One Surprise I Got from My Time at West Point

Recently, I had the privilege of spending a day at the United States Military Academy. You know it as West Point. From the initial formation and flag salute in the morning, to the classes I attended that day—I got to tour an institution that is quite literally an incubator for leaders.

All of this, I expected. In fact, my goal on campus was to observe and to research how they teach and train their cadets. I got to interact with faculty and officers who prepare these young men and women to go to war—so learning may just be a matter of life and death, not just a good GPA.

I got a surprise, however, from one of the students.

Trey is a senior at West Point who graduated this month. He stands tall, at about 6 feet, 5 inches in height, so he already looks like a leader. He is intelligent, respectful, athletic and was constantly being greeted by classmates on the campus—all day long. It was Trey who surprised me with his wisdom, even at 22 years old.

When I asked him what his long-term goals in life are—he responded: “Well, I don’t have any long-term goals regarding what I want to do or where I want to live yet. Right now, I am working on who I want to be.”

Excuse me? Did I just hear that correctly?

I did. Trey went on to say he was developing his life philosophy first, through his leadership classes, mentors and through reading books. Once he’s determined his identity as an adult, he will work on what he wants to do and where he wants to live. For Trey, his “being” comes before his “doing.”

We then discussed how easy it is for young adults in America to get this order mixed up. Why? I believe it’s because parents, teachers, employers and coaches ask them the important questions out of order. We constantly ask college students:

  • What are you majoring in?
  • What do you want to do for a career?
  • Where do you think you’ll live?
  • When do you think you’ll get started?

Getting the Order Right

All of these are good questions, but I believe the right order for emerging adults, and certainly emerging leaders, should be different. With healthy priorities, we recognize that all of our “doing” will take care of itself if we settle the issue of “being” first. I’ve concluded the proper order of priorities is:

  1. Who: Who do you want to be? What kind of person are you becoming?
  2. Why: Why do you even exist? What will be your purpose?
  3. What: What do you plan to do in light of this? What will be your work?
  4. When: When will you be ready to start? Are you ready to take a first step?
  5. Where: Where is the best place to fulfill these goals?

Wise leaders know to prioritize “who” before “what” and “why” before “what.” Boy, is that hard to do today.

To be honest, we are living in such a cosmetic, materialistic culture today, that we frequently approach life questions in the wrong order—from the outside in, rather than the inside out. Our 21st century society pushes us to produce, to get results, to make money, to appear successful. Social media has deepened this dilemma, where a post represents our brand, possibly distorting who we really are.

Additionally, we have little patience for the long task of settling philosophical issues like who we want to be or why do we exist? These questions feel so existential. Hyper-spiritual. It’s so much easier and faster to answer “what” questions because that will help us make money and pay off our debts. One seems practical. The other— theoretical.

One Big Reminder

Trey reminded me that deciding who he wants to be as a person is not mere “theory” at all. It is the bedrock for him to live a life of integrity, meaning to be integrated as a person. Who he is will match what he does and why. Alan K. Simpson said, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”

Let me ask you a question: Do you know a young person who’s in a transition period like Trey is? Perhaps moving from one stage of life to another, such as from middle school to high school, or high school to college or even college to career? If so, I encourage you to talk about the right order of questions they should ask themselves. Better yet, take some time to talk over the principles in Habitudes® for the Journey. This is one of our most popular resources designed to spark conversations with students in transition. Without sounding like a sales pitch, I think these conversations are vital if we hope to graduate healthy young adults who are ready for life and leadership.

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One Surprise I Got from My Time at West Point