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17 life lessons learned in Afghanistan

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I found a list I wrote before I left Afghanistan in 2013. On it, I wrote all the words of wisdom I heard in my 14 months in country. Each of these lessons learned have helped me in the years since.

  • Keep people excited – In order to be listened to, you have to keep people excited about what you are about to tell them
  • Learn – continuous learning is essential
  • Understand Subject Matter Expert’s level of knowledge – when asking questions, understand how much information you can get from a Subject Matter Expert. Don’t badger a Subject Matter Expert if you have reached the peak of their knowledge. If they don’t know, they don’t know.
  • Stay relevant – not only should you continuously learn, but you need to keep your face out there. A smart person who is never seen is irrelevant.
  • Credibility – Credibility is huge but also very fragile. You never want to be see as not credible.
  • Listen – Listen to what people want and what they are really asking for. Don’t jump to conclusions. Many times people don’t know what they need. Ask questions if needed.
  • Try to understand from other’s intent / perspective – this goes hand-in-hand with listening. Showing empathy and understanding what people need goes a long way.
  • Look into the politics of emails, policies, and messages – look at what is said and what is not said as well as who emails are sent to. If someone CCs a supervisor, that’s important. If someone CCs your supervisor, that’s even more important.
  • Love what is – Also known as “embrace the suck”. Deal with life the way it is handed to you, wishing things were different will get you nowhere.
  • Control only what you can control – Another perspective on loving what is, but this in regards to exerting power or change on an issue. Likewise, know what you can’t control and understand why.
  • They don’t know – Most people do not know what you know. They might be clamoring for information, but not have it. It is your job to inform them.
  • People aren’t dumb, just uninformed – Similar to the above, but insulting people who don’t know isn’t the right answer, even if they are defensive. Walk them to the right answer, even if it means diffusing their anger.
  • Difference between a leader / manager / supervisor
    • Leader: Vision
    • Manager: Acts on vision
    • Supervisor: Insures direct functions are done
  • People with Master’s Degrees should be able to manage 9 things at a time
  • It depends – the typical answer for every question. Everything depends. Only commit where you absolutely have to and for what resources you absolutely have to.
  • Acceptable Risk – There will always be risk. Likewise, we have many ways to mitigate risk. But we don’t want to overcommit our valuable resources to reducing risk to zero if we can operate with a level of acceptable risk.
  • Freedom to fly or fail – Give people the a chance to step up. If they fail, they at least had a chance. Don’t stifle their growth.
  • 2nd and 3rd order effects – Very important. What will the reaction be to your actions? Try to minimize unwanted repercussions. Don’t act without learning how actions can set another chain of events.
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