The Only Way to Get There is to Take It One Step at a Time
Updated: Oct 8
I was terrified of losing my Air Force ROTC scholarship. I felt like I was venturing across a rickety wooden bridge with missing slats and no rails, where one misstep would have me plummeting into a swiftly moving river below. My GPA was the lowest it had ever been and I barely passed my fitness assessment. Of course, gaining the freshman fifteen didn’t help.
Worst of all, I wasn’t so sure about the ROTC thing. I didn’t feel like I belonged there. Not because of anything anyone said, but all the other cadets exuded a motivation I didn’t feel. They were going to be badass pilots and incredible military leaders and they knew it. I hovered in the shadows to stay as unnoticed as possible. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a uniform that was never as sharp as the other cadets’, crazy hair that looked like a five-year old put it up and boots that were just never shiny enough. I didn’t see someone with the right military image or bearing to be a successful officer. It would only be a matter of time before someone noticed and kicked me out of ROTC.
By the middle of that first semester of college, I felt like I was drowning.
The Life Ring
One of my ROTC instructors, a young female Lieutenant, reached out to see how I was doing and suggested we meet to talk. It was like she threw a life ring to me and I held on as tightly as I could. She was in her mid-twenties, so just a few years older than me at the time, but to me, she was a worldly mentor who knew so much about life. Her military bearing was perfect, she spoke with confidence and she was approachable. Plus, her hair was always in a perfect little bun. I wished I could be like her.
We met up a coffee shop on campus where I ordered mine black. My naïve 17-year old brain thought it made me seem more mature. Except the truth was, I preferred the smell of coffee over the taste of it.
She joined me at a high top table and set her fancy coffee down. She had ordered a pumpkin spice something or other and it was frothy with milk and probably infused with sugar and vanilla and more than likely tasted way better than mine. I regretted my choice instantly.
“So how are things going?” she asked.
I started to word vomit. The grades. The fitness stuff. And worst of all, my lack of officer potential.
“What do you mean?”
“I am terrified of public speaking. I don’t like being in front of people,” I said.
This was an understatement and something I’d dealt with my entire childhood. I wanted to ask my Kindergarten teacher a question but when I raised my hand and got called on, my voice wouldn’t work. I lowered my hand and shook my head. I couldn’t bring myself to ask a question in front of all those other kids, never mind they weren’t even paying me any attention.
Glassophobia affects a lot of people, but I was embarrassed about having glassophobia. Nothing heated my face faster than hearing What did you just say? Speak up, I can't hear you. I had a difficult time speaking to a crowd of more than three people, and it didn't help that I’m soft-spoken by nature. I continued to wrestle with glassophobia through high school.
Imagine my terror when I realized public speaking was a requirement to pass my ROTC classes. None of this was mentioned in the scholarship pamphlets.
It wasn’t just about giving speeches in front of my classmates. The upperclassmen taught freshmen how to march, salute, wear uniforms and everything else important about military customs and courtesies. They weren’t afraid of public speaking. In fact, I don’t think they were afraid of anything.
The thought that one day I would be expected to teach a bunch of freshmen made my stomach twist into knots.
“All the older cadets are so confident and I just can’t see myself in their shoes. There’s no way I’ll be able to do what they do.”
The Advice That Changed My Life
The Lieutenant took a sip of her coffee concoction and set it down. She looked at me with her thoughtful blue eyes. “Can you imagine yourself as a cadet this spring?”
“Well, yes,” I said. As long as I passed this semester. Hopefully my grades were decent enough for me to return in the spring. Hopefully I passed the fitness assessment at the beginning of the semester so I could get my spring tuition paid.
“Can you imaging yourself as a sophomore? A second-year cadet?”
“You’ll learn the skills this year that will prepare you to be a sophomore. And next year you’ll learn the skills you need that will prepare you to be a junior. And so on. So focus on where you are now and just take it one step at a time.”
Take it one step at a time.
She was right. I was overwhelmed with the end goal and didn’t take the necessary steps to get there.
Take it one step at a time.
Simple, straightforward and sage advice.
With Experience Comes Confidence
I learned that with experience comes confidence. And sometimes you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to get that experience. When you take it one step at a time, and you keep taking your steps, you’ll eventually get there.
Now I find myself advising people to Take it one step at a time all the time. And when I set goals for myself or others, I make sure they’re accomplished by taking it one step at a time.
It's been well over twenty years since this conversation took place and I wish I could remember this Lieutenant's name so I can thank her properly. The irony is, a common joke in the military is a Lieutenant brings no value or experience to the team. But this Lieutenant brought me a lot of value and changed my life, because without her advice, I don’t know that I would have made it through college and the ROTC program. Because of her, I found a way to get past my fears and gain confidence that has helped me succeed in life.
However, I never learned to drink coffee, black or otherwise.
Comment below: Have you ever felt overwhelmed or paralyzed when looking at an end goal? How did you overcome this paralysis?