It is important to realize that we have the ability to manufacture our own fate when we want to. We can… proceed when things look bad, or we can find plenty of reasons to quit if we don’t want to go forward.
– Eric Haney, Inside Delta Force
After numerous terrorism incidents in the 1970s, the United States realized its armed forces had a blind spot when it came to counterterrorism. Green Beret Colonel Charlie Beckwith, who had served alongside the British Army’s counter-terrorism unit the Special Air Service (also known as “SAS“) in Malaysia, had been pushing for such a group since the 1960s.
Now that terrorism was a proven threat killing Americans and the opportunity to be proactive had passed, the U.S. Army decided it was a good time to commission its own SAS-like force – namely, Delta Force.
It is in the lead-up to the formation of Delta Force that we meet Eric Haney.
You don’t always have to know what you are getting into
Haney grew up in the mountains of northern Georgia during the 1950s and remembers, as a young boy, how exciting it was when electricity and indoor plumbing were added to his family home. His parents had never entered high school, so the fact that he graduated high school was more than they could have asked for.
Following in the footsteps of friends and family, Haney joined the Army straight out of high school.
Though we may not have been scholars, we did know how to go into the military. I had grown up listening to the war stories and tales of my family and friends and I was determined to join up just as soon as I was able. I enlisted in the Army in the spring of 1970, while still in high school, with a reporting date immediately after graduation. I fell in love with the Army as soon as I met her.
I became a professional soldier, and that is what I will be until I die. The military is a profession that brands itself on the soul and causes you forever after to view the world and all human endeavor through a unique set of mental filters. The more profound and intense the experience, the hotter the brand, and the deeper it is plunged into you. I was seared to the core of my being.
About the time Colonel Beckwith was starting to recruit for Delta Force, Haney had just been promoted to sergeant first class in the Army Rangers. Haney enjoyed his job – and he was good at it. But after eight years of near-continuous deployment, he was fretting that this recent promotion meant an imminent re-assignment as a state-side instructor training subsequent Ranger generations.
In 1978, Haney had just returned to Georgia after a month in the jungles of Panama when he stumbled into the opportunity to try out for one of the first Delta Force squadrons. Beckwith sent one of his men to offer Haney the opportunity in person.
He had my personnel records open on the table in front of him and he glanced at them occasionally as we talked about my career, about the units I had been in and the assignments I had held to that point. He told me this was a chance to be a charter member of a unit that would be unique in the American military—the nation’s first unit dedicated to fighting international terrorism.
The prerequisites to try out were:
Minimum age of twenty-two. Minimum time in service of four years and two months. Minimum rank of staff sergeant. Pass a 100 meter swim test while wearing boots and fatigues, and pass the Ranger/Special Forces PT test. Have a minimum score of 110 on the Army general aptitude test, no court-martial convictions, and no record of recurring disciplinary problems.
About the only other thing Grimes told me was that if I was accepted, I could expect hard work, plenty of danger, and no recognition.
Given his fear that he would get stuck as a state-side trainer, Haney wasted no time – he signed up for the tryouts on the spot.
I had almost no idea of what to expect on the morning of 13 September 1978, when I loaded my pickup, kissed my family goodbye, and set out on the five-hour drive up I-95 from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, for Fort Bragg, North Carolina— and points unknown. I merely reminded myself that the future is always perfect. And wished it to be so.
Perseverance is great…
The tryouts were a continuous string of examples showcasing the often-said-not-often-followed truism that hard work and persistence are the bare minimum qualities required to achieve anything meaningful.
Haney participated in run-of-the-mill running tests, an 18-mile hike with 40 pounds on his back, solo navigation drills across mountains and valleys where the destination was never known, and it all culminated with a 40-mile mountain hike that started at 2 am. And to top it all off, the testing officers were an everlasting source of demotivation in the field – “You can just quit now if you’d like” was an often shared phrase.
And what a beautiful metaphor for life that is. Your destination is never truly known, it requires unending effort to achieve things worth achieving, and along the way you can easily find sources of negativity telling you to voluntarily remove yourself from the challenge.
However, Haney was not caught up in the grandeur of the end goal and how to get there most efficiently. That mindset doesn’t work when you don’t know where the end actually is. Instead, he was steadfastly focused on doing well along the way and trusting he would get where he was going eventually – he just had to trust in himself along the way.
I would just keep my mouth shut, my eyes and ears open, and respond to whatever came up. It’s the system I’d always used in new situations, and so far it had served me well.
Additionally, as he attacked what was in front of him he pushed away the temptation to look around and worry about comparing himself to other applicants.
Some were faster. Some were stronger. Some seemed to mind the pain less than he did. But those things didn’t matter – every time he was close to quitting, he would push himself a little further, get his second wind and keep on trucking.
As the truck rumbled off, I looked at the other group, but they were still sitting there. I quickly wondered which of us was going where, and just as quickly dismissed the thought. The men in the other group weren’t my concern, and as for me, I’d know the destination when I got there.
And because of this, he got to the destination while many others did not.
… But don’t forget to prepare
And as you think through how impossible these challenges sound, you are met with the realization of how quickly you would fail participating in the same. But then you have to be honest with yourself – you wouldn’t just fail, you would, in fact, die. You would get lost in the mountains. You would fall off a cliff. You would try to make the 40-miles and breakdown before you ever got to the end.
And this highlights another useful takeaway – unending resolve is not enough to ensure success. You must also be competent. All the perseverance you can muster today won’t do anything for you if you haven’t lived a life up to today that has prepared you for the task at hand – who you are today is a lagging indicator of who you have been.
This means that success can only come after persistent preparation. The 163 men selected for the tryouts had lived lives that prepared them to take the unique, once-in-a-lifetime Delta Force opportunity and try. Without preparation, they could not even hope to try.
This is not unique to the military – Charlie Munger consistently shares the idea that there are only a few opportunities in life that define you. To take advantage of them, you prepare.
Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts.
– Charlie Munger
Just because you don’t achieve your original goal does not mean you are a failure
However, even with preparation, you will make mistakes. Haney did just that on the final 40-mile hike. He got lost. He went 7 miles off course in the wrong direction. And had to backtrack. And then keep going. He turned a 40-mile hike into more than a 50-mile hike, but he finished. After 18 hours of hiking, he made it to the finish line despite the setback.
This is another takeaway – it is rare that failure is a permanent state. After failure, you have the option to keep going. You can treat failure as only a stop on your journey. You don’t have to let it be the destination. Many people treat getting knocked down as a reason to stay down. Like Haney, we don’t have to.
What was the lesson here? Simple. Don’t quit. Never quit no matter what. Keep going until someone tells you to sit down. Keep going as long as you’re able to move, no matter how poorly you think you may be doing. Just don’t quit.
And it is important in life that you don’t define failure as failure to achieve only one specific goal. You can show up prepared and still not cross a specific finish line. 163 men participated in the Delta Force trials, but only 12 were ultimately accepted into the program. Those 151 men were not failures – not even close.
They just had to accept that this Delta Force finish line wasn’t one they were going to cross and instead start progressing towards the next.