Lifelong Learning (Over and Over Again)

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I’m self-reliant and independent and persistent. Usually, those are good things, but sometimes they’re not. I learned that for the first time more than 50 years ago.

I was a young Marine, fresh out of boot camp. My unit was conducting a field exercise. A Gunnery Sergeant pointed to a Jeep and told me to, “Get that across the field.”

That was a problem. I grew up in New York City, where you didn’t get a driver’s license until you were 18. I had joined the Marines at 17, so I didn’t know how to drive. I told that to the Gunny.

“I didn’t ask you if you knew how to drive, Private Bock. I asked you to get that Jeep across the field.”

My jaw tightened, but I knew that you didn’t argue with Gunnery Sergeants. They’re legendary in the Marines. As one friend of mine put it years later, “God and Gunnery Sergeant both begin with G. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”

I set to work, trying to get the Jeep across the field. I’d never actually driven anything, but I’d seen people drive, and I figured I could work it out. Things did not go well. The Gunny watched me but didn’t offer any help or encouragement. Luckily, some of my buddies came to my aid. They offered instruction and, within a few hours, the Jeep was on the other side of the field.

Gunny came over to the Jeep and me. “That was good,” he said. “You accomplished the mission and you didn’t give up. Now, what did you learn?”

I had an answer ready. I told him I learned that Marines help each other. My buddies had helped me get the Jeep across the field.

The Gunny smiled. “Was there something else you could have done?”

Now I was stumped. Other than a miracle, I had no idea. I thought about faking it, but you don’t fake it with a Gunny. I told him I didn’t know what else I should learn.

“You could have asked someone to drive it across.”

I was stunned. I don’t remember what I stammered, but it probably wasn’t very intelligent.

The Gunny pointed out that the job was to get the Jeep across the field. He never asked me to drive it. I’d just assumed that. Then, the Gunny said one more thing that stayed with me.

“Don’t try to do everything all by yourself. Ask for help.”

I wish I could tell you that that lesson stayed with me and changed me forever. It didn’t. Fifty-five years later, I still haven’t mastered it.

I’ve tried to do things myself when the smart thing would have been to ask for help. I’ve worked hard to learn things I didn’t have to learn because I didn’t ask for help. When I was a boss, it was always hard for me to delegate.

The sad fact is that I’ve had to learn to ask for help over and over and over again. Each time I think I’ve got it. But, so far, like a case of malaria or the bamboo in my backyard, it just keeps coming back.

Lessons Learned

The best I can claim is that I’ve learned to stop and think about whether someone can help me. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. So, at 73, I’ve realized that this is not likely to be anything I will do naturally. I must do it consciously. I must create habits and rituals that help me relearn the lesson again and again.

There’s something in your life like that. Most of the time in your life, learning means learning something new. But sometimes, usually with something important, learning means relearning something you’ve already relearned 100 times.

Resources

Gunny told me that I should have asked for help. Alas, he didn’t suggest any proven techniques. But (good news!) Heidi Grant has written a book to help people like me. It’s Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You.

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What People Are Saying

David Greer   |   29 Mar 2019   |   Reply

Hi Wally,

Loved your story about being a young marine and having to move a jeep. The lessons you learned that day and the struggle to remember those lessons.

I am encouraged that for many of us asking for help is a life-long process. While I’m a decade younger than you, I too continue to struggle with the life-long battle of asking for help and thinking I can do it all myself. It is nice to know I am not alone.

Cheers,

David

Wally Bock   |   31 Mar 2019   |   Reply

Welcome to the club, David. I often wonder what I could have done more, better, or faster if I had asked for help sooner.