Mayflies get One Day

February 25, 2008

Please note that this was a historical post moved over from my old site. This was originally posted December 15th, 2007. 

Mayflies spend their entire lives underwater, dodging predatory fish and trying valiantly to live until adulthood. Their lives range from several weeks to several years, depending on the specific species. But all species have one thing in common: they get to fly for one day. On the last day of their lives, they reach adulthood, their new wings become functional, and they manage to leap from the water and take flight. They see a whole new world that had never before exisiting for them. After mating on this day, the Mayflies die, and they cycle repeats itself.

There is a great deal we can learn from the noble mayfly. We, fortunately, have more than one day. But sometimes the concept of maybe living as if we only had one day left is worthy of our consideration.

I received a call from an author that is writing a biography about a friend of mine that passed away in Iraq almost exactly a year ago. After confirming he had the blessing of my friend’s family, I was anxious to help tell the story of this remarkable individual. And so it all poured forth. I told of the jokes, the professional disagreements, the “off-line” conversations that centered upon a mutual frustration at the organizational inertia we felt we were sometimes fighting. When our unit arrived in Ramadi in 2006, we were inheriting the most dangerous city in the most dangerous province in the most dangerous country in the world. Our commander, desperate for a solution to the bloody stalemate that had prevailed for the past several years, decided wisely to change tack and began speaking with some who had been bitter enemies only a few short months before. My friend, Travis, was the critical face man for this effort. Fluent in Arabic, educated and experienced regarding Arab culture, and committed to the opportunities afforded such an effort, Travis forged relationships with tribal leaders. He won them over one at a time… some through kind conversation and gentle persuasion, others through the clever use of fear of being rendered irrelevant to an emerging movement. Irrelevance is a dishonor worse than death for an Iraqi tribal sheikh. And young, willing men began to swell the police ranks. My job, far less glamourous and far more “nuts and bolts”, became much harder as I struggled to find a way to get them all processed and trained. Our units provided resources they really couldn’t afford to get the job done, as if everyone collectively saw the vision at the same time… that this was the key to breaking the stalemate in Ramadi, the key to turning the tide on Al Qaeda in Iraq. This vision was Travis’ vision earlier than any of us, save maybe for COL Macfarland, our commander.

On December 6th, 2006, Travis and two other friends, Megan and Vincent, were killed on a mission to show a western reporter a new, fully functional police station in what was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Ramadi. The perpretrators of this crime were soon apprehended, largely as a result of the help from Iraqis who had come to call Travis a friend. A few weeks later our commander presented our strategy and the emerging success to a congressional delegation. Shortly thereafter, a new “surge” strategy was announced. Now, there is growing agreement that this strategy was successful. I think this is probably largely true. However, I think this strategy has been successful because of a successful proliferation of the techniques used to pacify Ramadi across the entire nation of Iraq. This fundamental policy shift from focusing on fixing and empowering the bumbling central government to focusing on empowering local authorities and partnering with them to drive out the real enemy, Al Qaeda in Iraq, permitted a successful surge effort to largely succeed.

The unit that replaced us in Ramadi came with fresh minds and energy, and they took the success there to a higher level than we even thought possible when we left. I’ve received photos of fixed streets and cleaned neighborhoods, new schools and functioning generators… even a 5K race being run by young atheletes on a street that I can only remember as a good place to go if you wanted to get into a firefight or worse.

As I spoke with this distinguished author about this story, it came back in a cold rush, particularly events of Dec. 6th, 2006. We owe it to all we’ve lost, either in the military or in the normal course of life, to take the lesson of the Mayfly and apply it to our own lives… to live each day like it could be our last.

Exams wrapped this week at Darden, and the first semester drew to a close. The reality that one-fourth of our effort has been expended hit hard upon exhausted students. It was a challenging few months, particularly the last few months. And more challenges remain, clearly, as the recruiting season really heats up in January and we begin to interview and vie for exciting internships that hopefully become exciting careers. I felt pretty confident about my performance on all of the exams. However, there were a few that I just couldn’t tell… I could either have nailed them or I could have completely shanked them. We’ll see in a few weeks. The last exam was operations, and I felt very good about that one. I finished in record time, and had time to make the entire process of my thinking explicit. I had a chance to refine my responses. Upon submission, I began talking to some friends about their impressions. Through the conversation, I realized that I had made one critical mistake that made every response on my exam incorrect. It was small and simple, but I had failed to annualize weekly figures in all cases. An email conversation with the professor placated my concerns… I would not be significantly penalized for such a small yet consistent mistake. Happy, I began to plan the details of my winter break in greater detail now that the break itself became imminent.

I’ll start the break by taking off to San Francisco for a few days to visit technology companies and consulting firms in the bay area. Then I’ll spend Christmas with my family in Cumberland, MD, and spend some of my time trying to apply some of what I’ve learned at school to the family business. Then I’m off to Vegas for New Years… sure to be my coolest New Year’s celebration since Paris in 2004-5. At some point, possibly upon my return from Vegas, I’ll shoot down to Florida to see my Dad and stepmother Pat, and then I’ll come back to Charlottesville for a week of interview drills before we start again. Wow, it’s going to go fast.  But then, it always does.

Ask the mayfly.

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