After the musket fire had faded at Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress sent George Washington to assume his duties as general. He was the obvious choice to lead the army of course. But there was just one problem. There wasn’t an army to lead.
Instead, what Washington walked into could only be described as an unruly militia infatuated with freedom. Perhaps—as Washington found out—a little too much freedom. Upon the arrival of camp, his initial orders asked the soldiers to stop “relieving themselves whenever they felt the urge” or firing their muskets in the air whenever they wanted.
And then there was this. An impassioned plea that must have been downright depressing for the man meant to save the continent from tyranny. “The General does not mean to discourage the practice of bathing…but…many Men, lost to all sense of decency, are running about naked upon the Bridge, whilst Passengers, and even Ladies…are passing over it, as if they meant to glory in their shame.” [Generals Orders, August 22, 1775]
So this army of streakers is supposed to beat the greatest superpower on the globe? Good luck Mr. Washington. You’re going to need it.
It’s no wonder he wrote his brother-in-law: “I am now imbarked on a tempestuous ocean, from whence, perhaps, no friendly harbour is to be found.“
Washington was asked to literally “improvise an army” while the enemy had five hundred more years of experience. And yet, in the spring of 1775, he was steadfast amidst the chaos—giving three distinct reasons why.
“I can answer but for three things, a firm belief in the justice of our cause—close attention to the prosecution of it—and the strictest integrity.”
Let’s put that in 21st-century terms. Washington’s answers for when it all hits the fan:
- Focus on what you believe in
- Execute on what you can control
- Maintain integrity. Be honest with (and about) yourself.
They’re lessons for all of us amidst our own tempestuous oceans.
1. Focus on what you believe in
Washington was the man for the job because he had an unquenchable belief in the cause and his own role within it. His “contempt for British presumptions of superiority” fueled him to assume the position that very few really wanted.
That’s a lesson some students could have used in a recent study. Psychologists asked them to speak in front of a professional panel on “why [they were] fit for the job”. Each prepared a special speech, but every time they paused to collect their thoughts the panel abruptly interrupted them stating, “You still have more time. Please continue.” By the end, the candidates were so rattled they could only whimper out a few incoherent mumbles. Next, the panelists asked them to subtract 13 from 2,083. Each time they stumble they were met with a curt reply, “That is incorrect. Please start over.”
Stressful? Obviously. But a test group had a massive advantage. One that Washington understood. They were given time to reflect beforehand on their values and beliefs; things like social causes, family, religion, or service. Anything that provided fulfillment and purpose. These core beliefs had very little to do with the interview ahead of them. Despite the cold stares and intimidating interruptions, they had a firm sense of who they were and what they knew to be true.
These Value-Based Affirmations dramatically reduced the cortisol levels during the haunting experience. (Cortisol is the stress chemical that turns the brain’s fight or flight switch on). This means the executive functions they were trying to access—at the time they needed it most—were shut off. All that was left was an ominous No Vacancy sign.
When the unexpected rattles us we get so caught up in the emotions of the moment and forget what matters and why. Instead, focusing on what you believe in can provide intractable guidance amidst the storm.
Identify one artifact to remind you of what you value most (especially when stress shuts off your executive thinking): a photo of your family, a line from a poem, or a quick anecdote. When it all hits the fan, give yourself permission to pull this reminder out.
2. Execute on what you can control
Throughout the war, Washington fought with the Continental Congress. They were the de facto government that sent out paltry equipment and meager rations. The truth was, he couldn’t control Congress because they had a hard enough time controlling themselves. Unlike the British, who maintained institutional memory of policies and procedures, the Americans had to learn how to govern in-the-moment. So Washington focused on his realm of control. He didn’t have the bandwidth to go beyond. This restraint refined his strategy and made him especially productive throughout the war.
Not too long ago, Ellen Langer’s work with Nursing Home patients emphasized how important it is to focus on our realm of control.
Imagine a senior resident’s life. They wake as someone enters their room—without knocking—to give them pills they really don’t want to take. Bathtime is next. Doesn’t matter if they don’t want one. Management has a schedule to keep. Next is recreation time. But they don’t get to play their preferred game because Peanochle is missing cards and the TV is stuck on PBS.
But Langer came around and gave a small group newfound autonomy to water their plants, rearrange their furniture, and shift their schedule. That may seem small, but the results demonstrate Washington’s principle. Eighteen months later twice as many of them were alive compared to those who had lived without the autonomy to make decisions. Working on what you can control gives you purpose, and in this case, literally fosters life. The problem is too many of us are focused on the sloppy watercolor frame the staff has glued to the wall. It’s not going anywhere but we fixate on it anyway.
Write Out 3 things you can control and 3 things you cant.
3. Maintain integrity. Be honest with (and about) yourself
Historians love to polish Washington’s legacy like one of his bronze busts. Most likely Washington himself would eschew our modern-day praise. But isn’t that part of his charm? A venerable leader with abiding humility.
As one historian explains, “compared to the cream of the British officer corps that he would encounter at Boston, Washington was a rank amateur.” And you know what? He knew it. On his way to Bunker Hill he stopped at a local book store to purchase books on military strategy and tactics. Think of that! He’s cramming in all he can before the Revolution officially begins.
An honest appreciation for our talents is far more efficient than pretending we have the ones that do not exist. But that may not be so easy.
One of the most famous psychological biases we face is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, it emphasizes how poorly we judge our own competence. The researchers had participants estimate their abilities in tests of grammar, humor, and logic. What they found was that participants scoring in the bottom quartile “grossly overestimated their performance and ability.”
Did you catch that? They didn’t just overestimated it. They “grossly overestimated” their performance and abilities. What’s worse is those who are the most confident in their abilities are the least aware of their incompetence. That’s a dangerous cocktail for the oblivious. Because they are often the ones making decisions based on faulty logic and belied confidence.
Washington, on the other hand, was honest with himself. He had a healthy sense of his own strengths and weaknesses. For example, he brought on Horatio Gates and Charles Lee—both of whon had far more military experience than he did. And, as almost to prove the point on perceived ability, neither became as influential as the lesser-known Henry Knox or Nathanial Greene.
“In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious,” says David Dunning. “Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”
What assumptions are you making about your talents? Who can you ask that will be honest with their feedback?
We know how the story ends. Washington convinced his men to put their clothes back on and eventually beat the British. His brilliance, however, may not have been in the large strategic decisions we now revere. But instead, the small personal attempts to maintain integrity, focus on core beliefs, and executing what he knew he could control.