If it bleeds, we can kill it

This is part 4 of my ‘How to Transform’ series

If you want to leave the military and contribute to society in a different way, keep reading.

In the 1987 sci-fi epic Predator, Major “Dutch” Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the leader of the team and depicted as a highly-skilled and experienced special forces operator.

After witnessing most of his elite team being wiped out by a lethal alien, they eventually wound their impervious foe. Finding its blood trail, Dutch says the immortal line: “if it bleeds, we can kill it.”

It was a stunning display of deductive reasoning from the Major.

  1. Things that bleed can die (first premise)
  2. The Predator bleeds (second premise)
  3. Therefore, the Predator can be killed. (conclusion)

“If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

The phrase entered modern lexicon, “Urban dictionary” stating it:

 “Can be used in any number of…situations often regarding an overly optimistic and highly unlikely outcome.” 

My first encounter with an unlikely outcome arrived when I applied for a seat at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). This was going to be my start point for a long journey to joining Aussie Special Ops. At the Army recruiting shop, the Sergeant told me the odds of acceptance “were about 20% – if you’re suitable to start with.” One in five? If I’m suitable? This was a long shot. I started running laps at night time. I studied harder and dodged drinking where I could. After two years of hard work, I landed an acceptance letter and a spot at ADFA.

I realised something quickly: if you wanted something a lot, your chances of obtaining it increase. If you study harder and smarter than your peers, your chances increase. If you speak with authority on why you want to join and what you can offer, your chances increase. In short, I learned you could cook the odds in your favour. Not in one fell swoop – that was a dirty myth. It took a concerted effort across fifty different skills or abilities, each one garnering an extra 1-2% advantage. Cumulatively, over the years, you gain “Advantage in Aggregate.”

When I went to apply for the SAS, I heard about the 15% acceptance rate. Everyone told me why I was a bad fit: “…wiry guys, built for endurance”, “you have to be the best”, “you need a lobotomy to join”, “prawns: good bodies, heads full of shit”. I ignored just about all the adults I spoke to. All were well-intentioned, but largely clueless about the unit.  Instead, I got started on building tiny advantages I knew would take a decade or more to bear fruit. I read every book I could find on the secretive unit. I later joined an infantry unit, knowing it would give me exposure to leading troops in the field. I spoke to every SAS soldier I could find – they were rare as hen’s teeth, and quiet too. I debriefed soldiers who came off the selection course to find out what was hard, what to train for. I trained for extra endurance, knowing as a 110kg person, I would need it. I heard that your chances of entering jump to ~75% if you are still standing at the end. In contrast, you had a 0% chance if you self-withdraw.

At the end of my three-week selection course, I was still standing with a few of my mates.  That night, I stood in an SAS Colonel’s office, 14kg lighter and a shell of a person. He warned “…we are willing to take a chance on you. But you have a long way to go.” I cried for a bit, proud of the 11 years of work I had put in, sad I could not share it with my Mum – she had died from cancer the year prior.

I went on to lead troops in the SAS and serve in two wars. Surely I was amongst the luckiest in the history of the ADF. It was a dream come true – an occasional nightmare – but mostly it was the stunning#defence vision of soldiering I had as a nipper.

Entering the SAS helped me understand that odds are relative – they do not apply smoothly across a normally distributed sample. They can be stacked in your favour. I remembered this when I chose to apply to Ivy League Schools in the USA. I knew entry to the Wharton School of Business was about a ~15% probability. I tipped the odds in my favour by studying the school, arriving in person to shake hands with the administrators, recruiting local help, and boosting my scores. I got in. Later, I applied to McKinsey & Company for a job. The year I applied it had 200,000 applicants, and awarded ~2000 positions. I secured one of those spots by reading everything I could on the company, being trained by McKinsey Associates, and studying the application process relentlessly. I later I applied to a reality TV show that took 24 out of 24,000 applicants. Again, I achieved it by taking a dozen small steps to improve my chances.

Every one of these steps involved understanding the odds, and then deliberately ignoring them. The odds of success don’t translate evenly – it is not a ‘normal distribution’. People who are willing to make a thousand improvements, over a thousand days – skew the results.

I’m not special. I grew up in a country town, went to a state school, in a middle-class family. The only special advantage I had was a rampant imagination, and a willingness to take small steps every day to improve. I learned how to “skew” the odds in my favour by building “advantage in aggregate.”

I have a secret for you: the most coveted institutions are Ivory Towers, guarded by a cohort that want you to believe they are impossible to enter. Bide your time. Storm the gates when you have the advantage – and don’t fight fair – always fight hard, always win – the only fair fight is the one you lose. Pack your knuckledusters. The Gate Keepers will go to water when they see how hungry you are.

They bleed, and they can be killed.

This is a short series of articles on ‘How to Transform’ based on my experiences transitioning from the military and entering academia and business. Reach out to me via comments here, or directly via Linkedin messages for any questions.

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