In the summer of 2010, I reported for summer training at New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, New Mexico. It was my first exposure to the military lifestyle, and at the time, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. Looking back now, it was really nothing – some running, some push-ups, rote memorization, ironing uniforms, cleaning for inspections, the standard things you’d expect at a military school.
It was literally the simplest and most basic degree of training I have ever taken part in. At the same time, it was probably the single most important one because it set a new baseline for me to grow from.
The following year I entered the Air Force Academy, which then became the hardest thing I’d ever done. As a Junior, I attended Assessment & Selection for the TACP career field, and that became the hardest thing I’d ever done. Completing the Special Warfare training pipeline quickly became the hardest thing I’d ever done, but that was replaced by leading a team on a combat deployment.
When I separated from the military and entered private industry, well, that was pretty damn hard too.
Each of those “hardest” events set a new baseline for what I was prepared for, what I was capable of, and what challenge I wanted to pursue next. Each was an accomplishment all its own, but the important piece was that each represented progression from the last – no stagnancy, no regression. Without each of those progressions, I would have never had the background required to succeed at the next iterations.
That’s the importance of baselines.
Think of this like rungs on a ladder, with the first rung being the most foundational step and the top rung is where you want to end up. For me, New Mexico Military Institute was the first rung. Without it, I might have been able to stretch my way to the 2nd rung, but I definitely could not have reached the 3rd or 4th.
Achieving new levels of performance, whether as an individual or as an entire organization, should follow that pattern of thought. For tasks large and small, there must be progressions that set new baselines. That next baseline should initially be difficult or even uncomfortable – that’s what growth feels like – but over time it will just become the new normal. When what was once uncomfortable becomes comfortable, it’s time to progress to the next baseline.
While it’s important, to begin with, the end in mind, it is more important, to start with an accurate and realistic perspective on the path from the beginning to the end. Committing to growing yourself, your team, and your organization gradually along that path. It’s good to want to be at the top of the ladder and it’s great to start the climb, but if you skip rungs on the way up you’re going to end up falling off.