I’m the Best I Can Be

Wow, has it really been 2 years since I wrote here?  I can’t believe it and yet it seems appropriate… Over the past 2 years, I’ve experienced an enormous amount of growth, personally, professionally, emotionally and perhaps most importantly spiritually.  But nothing compares to the lessons I learned in my first few years in the Navy.

Early in my life, I was just another somebody, from somewhere.  Nothing really special, just a regular guy.  I had my own share of issues as we all do.  I was always the shortest one in my class, often picked last for pickup games of baseball, challenged to try harder, run faster, just never quite making the cut.  I did okay though cause at the end of the day, I was a cut up, and the few friends I had liked me because I made people laugh.  I performed in the choir, acted on the stage but I wasn’t the lead singer or actor…. Reality was I didn’t want to work that hard. Do I regret it?  Hmm.  Maybe a different post.  But I did seem to regularly find myself wherever the action was.  Truth is, I wanted to be the best, but I didn’t want to pay the price.  I wanted to be famous, to be liked, to discover some magical formula that would launch me from my very humble beginnings to a place where I was the star.

I graduated at the exact middle of my class of over 600…. average as they come.  Nothing spectacular, nothing hideous, just average.  I got accepted to a school that at the time was one of the most respected theater schools in the country.  Should have been the launching pad for what my heart yearned to do, entertain.  And yet, there I sat in my mom’s house, 1 month from school starting, with a $500 scholarship from the county sheriff’s department (yet another post), wondering how I was going to pay for school knowing I never applied for financial aid, scholarships, grants or even loans…..

Then the phone rang.  “Hey dude, I just joined the Navy”.  And the light went off.  Now I had an out.  My dad always talked about how much he loved the Navy, had a great time seeing the world, cavorting in foreign ports, climbing strange mountain peaks, getting chased by Italian girls fathers.  I said “Hmmm, maybe that’s my ticket, how hard could it be?”

So the next day I headed down to the Navy recruiters office.  I can still hear the jingle of the bell when I opened the door, like out of some old movie.  “Whaddya want?” barked the salty old 2nd class behind the desk.  I want to join the Navy!  I tried to sound sure of myself, tried not to sound like the scared shitless 17 year old that I was.  I had no other options at the time (so I thought), I just wanted out of every small town I had lived in.  “When can you leave” he asked.  “Today!” I said.

Well it turned out that it would take a couple of weeks of paperwork and then off to the central recruiting station for physicals, testing and all that poking and prodding that the military likes to do.  I remember sitting at the detailers desk trying to pick the job I would have, flipping one page at a time, looking at the jobs….. mechanics, boatswains mates, aircraft electricians.  This wasn’t going to be easy.  I asked if I could call my Dad.  They said sure.  So I called him long distance on their phone (this was pre iphone, cellphone or even internet).  We sat there for an hour and a half, talking about what each job did.  As my Dad got excited about some specific job, I’d counter with “But I have to wait, I want to go NOW!”.  One in particular kept coming up…. “What about the Antisubmarine Warfare (AW) one where you get to jump out of helicopters?”.  “Dad, it’s July and I can’t leave for boot camp then until April…, what if I take this thing called Aviation Apprentice?  The recruiter says once I go through that and get to my ship I can apply to go to the AW school.  Truly the pause must have been an hour at least (or a few seconds).  “Son, you do what you want, but if you don’t get an A school before you go to boot camp, don’t come home”.   WTF?

So fortunately, given my test scores (I always did well on standardized tests) and my physical exam, I was all set to go to boot camp in April 1983.  That was just yesterday wasn’t it?

I still had that scholarship, so I spent a not so illustrious semester at the University of Northern Iowa, getting involved in as much theater as I could muster, managed to work my way into the chorus of “The Mikado” and as I remember it pissed off the Director of the department after a dramatic performance when I told him I was leaving in the spring to join the Navy.

You see, even then, even though I was your run of the mill teenager, with little direction or focus, things seem to always work out for me.  Even though there were few things that could hold my attention for very long, sooner or later I’d find some other new “dream” to follow, some new path to explore and off I went.

So April came and off to boot camp I went.  I remember distinctly pulling up to the big processing station in downtown Chicago with my dad, and as weird as this may sound, I remember that the curb was really high.  (why that matters who knows).  But I’ll never forget what my dad said to me. “The Adventure Begins”.  I didn’t think much of it then, and truthfully probably not for a really long time, but later, and of course now, it means the world to me.

Through the onboarding process and off to boot camp.  Everything, and I mean everything was a test. Marching, folding clothes, waking up, getting here, going there… everything had to be done just a certain way.  Push ups, sit ups, pull-ups, swimming, running you name it.  Well I found theater in high school because at 5’4″ and 95 lbs dripping wet, so I wasn’t your over the top athlete.  But what I had was a lifetime of being the little guy who was told he couldn’t.  Couldn’t make the team, I was too small, too slow, too thin you name it, I was probably not the guy.  But as the weeks wore on, I decided somewhere in all those tests that I was going to show them all, show myself that I COULD be that guy.

I passed all my tests….physical, mental, psychological you name it.  Except one.  It turns out I couldn’t pass the color vision test, at least not consistently.  So off to the flight surgeon I went.  Test after test after test.  And finally they sent me to Glenview Naval Air Station for one more chance.  Fail and I go home with my tail between my legs, flunking out of the Navy.  The Doc gave me a few of the same tests I had taken with the same result, some I passed, some I failed.  I could tell he was getting as frustrated as I was.  Finally he said, “Ok son, this is it”.  “This test is definitive, if you pass you’re in, if not your out”.  I had to place 10 little circles of various colors in order of changing shade”.  I was sweating, and I was praying.  When I was finished, he looked up and said, “Well, you are definitely color deficient, but that’s good enough for the government and it’s good enough for me”

I MADE IT!  Or so I thought.  After graduation, I went off to Aircrew School in Pensacola for Aircrew training.  If you have seen “An Officer and a Gentleman” it’s a lot like that.  Everyone of the instructors main goal in life is to make yours miserable, to make you quit, make YOU decide that you really didn’t want it bad enough.  Somewhere along that grinder, or on a long run on the beach, I found something within myself that decided that I was not going to quit, that no matter what they did to me, I was going to keep going, keep pushing, no matter how hard, I was going to make it.  And I did.

Once I graduated, I thought I finally made it only to find that AW technical school was the other end of the spectrum, stretching my mental ability to understand oceanography, submarine acoustic characteristics, memorize russian submarines.  I’m no rock but I barely could push myself to graduate high school much above a C average let alone learn to track submarines!  My God, how much more could there be?  But I persevered, I studied harder than I ever had, because by God I would not quit.

Then, like many of my classmates, I got selected for Search and Rescue (SAR) school in a far away land called Coronado California.  I wanted to go jets, cause that seemed cooler, (and easier), but God wouldn’t have it.  So despite my grumblings, I shipped off to North Island and checked into HC-1 SAR School and what would be the defining period of my career.

You see, i was still one of the smallest guys in my group, I wasn’t a former high school athlete, wasn’t endowed with spectacular physical ability, but I guess now I realize that through all the trials I faced through the training so far, I had developed something more important, the desire to be the best I can be and and understanding that I could take a lot more than ANYONE could dish out.

When I checked in to SAR School, I remember the instructors filing in for indoc, the last being Master Chief Navy SEAL Mark Kauber.  To a little guy like me, he seemed like a giant.  For the next 6 weeks, they all pushed us harder, farther and faster than any of us had every gone before.  I hurt, everywhere, in places I can’t even remember, and there were times when I thought this is BS, but I stayed, I pushed and pushed, one step, one more pool evolution closer to graduating and thought I was almost there.  Then came the 1500 meter swim.  The day before the test, the heater went out in the pool (or didi it?).  Either way there we were standing in our soaking wet uniforms, freezing our N**s off and once we jumped in and started swimming it seemed like there was no way I was going to finish.   I swam with all I had, and with only a few laps to go, all of of a sudden I couldn’t feel my arms, my legs, my head.  I stopped at the shallow end and Doc Oldham came over and said “CMON!, keep going, only  a few more laps to go!”  So I made one more lap and then they pulled me out.  Holy Shit what now!   Well I got to go again and managed to pass.  Only to face “Hell Day” and final multiple rescue simulations.  Through all of it, every set of pushups, situps, pullups and dips, every set of what seemed like miles of swimming, I just kept thinking, “not me, I’m not quitting”, I want to be the best.  When those few of us who were left graduated, I remembered feeling like I had finally accomplished something, something I did, that no one, NOONE could ever take away, I learned that no matter how hard something seems, no how many times I might fail in others eyes, I would never ever quit on me.

That first year of my Navy career was the toughest and most rewarding time I’ve EVER had in my life.  There were more tests throughout my Navy career, and of course more to come in my civilian career, but none ever compared to those schools that asked me one question over and over and over, every day….. “Do you want to be the best, are you willing to pay the price, or do you want to take the easy way and just wish you had tried just a little harder?”

Being a SAR swimmer doesn’t make me a better man than others, doesn’t take away from the trials that others faced in their own lives and careers to make it where they are at whatever level.  But what it did make me sure of.  I won’t quit.  I may fail, but I won’t quit.   You may tell me I’m not as good, strong, fast, smart or successful as someone else, but you cannot tell me that I’m not the best I can be at any given moment.  I will work harder (and I’ve learned to work smarter) than any other guy, but most importantly, I found out that all of us, have one more ounce of effort to give.  We all have the ability, when faced with failure, to learn from our mistakes, to dig a little deeper, find something that drives us and moves one more step forward.

Today, I’m just a retired old salt, plenty of sea stories, some you’d believe and others I can’t share.  I’ve been fortunate to have a full career in the Navy, to make friends that are more like brothers and yes, I have seen the world.

After the Navy, I built a successful career in sales and marketing (without a degree), went to school at night and got a degree and now have built a very successful career in talent acquisition and HR (recruiting).

When I speak to groups about overcoming adversity, how I “reinvented” myself over and over again, I get asked how I did it, how I was able to overcome the odds.  I sometimes don’t even know what to say.  But after thinking about it, I remember that little guy on the playground who always seemed to get picked last, that skinny little guy, not nearly 100 lbs dripping wet, who found a way to be able to pull a guy twice his size through the water to safety and I just shrug my shoulders and say….. “I wanted to be the best I could be, so I decided that I wouldn’t quit”.

I’ve faced plenty of failures in my life and career and I’m certain I will face them again at times. And I’ll do then what I’ve learned to do, step back reassess and go again.  But I won’t quit.

I didn’t then, and I won’t ever……

So no matter what you want to be, no matter what you dream of doing, remember that what matters is not whether you fail, but whether or not you get back up, learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward, whether you choose to quit or maybe, just maybe find that place in your heart that says “I’m not measured by what others do, or what they think, but I AM measured by what I think, no… I am measured only by that deep place in my heart that tells me, I have given it my all, everything…. and I’m the best I can be….



About John Kalusa

A Career Management Thought Leader and creator of the "A Company of 1" approach to career management, development and mastery. Revolutionizing the way we approach our careers.
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1 Response to I’m the Best I Can Be

  1. This is perfect for mybuddies on LinkedIn-love your vibe!

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