliance and aiding them in their attacks in an attempt to push the Taliban north, taking key towns and finally the city of Mazar I Sharif. These SF soldiers quickly learn that the key mode of transportation for the Afghan army is horses, hence the title of the book. The battles unfold like a modern day western, with the Afghan cavalry charging into battle against the Taliban while the SF soldiers strategically call in air strikes on Taliban tanks and bunkers.

The bulk of the book is a harrowing 2 week tale of alliance building, strategic battle planning, and mental, emotional, and physical resolve that culminates with the taking of Mazar I Sharif from the Taliban.

What do we Learn?

Horse Soldiers was impressive to me on a variety of fronts, but what was so fascinating to me was that these SF soldiers were just simply doing their job. These extraordinary events represented them ‘at work’. The author Doug Stanton did a tremendous job chronicling this tale from a variety of accounts and was able to present it almost like a novel, allowing the reader to connect with the thought process and emotion of each character as each event played out

While the story itself was a great read, I always try to learn lessons from every book that I can apply to my life. The biggest take away for me here was getting inside the mindset and decision making of the soldiers when they faced challenges. What you learn is that these guys approached their job being 100% ready to adapt to any change in the status quo. From the moment they arrived, they were faced with: allies who might turn on them at any second, language barriers due to dialect, learning to ride horses, power struggles within the Northern Alliance, lack of water/food/sleep, no medical supplies, poor maps/position markings, and archaic military equipment.

All of these factors combined to create a daily schedule that was both draining and completely unpredictable. These soldiers had to be endlessly adaptable in order to reach the common goal of defeating the Taliban, pushing them north, and taking the city of Mazar I Sharif.

Focus on the System, Not the Goal

Boiled down to pure goals, their tale parallels what a lot of us face at work and in our daily lives. We have a goal in mind and certain things that need to be accomplished on the way to that goal. Throughout the entire story, the SF soldiers never let the goal become bigger than the process. Not once did they say, ‘we’re running into all these problems and failures…we’re never going to get to Mazar I Sharif!’. Instead they focused on their process, their system. That system involves dealing with every individual issue that arises in the best way possible.

Operators like SEALS and Special Forces have spent decades training that system of how to react when challenges arise. More than anything, that system requires grit and determination. Grit is a skill, a habit. The more you train yourself to push through difficulty, the more likely it is that you’ll keep doing it in the future. Without grit, a person will crumble at the first sign of defeat no matter how much they might desire a goal. Lack of grit becomes a habit too.

‘Small Wins’

In the Power of Habit, there is a really interesting concept called ‘small wins’. James Clear first turned me on to the book and the concept. Small wins involve the ability to be overly excited about a seemingly insignificant victory when a situation is in dire straights. Think of someone in prison who crafts a small sculpture on a daily basis…or a person that finds themselves in a country where they don’t speak a word of the language but finally make a small verbal breakthrough with a local.

An incredible real world example is from the story Touching the Void where Joe Simpson falls in a crevasse  and completes the most amazing survival tale in mountaineering history. During his journey out, his system involved focusing on taking one more step rather than fixating on the end outcome of surviving or not surviving. These ‘small wins’ of completing each step finally got him to survival.

The way we react to these small wins is crucial and incredibly powerful. Since it can be so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, many people get even more discouraged despite the small win. They feel like they’re hardly accomplishing anything compared to other people and that they’re a failure. However, an overly positive attitude toward small wins can produce a burst of energy that snowballs into more and more small wins that get larger and larger.

The SF soldiers reveled in small wins. Whether it was a cave to sleep in, a healthy horse, a few scraps or food, or an outpouring of thanks from the locals, they turned these moments into successes that drove them to continue toward their goal.

Stick to Your System and Enjoy the ‘Small Wins’

As you continue striving for things in your life, make a point to focus on your system and revel in the small wins on a daily basis. This will set you up to be wildly successful even in the face of the setbacks and challenges that you’ll surely face. In sales, get excited about good phone calls and pitches even if you didn’t close the deal right away. In learning a sport, focus on the joy and feeling of a perfect shot or swing rather than the frustration of not learning fast enough. In relationships, focus on connecting with someone and learning about what they love and care about, even if they’re small details.

In the end, it’s about learning to love the process whether things are easy or hard. A goal is just a single point in time, but the process is what we live and breathe on a daily basis. Refine your system, adapt to every situation, practice quality habits, and take pleasure in the small wins every day!