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Lessons in Confidence Building from the Military

By Gus Lawson

I was just starting my four-hour shift as the Engineering Officer of the Watch on the USS Constellation, an aircraft carrier with a propulsion system capable of producing well over 200,000 horsepower.

Someone reported, "Hot line shaft bearing, stopping, and locking the number 3 shaft." The ship was going to have additional damage and prolonged inoperability unless effective action was taken immediately. Yikes! An aircraft carrier travels as part of a large group of ships with a mission that means a schedule and tasks to accomplish in a specific time frame. Being in port longer than needed to replace extra components of the shaft was not an option.

I had not yet taken responsibility for the shift, and protocol would have allowed me to let the other person handle the emergency. But, I knew exactly how to respond to this engineering casualty, and I was ready to take action.

I was confident, and I took over.

We responded quickly and precisely. We handled the situation appropriately, and we minimized damage to the line shaft. Our squadron arrived on time, and we fulfilled our mission. Success!

The Secret to Success: Preparation and Practice

What contributed to my confidence?

We had conducted hours and hours of drills. I spent countless hours studying the operating procedures. I knew how all the various propulsion and support systems worked together.

The knowledge and frequent practice made responding to an unlikely event routine.

In the Navy, we practiced infrequent events all the time (e.g. man overboard drills, fire drills, replenishing fuel, towing exercises, firing exercises). By performing these activities over and over again, we made the uncomfortable comfortable.

On my first amphibious ship, I recall giving rudder and engine commands for my first fuel replenishment. The fate of hundreds of sailors and two (or more) multi-multi-million dollar ships were in my hands. Sink or swim wasn't an option. Serious butterflies. Over time and practice, the butterflies went away.

With practice, the uncomfortable became comfortable. What was very difficult to do, initially, became much easier to do with practice.


Think of the pilot getting ready for take off (or landing!), the basketball player at the free throw line, or the rock musician getting ready to go out onto the stage with thousands of people watching. Scary things to do -- without practice!

Job Search Success

Let's make the connection to your job search. What are you not doing because you're uncomfortable?

Here are 3 common scenarios people struggle with:

  • Going to networking events.
  • Asking others for help.
  • Feel compelled to stay in current role.

With practice, all of these scenarios can make the transition from uncomfortable to comfortable.

Job Search Discomfort: Going to Networking Events

Janet feels uneasy about going to networking events. She envisions a whole bunch of pushy salespeople schmoozing and not building relationships. Yuck! She doesn't want feel pushy.

She may also feel like she doesn't need to strengthen her network. She hasn't completely tapped into her existing relationships to find her next opportunity. She hasn't recognized the opportunities she has lost by waiting to meet others.

When she's exhausted her network and she realizes she needs to better advocate for herself, she can apply what the military knows about building confidence.

  • Rethink where networking is possible. Where else can you meet people with whom you can create strong connections?
  • Prepare for each event. What will make you feel more at ease?
  • Treat each networking event as a learning opportunity. What lessons can you apply to your next networking event?

The more networking events you attend, the more people you will know. And a networking event doesn't need to be a large room, full of strangers. Networking can be you getting together with a former co-worker (or boss) for a cup of coffee at the local coffee shop or at the local Chamber of Commerce meeting.

Job Search Discomfort: Asking Others for Help

Pride can be a killer. Before I knew better, I wouldn't explore potential connections even when someone offered. How silly was I?

I'm independent and used to believe, "I got this." While I'm still confident, I've changed my belief to be, "How can we help each other?"

What belief is keeping you from asking for help?

I get it. Lots of potential reasons why. Perhaps you’re afraid of rejection, you haven't kept in touch with your network, or you don't want to appear needy. Perhaps you haven't built strong relationships.

Let's take baby steps to help you gain more comfort in asking. Here's some criteria I hope you'll find helpful.

First, make your ask relevant. What are you trying to achieve? When looking for positions in the past, I asked people to send my resume to anyone they thought would be a good connection for me. This approach was too passive. I’ve since made my asks more active by identifying people that I wanted to connect with.

Who specifically are you interested in meeting? Use LinkedIn to find second connections.

Second, make your ask reasonable. Remember people are not always willing to tap into their network and although they are connected with someone, they may not feel comfortable asking.

Here are some sample texts you can use in an email or better yet at coffee.

I saw you're connected with _____. I'm interested in meeting them to learn more about (Company). Would you feel comfortable making the introduction?

Or, if you'd like to be more general.

I'm interested in meeting these type of people (role, company, similar background). Who do you think would be a good connection for me?

What small step can you take to make a better ask?

Job Search Discomfort: Feeling Compelled to Stay in Your Current Role

If you've been in your role for a long time, you probably have found several reasons to refrain from seeking a new opportunity:

  • You don't want to let others down.
  • You're comfortable with the routine and responsibilities. You don't want to change.
  • Loyalty is important to you.

Lots of reasons can keep you from listening to your gut when your current role isn't fulfilling.

I get it. I worked for a company for 11 years and when restructured, I knew it wouldn't be long before I would have to find something else. My belief in loyalty failed me.

Listen to yourself:

  • What will make you feel fulfilled?
  • What small steps can you take to explore what else is possible?
  • What are the costs to you and others if you stay in your current situation?
  • What becomes possible when you consider a new future for yourself?

Perhaps you don't know where to begin or you don't know what you want. If so, imagine you're talking with a protégé five years from now and they ask you, "What are you most proud of?"

Your response can only include accomplishments after today. How will you respond?

Bottom Line

The main lesson from the military is practice and preparation will take away the discomfort. Ask yourself:

  • What's the biggest source of discomfort in your job-search?
  • What actions can you take to start to gain comfort in these areas?

Focus on taking those actions that can ease your discomfort and build your confidence.

More About How to Build Confidence:

About the author...

Career and leadership coach Gus Lawson has helped himself and others regain their career confidence. Whether his clients have been unsure about what to do next, needed to recover from a toxic work environment, or wanted to strengthen their brand, he helps them develop a roadmap and take action to achieve success. A proud U.S. Navy veteran, MBA graduate, and certified executive coach, Gus has made several successful career transitions. Gus is President of Juncture Consulting, LLC.

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