I’ve seen this story before

There’s a plane that takes off every 90 seconds from San Diego airport and every 90 seconds I wish I was on it

That’s the line that I can still recall from my younger son’s first letter home to us when he was in basic training at MCRD San Diego. There wasn’t anything I could do about it and subsequent letters were much more positive. Over a decade later D is a Staff Sergeant in the Marines about to return to civilian life.

There are plenty of cliches and stories about military life and training. As an educator and a student of high performance organizations I am arguably more knowledgeable than average about what my boy was experiencing. Doesn’t make it any less painful. But it has led to many an interesting conversation. There was the time I asked what he could do for me based on his training. What do you say to “Well, if you have a sucking chest wound, I can keep you alive”?

Maybe all these odd conversations feed into my curiosity about making sense of patterns. I always bristle when I hear people talk about connecting the dots. The emphasis on the flash of insight or inspiration illuminating what was already there to be seen.

How do you make sense out of all of the training, rehearsal, and practice for a moment that will never play out in real life the way that you practiced? They say that you “fight the way you train”, that when the moment comes you fall back on your training. In the moment, you can only improvise.

Here is where the language of “solving for pattern” comes into play. If you’ve practiced enough variations and processed the experience in enough depth, then you’ve laid down patterns of situation and response that let you recognize what is familiar, what is new, and craft a response appropriate to the moment.

This is something very different from standard operating procedure. The task is not to select from a menu of pre-defined responses. It is to invent a unique answer in the moment that is a solution to the underlying pattern.