What Painting Rocks Has to Do With Army Precision

My First Job: What Painting Rocks Has to Do With Army Precision

By  Michael Powell , President & CEO at NCTA

My first job was serving as an Army officer where I learned about painting rocks. If you step on a military base on the eve of an inspection you will discover soldiers painting things: rocks, curbs, tree-trunks, you name it. Seems like a mindless waste of time – classic busy work, or “spit and polish” taken to the extreme.

However, there are two important lessons I learned from years of watching folks in green brushing stones in bright white, yellow and sometimes red. The first is that looking good, presenting well and shining bright makes a powerful impression. Countless generals have strolled onto bases, smelling that new Sherman Williams in the air, and been immediately impressed. They form a quick impression that this is a squared away unit.

It is easy to chuckle about it—how can good-looking rocks and curbs tell you anything about the fighting prowess of this unit? But truth be told, appearance and a strong initial impression causes an audience to form lasting impressions about the quality of what they see and the caliber of the person they are observing. A good speaker knows that the audience will form an impression in the first minute you step on stage, based on your appearance and tone of voice, that will dominate what they believe about the speech, no matter what its content.

As a soldier I remember the obsession with highly shined boots, freshly pressed uniforms and sharp haircuts. Sure, this was the act of “looking the part,” but it was much more. The obsession with focus on detail, no matter how small, is frequently misunderstood as the military’s adherence to conformity. That is wrong. The lesson really is two-fold. First, it is about the power of forming habits. Experts say you must get in a pattern of consistent commitment if you want to form a lasting habit.

Practicing the discipline of doing something important over and over again the exact same way forms habits that become instinctual. This is pretty critical for a soldier in battle who may have not time to think, or is confused by the fog of war. He will instinctively know to flip his weapon off safe and fire in the right direction, because we ingrained in him a habit. This lesson easily can translate to any organization or in one’s own personal growth.

Also, I learned the art of being intensely observant. To notice when something has changed, no matter how small or seemingly minor, is a powerful skill. I learned to be a ruthless observer – looking for patterns that are out of place. There is real power in, as Neo might put it, looking for a warp in the matrix. I learned to practice every day noticing the littlest things – I notice the first leaf to drop in fall, when someone changes a hairstyle, or a wall is painted, or a light left on, or someone’s mood shifts. Observation obsession lets you see things others miss and gives you insight that can inspire creativity.

It also empowers you in another important way. It lets you look for what the painted rocks are hiding.



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