A Tried and Tested Strategy for Success in Life … Or War

One of the reasons people love Jocko Willink is because he shares hard earned wisdom from years of military service. I myself genuinely appreciate the passion this man has for the knowledge that has been cultivated, shared, and built upon in our nation’s military. Where does he get it all from? Well he gets a lot of it from years and years of service but our nation’s military has not altered the art of warfare greatly to be successful. We have adapted to the ever-evolving science of war in order to maintain a slight advantage on our adversaries. Having an advantage in the realm of war-science is your ticket to the fight. Understanding and studying the realm of war-art is your ticket to victory.

A theory of warfare that I have always loved and been a student of comes from a man named Von Klausewitz. I’ve personally used this theory to break down marketing for fellow MBA students and one of my best friends used it to get into Harvard Law. This theory is universally applicable to breaking down anything that stands in your way in life and it involves the following.

  • View the enemy/obstacle/barrier to entry as a complex system
  • Identify enemy/obstacle/barrier centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities
  • Identify your own centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities
  • Place you center of gravity at the most accessible enemy/obstacle/barrier critical vulnerability and repeat until the system is destroyed.

This may sound complex at first but it really is a rather exciting way to view the boogey man you are scared of attacking. It assists you in making your big bad obstacle human, finding ways to break it down, and move forward.

Viewing the Enemy as a System

Instead of attacking enemy strength the goal is the application of our strength against the selected enemy weakness in order to maximize advantage. Success depends … on understanding the specific characteristics of the enemy system.

MCDP 1 Warfighting

What ever obstacle you are facing has a weakness. It should be viewed as a breathing, functioning, human-like organism. Even if it is abstract we must struggle to identify how it is a system and where its weaknesses and strength lie. Speed and focus are essential attacking this system. Frequently we view said system or opponent as though they are some super hero like enemy. They are not. They are fighting the same battle as you in the same environment and dealing with the same struggles that you are. Do not make them out to be stronger than they are, your job is hard enough without convincing yourself you’re taking on the boogeyman. You are the boogeyman.

Your opponent has strengths and weaknesses. Some of these strengths are what they rely upon greatly. They can be tied to other strengths. Like legs on a chair, they are what they stand upon. They may continue to stand after removing a single leg, but eventually when we remove more legs they will tumble. Do not worry about taking down all four legs out at once. Instead focus on the leg that is easiest to cut out from under them based on the resources you have available to you in the moment. Then regroup and prepare to move toward the next easiest point of attack. Continue this process avoiding strengths and exploiting weaknesses until you are victorious.

What is a Critical Vulnerability

Of all the vulnerabilities we might choose to exploit some are more critical than others… We should focus our efforts against a … vulnerability that if exploited will do the most significant damage to the enemy

MCDP 1 Warfighting

This mindset is not limited to the samurai choosing the perfect area to strike a finishing blow. If you are attempting to get a job at a new firm you can use this mindset to find a way to win. Where are they currently the weakest? What skill-set do they need the most? The skill-set that they cannot do without. That is the skill-set you will sell them. The one that will do the most significant damage to their attempts to choose another candidate.

It is important to note that there are multiple vulnerabilities in the enemy system. Some of them can be attacked and destroyed with minimal gains and in some situations massive depletion of our own resources. We vehemently want to avoid attacking the vulnerabilities that would result in minimal gains. Our focus is on the filet mignon of vulnerabilities. The finest cut that will result in the most rewarding meal.

What is a Center of Gravity

We ask ourselves: Which factors are critical to the enemy? Which can the enemy not do without? Which, if eliminated will bend him most quickly to our will? These are centers of gravity

MCDP 1 Warfighting

What part of the enemy system are they fortified around most? What is their bid for success? The point that is holding them in a fortified position. Returning to the job analogy, this is the area of the firm we hope to avoid. This is the area where they are so strong we don’t want to attempt to claim we can solve the problems they have there. Why? Because they’re non-existent. If we think about it in war-fare this is the enemy front. We prefer to make our attacks on their flank or in their rear.

Strategy Execution in the Real World:

A case study in exploiting opportunity

My Friend Isaac Wyant has a great story about leveraging this theory of Warfighting to get into Harvard Law. You can listen to the full interview here. Basically Isaac was unable to get a high enough score on the LSAT to get into an Ivy league Law School. So he started his first year at a school that would take him with his current scores. He chose to treat each class and professor like an enemy system. He made law school something he could easily relate to as a former platoon commander.

He identified weaknesses in that system that was Law school and the strengths that he did not want to attack head on. At the end of Year one, this system placed him at the top of his class. He decided he would apply to Georgetown law. He was accepted and given the opportunity to attend in his second year. Unfortunately for Georgetown he did one other thing that Infantry Officers are drilled on repeatedly. He exploited opportunity.

Whenever you have a tactical advantage or have gotten the enemy on the run you can and must exploit it. This theory is as old as Sun Tzu. History is filled with victors who relentlessly pursued their enemy even when they were themselves struggling to press on. The entire invasion of Iraq by former SECDEF General James Mattis is a lesson in maintaining momentum and ultimately the advantage.

How did Isaac maintain momentum? In submitting his application to Georgetown he determined he’d double down and submit an application to Harvard Law. He now attends one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. He didn’t do anything crazy. He just treated the enemy as a system, identified centers of gravity, critical vulnerabilities, and he exploited.

I don’t care who or what your boogeyman is. Identify their vulnerabilities and place your own strengths at their weaknesses. Exploit opportunity and never hesitate to go for the throat. History is written by those brave men and women who did not hesitate when an opportunity presented itself.

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About the Author

John McCarthy is a Father, Son, Husband and former Marine Infantry Officer. He serves his local community and just wants to push people to be better humans. Check out the Tough Talk Podcast and other writings on this website to learn more.

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