“Resilience, Slowing Down, and Making Decisions”
Matthew H. King ’77
Good morning Class of 2011! It is so exciting to be here to celebrate YOUR day. Let me give a quick nod to Neil MacFarquar – a classmate of mine who was supposed to be standing here, now, addressing you. Neil is a New York Times reporter who was called away on assignment in the Middle East to cover some of the issues of which you might be aware. Neil and I were dorm mates in a small dorm just over there, which I hope has since been torn down. You see there were thin walls and thin ceilings and I can’t tell you how many times we were ALL being rowdy in Neil’s room – which happened to be over Mr. Larkin’s apartment – when Mr. Larkin would storm up, take one look, and routinely banish ME to the Library all day, with permission to return to the dorm only at night. I didn’t like the Library, at least as a place to live for 12 hours a day. It was never Neil in the dog house. And Neil was not shy about gloating… So I hope it’s uncomfortably hot in the Middle East right now – I mean really hot – and I can happily say, “What goes around comes around Neil!” It goes without saying we wish Neil Godspeed and a safe return.
I met many of you a few months ago during Pathways and we chatted about the circuitous route I took in my career… how I got to where I am – not linearly as with some who have a specific calling, but through a series of conscious decisions I made which ended up, as I look back, tangentially related to each other. For me I loved being a part of something intensely the finest- the proud history and tradition, and that strong, loyal sense of camaraderie. And I like to think I first tasted that here, in this incredible place, at this incredible institution. That has been a touchstone for me in my career choices.
So for a few minutes I would like tell you about RESILIENCE, about SLOWING DOWN, and about MAKING DECISIONS. These simple tenets have served me well.
First to resilience: A few years ago I was the Team Leader for the U.S. Customs Special Response Team in San Francisco. To us fell the execution of high risk warrants. Well trained and heavily armed, we would be sent in to go get people who needed “getting.” There was a heroin dealer we called Dracula- he only came out at night. And he had a muscle bound enforcer named Ai Jai Lin- we called him Odd Job because he looked like that character from the James Bond movie who would throw his razor derby hat to behead his Master’s foes. In this case, Odd Job carried a meat cleaver and as our undercover agents would make heroin buys he would stand behind them flicking his cleaver over their heads again and again as a warning. Odd Job was mentally handicapped and to us fell the duty of arresting him, then Dracula.
They inhabited a run down inner city apartment complex with hundreds of rooms over numerous floors. The informants had told us his exact location – and it was imperative we arrest him very early in the morning before the rest of the complex became aware so they might not give warning to the main heroin distributor. Silently in the pre-dawn chill, we made entry into the building – we had rehearsed many times – and in a line made our way to where we were told his apartment was… The only problem was our arrest warrant specifically stated it was room 312 – and there was no room 312 where we had been told and where we had rehearsed for months pouring over the city blue prints. There we stood – 12 men in black outfits, armed to the teeth, the clock ticking, with absolutely NO CLUE as to where to go. As the complex came slowly alive, doors would open and quickly close – it was obvious the alarm would soon be sent to Dracula and Odd Job… The plan had decidedly fallen apart and the two-year undercover investigation hinged on these arrests! We obviously had to adapt our game plan, and immediately. Rather than split the team we quickly snaked around the endless corridors – it seemed to take a lifetime – and finally we found room 312. To make the story short, we made entry and there he was, wide awake from the commotion, with meat cleaver in hand. After a brief tussle with all 12 of us, we arrested him, then located Dracula and arrested him. It was only 06:30 in the morning…
Now, I had been taught in the Marines to adapt, overcome, and improvise, and that we did – this time. Another adage popped into my head- “Failure is not an option” – but we might have. However, a corollary my mother taught me is perhaps more appropriate: “If at first you don’t succeed try, try again.” Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes we DO fail. Maybe it’s a try out for a team – maybe it’s a test – and sometimes, just sometimes, it’s a matter more important. We have all tanked a test, we’ve lost a big game, perhaps we have lost a loved one. I have been taken to the proverbial woodshed for corrective “lashings” – some quite unpleasant – many times. I have been passed up for promotions. So sometimes the guy in the white hat does NOT always win… What do you make of it? HOW RESILIENT ARE YOU? Awhile back I was hooked up to a polygraph and went through a battery of psychological tests and the tester asked, “How is it that you haven’t been set back by some of life’s disappointments?” My answer was simple – They were only speed bumps. They have been offset by life’s simple joys. I didn’t have three children yet – they are my joy, as I suspect at least SOME of you are the pride and joy of your parents sitting here today – but I had other inchoate pleasures then: The smell of spring when it finally hit DA; the happiness of a college acceptance letter; the giddiness of sharing an inside joke with a friend; the deep sense of grounding when I returned home to be with family… We live in a complicated world with tons of pressures. You have to be able to find things, great or small, that give you happiness and then spend time reveling in them. What are your touchstones when the going gets tough and you have to bounce back to tackle the problem another way, another day? If you stumble, and you will, you have to get up and TRY, TRY AGAIN.
Once, many years ago, my squadron was deployed to Honduras when the Contras were mixing it up with the Sandinistas. My orders were to fly my gunship to a jungle clearing and pick up “a team” – no further information. We found the coordinates and landed and then spent the next six hours sweating heavily in the eerie silence of the jungle. We waited…and we waited. We saw a truck with armed men looking us over…and then we waited, and sweated, some more. My crew chief, one year older than you all by the way, did a brief recon in the immediate area and came back excited as we were not far from a beach. Parched with thirst and soaked in sweat, with radio silence from the aircraft carrier I finally made the command decision that we could perhaps take a very quick look at the beach. Leaving my door gunner to protect our gear we quickly made our way down a jungle path. We stopped short when we saw the water with ash tray white sand and azure water lapping the shore…. It was only a matter of seconds before our child-like exuberance took over and we stripped down and ran into the water naked for a very quick swim. It was several minutes of that brief uncomplicated joy I just mentioned – it was Deerfield rowdy mixed with Conde Nast Traveler –dunking, splashing, and cavorting, with not a care in the world… until that sickening moment when my door gunner burst through the jungle in a panic yelling that a group of men was arriving. He just didn’t know what side they were on. In that brief, “Oh Crap” moment time seemed to stand still… then we sprinted up the beach in our birthday suits to madly struggle into our now wet and sandy flight gear, just as the group emerged from the shadows of the triple canopy jungle. And what a team it was- reporters from Time and Newsweek and others, with a Marine Public Affairs officer – their cameras clicking away at U.S. Marines “fighting the war against Communism.”
Lessons learned? Sometimes you have to force yourself to take a step back. I am not sure in retrospect I chose an appropriate moment or location to do that in the jungle that day. But none of us ever forgot it. (Neither did my superior officers). Look – I have a blackberry that incessantly buzzes and I react like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I get hundreds of emails a day and all night. I sleep with it near my side. Sometimes it is very important – perhaps even a matter of National Security. And many times it’s NOT that urgent, though there is a sense of immediacy that has become the work place norm. I have had to learn to put it away while I listen to my youngest describe, in excruciating detail, his paper on the Gold Rush, or to look at my wife across the dinner table and actually listen – not just hear – what she is saying. Maybe that’s down the road for you all, but we are always wired in and switched on –my 17-year old daughter certainly is: Facebook, studying, exams, social obligations, cell phones, papers, lax practice, texting, emailing, meetings, running…running, always running. Guys- SLOW IT DOWN! Carve out some time to be alone and off the grid. Take time to smell the roses… Just have a damn good excuse why you are skinny dipping on a beach with a bunch of Marines in a war zone.
About a year ago I deployed to Haiti with a small team of Special Agents just after the earthquake – I spoke to some of you at Pathways about it. Our team lived under very chaotic and demanding conditions. There was one shower for 500 of my “closest” friends. Angry mobs were lined up outside the Embassy and, because we were only evacuating U.S. Passport holders, many were forced to make Sophie’s Choice: choose a U.S. citizen-child to go with you to the USA and leave the other behind. It was gut wrenching and exhausting. The dead and dying were all around us. We ate when we could, we showered sometimes, we slept on the floor for a month, sometimes in the middle of after-shocks that further compromised the ceiling we slept under… and at any moment we had to make decisions on the spot with no guidance except the law and our conscience to guide us. Late one night a U.S. Army Sergeant Major sought me out and asked if I could help. He had a young U.S. soldier whose entire extended family had been killed in the quake except for a little peanut of a girl who was found in the rubble – his niece, maybe three years old. I had heard the story a hundred times… By regulation, only a parent could be evacuated with a child. He was clearly not her parent and the policy was he would have to return to his unit in the U.S. and the little girl would have to go to an orphanage in Haiti. Maybe it was the tears in the young Uncle’s eyes, or maybe it was the innocence of that tiny girl, filthy but for a clean little dress – maybe it was that I hadn’t slept in 20 hours or was too emotionally drained from days and days on the line. But I decided then and there that we would help this family.
Not one of my agents grumbled once as I roused them from their sleeping bags and we mounted up to go to the evacuation site at the airport to try and find an available seat. We formed an unlikely convoy – my agents, some army troops, the little girl – in two civilian cars, bristling with weapons. We wove our way though the bedlam on the streets in the middle of the night to the chaos at the airport – with screaming military transport jets and thousands of people lined up for evacuation. We wove our way through the seething gauntlet, the child clinging tightly to her uncle’s neck, until we found the equally exhausted State Department person creating manifests for the departing planes. She looked at us and said they didn’t qualify for evacuation. I looked at her and in that instant we both realized that somehow we would find one small way to make something right. The young uncle grasped my hand, but couldn’t speak – I wouldn’t have heard him over the engines anyway. The girl hugged me hard around the neck and they were then swallowed by the huge transport plane, soon to be in the U.S. to divine their own way forward… We made our way back to the embassy – had to work in about an hour – and I wept silently knowing I had broken the regulations, but had saved a little life, maybe two.
In life, you will have to make DECISIONS. If we have time, we make pro and con lists… We discuss with friends and family… We weigh the odds and then we come to that moment when we have to decide a course of action. It can be as important as what college do I accept, or as seemingly mundane as which car do I buy? What major do I pursue? I remember my big choices – I chose to make every effort to get that child out of Haiti… But I think – at the very instant you make a decision – you cannot look back later and doubt WHY you made that decision, then, at that moment in time, because circumstances change. You can obviously correct a bad decision – change schools, change majors, change careers. Conversely, you are less able to take back bad choices, the “What if I hadn’t…” or… “Only if I could go back and…” The point is you made a decision right THEN, and cannot beat yourself up considering what could have been different in 20/20 hindsight. I’ve questioned some of my choices. I have often wondered how I ended up where I am… just as you will face decisions large and small as you embark upon your next great adventure.
And your choices will be personal. In college, in desperation over what to do after graduation, I took a career type of test. It said I exhibited the traits of a military officer or a registered nurse. I don’t know in retrospect if that validated my decision to go into the Marines – there were many other factors on my pro/con list – like I couldn’t really picture myself being a nurse. But it was one more piece to throw into the decision making matrix. Even without that road sign, I weighed my first and subsequent career decisions guided in some large measure by wanting to do the RIGHT THING. For the BIG decisions, whether you pursue business, or law, or medicine, or education, or government service – that’s YOURS to weigh and to make, pro and con.
How will YOU know if you are making the RIGHT choice? Sometimes – often times – you won’t! You have to weigh your odds and throw in. However, let me point out something that’s been under your noses for the last few years– it’s the Deerfield motto – “BE WORTHY OF YOUR HERITAGE.” I never really thought about it while I was here. When I did, it didn’t mean much – I had too much going on. However, I think I have come to understand it now. I think it means BE COUNTED. Not for laurels and accolades, or ribbons and badges, but because it’s the right thing to do, and the right thing for YOU. For me, at that moment in time, I took the “road less traveled.” And in big brush strokes it turned out to be the right choice for me.
I’ll be honest – there will be days when you do have to look at your choices in very big brush strokes. I come home many nights like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, wondering if I had embarked on the right career for the right reasons, or wondering if I have made a difference… At other times I know with certainty that I have. It can be a sign as small as the hug of a filthy three year old on the tarmac of an airport. I’ll end with some words that inspire me. It speaks to, in part, being counted, and perhaps about resilience in dealing with the uncertainty of the outcome of making decisions. If I had a dime for every time I have seen this Xeroxed, taped to a person’s wall at work… It’s called: THE MAN IN THE ARENA–President Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, and sweat, and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Thank you for letting me share this incredible day with you!