“I wasn’t even operational”

Do you know the word “operational?”

I didn’t. 

It’s a military term, used in armed forces all over the world. 

It means “certified for combat.” It means they give you the keys to the plane or the tank or the aircraft carrier. You have passed the test. You’re cleared hot.

I was interviewing Zvi “Kantor” Kanor, a pilot who at age seventeen got called out of flight school to fly combat missions in the Six Day War.

“It was crazy. I wasn’t even operational!”

Other pilots have described harrowing action in the sky.

“This happened on my first mission. I was barely operational!”

Here’s a true story from Afghanistan. My friend Major Jim Gant of the Special Forces wrote a book called One Tribe at a Time. It was a white paper, laying out a different type of strategy—what came to be called a Tribal Engagement Strategy—for fighting the war in that overwhelmingly tribal country. General David Petraeus was in charge of all US and Coalition forces in Afghanistan at the time. He read Major Gant’s paper and thought it made a lot of sense. 

Major Jim Gant (right) in a tribal shura, Kunar province, Afghanistan

The story is that General Petraues called his staff together and, dropping the paper on the table before them, declared, “Operationalize this.”

{Full disclosure, there was no happy ending for the Tribal Engagement strategy.]

The point is the word.

Operational.

“Officially certified to participate in a military operation.”

Or operationalize. 

“To make operational. To make ready for ‘live’ or ‘kinetic’ action.”

Are you and I operational? Are we cleared, even if only in our own minds, to fly or trek or sail into combat, even if that combat is only against our own Resistance and the problems of our work?

If we’re Charles Dickens, are we ready to wrangle Pip and Fagin and Mr. Micawber? If we’re Jon Krakauer, are we ready to leap Into Thin Air? If we’re Elizabeth Gilbert, have we got the guts to Eat Pray Love?

In a way, our writer’s type of combat is harder than the kind faced by military men and women. It’s harder because nobody certifies us. There’s no flight school or boot camp or BUDS training for us. Nobody mentors us or validates us. Nobody pins a Trident or an SF tab or an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor on the breast of our tunic.

We have to train ourselves. We have to test ourselves. We have to validate and commend and reinforce ourselves.

And even when we are truly operational, nobody issues us orders or points us toward the enemy, let alone honors our efforts or recognizes our contributions or even evaluates and takes note of them.

We have to declare ourselves operational, then find the operation to enlist our energies in. Then we have to do all that must be done within that operation. And after that, when we come home (if, in fact, we do make it home) our task is to recognize ourselves and validate our efforts and rally our intensity to do it all again, when all too often no one beyond our immediate family knows or notices or cares.

That’s operational, brothers and sisters!

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1

THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

noboybookcover

TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

A Man At Arms is
on sale now!

Don't miss out on exclusive bonuses available to early buyers!

26 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on October 20, 2021 at 2:45 am

    What an interesting post from the boss. I’m reminded of years doing martial arts, where the people I started with, in Shotokan karate, were still doing Shotokan twenty years later, more or less repeating three years of basic karate training over and over again, and not moving on. Perhaps they lacked validation, weren’t able to provide this for themselves, despite the belt system, and were unaware. Perhaps they somehow never operationalised. I’d wanted to expand my knowledge. so went on to do a few years in each of Goju-Ryu, Aikido, Judo, Tai Chi. (I still do a little T.Chi at home after winter). Either I self-validated or I just had a ‘bias to action’.

    I guess that’s what Steve’s saying, in self-operationalising (what a word!) that as creatives we need a bias to action.

    • Brian Nelson on October 20, 2021 at 11:27 am

      Peter,
      “Bias for action” is part of my screening criteria for nearly everyone who surrounds me in my life. I love it.
      bsn

  2. Jackie on October 20, 2021 at 5:16 am

    How does a writer know when they are operational? “We declare ourselves operational,” says Steven. We self validate and set out for the next mission, mostly in obscurity, maybe always in obscurity, knowing that this is the mission we were meant to see through to the end. Maybe, even our family never notices or cares about our mission. Operational despite no valid certification other than self-cerified because, says Jacques Cousteau, “The impossible missions are the only ones which succeed.” Keep on. Thanks Steven.

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on October 21, 2021 at 3:09 am

      “The impossible missions are the only ones which succeed.” So beautiful! Thanks, Jackie.

  3. Ohanna on October 20, 2021 at 7:25 am

    Always inspiring, thanks, Steve.

  4. Doug on October 20, 2021 at 7:30 am

    I like this.
    It makes a lot of sense. I read it like a breeze.
    The metaphor is strong and hard to forget.

  5. Caron Harris on October 20, 2021 at 7:41 am

    Yes, well put, and useful. Ideas like these keep me coming back. Thank you for this essay.

  6. Jennifer Fitzgerald on October 20, 2021 at 7:58 am

    Great post. This idea of being ‘operational’ will stay with me. Such a great analogy for going into combat for any creative endeavour!

  7. Sam Luna on October 20, 2021 at 8:00 am

    “We have to declare ourselves operational, then find the operation to enlist our energies in.”

    I read an interview with a music producer who called this “being 17 in your head again.” That’s what he has to coach his rock bands to do when they come in to record their 5th or 6th studio album in their thirties or forties (or beyond). “I tell them you gotta be 17 in your head again and just kick out the jams, one more time,” I believe was the full quote. It’s very much on my mind when I start a new book draft. And now “declare yourself operational.” Thanks Coach.

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on October 21, 2021 at 3:12 am

      Ah! That 17 years old mentality combined with 40’s or 50’s, 60’s etc. discipline. What a combination! Thank you, Sam Luna.

  8. Kate Stanton on October 20, 2021 at 8:17 am

    “Nobody mentors us or validates us.”
    “We have to validate and commend and reinforce ourselves.”
    “when all too often no one beyond our immediate family knows or notices or cares.”
    Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you, Steve!!!

  9. KATIE BERGGREN on October 20, 2021 at 8:51 am

    I felt this line, Steven: “…when all too often no one beyond our immediate family knows or notices or cares.”
    It really feels this way sometimes.
    thank you,
    Sincerely, Katie

  10. Mia Sherwood Landau on October 20, 2021 at 9:10 am

    Oh my gosh… a word for what I have been feeling! In my writing life it is a moment I recognize as that which only the voice within in us can give the command. Nobody else can see or understand the dynamics of external and internal readiness. I hear it and do it, or live to regret missing my moment. Wow! Thank you for letting me say, once again, thank you and I love you for what and how you share with us, Steven.

  11. Brian Nelson on October 20, 2021 at 9:55 am

    I think today’s post reinforces why this community is so important. If we do not have a coach/supervisor telling us we’re ‘operational’, then we are left to ourselves–and those with whom we associate–to determine if we’ve made the grade.

    Reading Steve’s blogs, then the responses to his writing from others ‘in the fight’ provides context clues to what being operational looks like. How it behaves. How it responds to adversity. What are its daily habits.
    bsn

  12. Bill on October 20, 2021 at 10:03 am

    I’m in the pre-writing phase for draft 2 of my novel and these recent Writing Wednesdays have been hitting home time and again – thank the Muse. Am I hanging out to understand the contour too much before diving into the fight? Do I consider myself operational yet? I have to make ready – and start before I feel I’m ready. Because otherwise, you end up like McClellan, always “making ready” and never fighting. Thank you, Steven!

  13. Yvonne on October 20, 2021 at 10:50 am

    “…our task is to recognize ourselves and validate our efforts and rally our intensity to do it all again, when all too often no one beyond our immediate family knows or notices or cares.” So true. That’s why places like this, and talking with fellow writers is so crucial for me. Thanks, Steve!

  14. KENNETH N PROUDFOOT on October 20, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    Great post, Steven!
    When I have research to do before I can write the article or the book, there always comes a point when I can say, “Okay, I’ve got enough info, I’m ready, let’s go!” and then the writing begins in earnest. NO else ever knows I wasn’t ready till then. Only me. And almost always, my patient best friend, my wife (!).
    So, in my case: Operational = Ready to Write!
    Thanks again for the inspiration.

  15. Compton on October 20, 2021 at 3:53 pm

    Many times you have to do it for you. Even family and friends don’t know and don’t care.

    • Compton on October 20, 2021 at 3:55 pm

      I also meant to say “Thanks much Steven for your wisdom.

  16. Jesse on October 20, 2021 at 3:56 pm

    This is fantastic, thank you.

  17. Jim Gant on October 20, 2021 at 6:47 pm

    Steve,
    Always makes my heart warm to be associated with you in any way…and I love this web-site…have made many friends here. Yes. From, “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” – to “One Tribe at a Time” – to actually doing it on the ground…AMAZING…From Telamon to – “A Man at Arms” – to – “Built to Lead” to – my personal spiritual journey –
    OPERATIONALIZE THAT…????
    Ruth is real. But one can never find her – if they do not look.
    Hope, Strength and Love dear friend, mentor and muse,
    Jim
    1COR13:13

  18. Tolis Alexopoulos on October 21, 2021 at 3:03 am

    Thank you dear Steve,

    the word operational is very elegant. I will tell you a part of a dream that I saw a few days ago and I tried to “communicate” with it a bit, an hour ago. I don’t tell my dreams, but you are a fellow traveler-writer so I do, connecting it with the importance of being operational.

    When I was young, my favorite band was the Iron Maiden (two-three decades ago). Steve Harris was (and still is I guess) their leader, the man on the bass who would never appear on the front line but we all knew he was leading all that, I think he even created Eddie, the monster on their cd’s covers, symbolizing a relative of his own who died because of drugs or something similar (I may be wrong on that, but that’s what I know). He always was an introvert, I could recognize that, although a bit extrovert too, due to the nature of his job. On the other hand, Bruce Dickinson was their singer. He was (and still is) the “all out” character since the beginning, Alpha Male like they say, always taking the front line, though I felt that Steve’s power back there was the one that held the band together.

    So what I saw was that I was at an open wide concert of the Iron Maiden. Strangely enough, the singer Bruce Dickinson (=man of action, not a “philosopher” but “philosophizing” via action orientation and madness) recognized me. He came to my seat and stayed with me a moment, although he was a star and I was not, which made me feel very justified & happy, and I felt a great familiarity. Our communication was not long or with using words as far as I remember, it was more of an energy exchange between men “knowing” each other.

    Then he left me and went to the backstage. There, he mentioned my being there to Steve, the leader behind all that. Steve did not come to me, but he left the backstage, stepped on the stage and there he saluted me, waving his hand far wide, as he smiled starring at me with that wide smile, that positive one of his, that Maiden fans may be familiar with.

    So I interpreted the dream like this: Bruce, the singer, symbolizes the action-oriented-side of my being. Look how plainly he, the Action, acquainted with me, now that I try my best (although still at the sits), and went on to find Steve, the Lead/Success/Deep, to talk to him about me. And also look how Steve, the “End of the Path” maybe, did not come to me, he only greeted me from afar with a smile that said, “I am here and I am happy about you, although we are not -at least for now- at the same ground of achievement”. And the whole scenery was filled ith hope and awe.

    So this all could mean that my unconscious believes in success through Action, intense and crazy “like Hell” action (like Bruce symbolizes from the beginning of his career), and maybe We don’t reach success.,maybe Action, the Bruce inside us, is what Takes us to It, or better yet, talks to Success about us.

    Or maybe not. It’s just a dream, and our desires 😉 <3

    A big hello to all friends here!

  19. Jurgen+Strack on October 21, 2021 at 8:17 am

    The arts is a support system for life, not the other way around (Stephen King)

  20. Gloria on October 24, 2021 at 6:01 am

    Thank you Steve.

  21. Milan on November 4, 2021 at 10:23 am

    Hey, we, your readers, do recognize your efforts&contributions 😍

Leave a Comment