When you swerve off the track built by others, you become the Captain of Your Soul.
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
-William Ernest Henley, Invictus
Cuban Dirt Road
Rolling down the asphalt at 3am in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the lights of Marine Headquarters faded from my review mirror. Up ahead to the right, lay a small dirt road. A voice inside me whispered, “take it.”
I joined the Marine Corps seeking brotherhood and adventure. I also joined because I desperately wanted to fight in a war. I wanted to test myself like all those men I’d read about in history. Yet, despite missions in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – which lasted weeks rather than months or years – I felt unfulfilled. While “in country,” I provided mostly perimeter security in areas where nothing much happened. In short, there was no combat.
As I drove down that lonely Gitmo road in the darkness of 2006, I thought of my Marine buddies in Fallujah and Kandahar. I thought of my own military career falling short of my glorious expectations. Not becoming what you deeply thought you’d become (i.e. a combat tested elite warrior) is a very tough pill to swallow. And at that time, my ego was tearing me apart. I felt like a fraud, a charlatan, a nobody. At that moment in my life, emotionally crippled by back pain and self-hate, I was trying to keep myself together. But in reality, I was falling apart.
After swerving on that Cuban dirt road, only darkness lay ahead. I hit the gas anyway and soon entered a restricted area. As my spinning tires pelted the truck’s undercarriage with gravel, my frustrations finally boiled over. With the windows down and the thick Caribbean air blowing in, I just screamed “who fucking cares!”
About fifty feet before hitting a fence line separating me from communist Cuba, I slammed my brakes and slid to a stop. Taking deep breaths with tears in my eyes, I turned off the ignition. Looking through the windshield, a minefield lay ahead and I thought, “what now?” As the engine’s final “tink-tink-tink” fell silent, I sat on the edge of the world, stuck in life and frustrated that I couldn’t escape. Taking deeper breaths, I remembered a long-distance phone call with my fiancé a week before. She just said, “Remember. You have options.”
Despite my debilitating back pain – always triggered by downturns in my mental health – she was right. I had one saving grace: I had options in life. I had the freedom to ignore my maniacal ego that fed on status, glory, and accolades. When I screamed “who cares,” I was screaming at my ego. After hearing “you have options,” I finally began listening to my heart.
As my heart pumped fresh blood into my soul, and my ego took a momentary nap, the barbarian in me stirred awake and whispered once more, “take it.” Right then and there, I decided to leave the Marine Corps.
Swerving off the hardball road and onto the dirt road in Cuba was the first defiant and free act in my professional life. Since childhood, I (like most of us) journeyed on the main highway of life, always graduating to the next thing. First grade led to second grade, and eventually to high school and college -- and for me, another eight years in the military. My life had been one long track with each step connected to the next. There were no breaks in this continuous track. Yet, that night in Cuba, I’d arrived at a crossroads. I could continue forward with the status quo, or I could swerve off the track, through the darkness, and towards an unknown future.
“The track” is what I call college, law school, the military, or any other well-traveled and deeply grooved road to success built by others, traveled by thousands (or millions) before you, and never built just for you. Sometimes it’s even called “the track,” i.e. the corporate track, the tenure track, the partner track, etc.
That said, the track isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s often good to take the track early in life when we need structure and direction. I’m grateful to the Naval Academy and the Marine Corps; I needed that structure to guide me through early adulthood.
Being on the track doesn’t mean you don’t have agency either. I know plenty of Marines who leaned into their careers, created opportunities for themselves, and got the jobs they wanted most – whether it be Force Recon, Fighter Pilot, or even Naval Academy football coach. These Marines made shit happen for themselves. Regrettably, I never really did. Sure I worked hard, showed physical and mental toughness, and had plenty of great times in the Corps, but I never acted like a free agent in my career. I just accepted the assignments given to me. Instead of making things happen for myself, I allowed things to happen to me. And that’s exactly what happened in Cuba. While my buddies fought in wars overseas, I was stuck patrolling a Cold War outpost fifteen years after the Cold War ended!
At my Cuban crossroads, could I have started to 'make things happen' for myself in the Marine Corps? Sure. But I was done. Counting the Naval Academy, I’d spent thirteen years in uniform. I was ready for a change. I was ready to swerve my life towards something new. But like the minefield before me, I'd need a plan to get through it all in one piece. So I asked myself this very simple question: “What do I want?”
What do I Want?
Until that point, I’d never considered any profession outside of the military track. So at the time, I couldn’t really answer the question. And when I don’t have the answer, I journal. After writing page after page, I realized I had to first ask myself these questions: “What do I like to do?” and “What have I always been drawn to do?”
Since I was fifteen, I’d always loved reading history and lifting weights. So I landed on two career options: History Professor or Strength and Conditioning coach. Beginning either of these professions still required a track, i.e. a degree in that practice. Which meant I'd have to leap from one track to another, which was fine. So I applied and barely (though not entirely) got accepted into graduate school at Cal State, Northridge. (The conditions of my acceptance are another story.)
So off I went, leaving the Marine Corps to study history in LA’s San Fernando Valley. After two years of vigor – writing morning, day, and night in the school library -- I finally became a better writer. Upon graduation, I swerved from the grad school track to no track at all. I became a bodyguard.
In the first year of my new career, I protected clients on estates in Beverly Hills and during public appearances. I also wrote out my career plan for the future. Without a track to rely on for “what’s next,” I devised my own plan. Eventually, my goal was to become “a business-minded scholar who writes, presents, and teaches.” One obstacle: there was no position at my protection firm with that title or job description. But when I asked myself, “What do I want?” that was my answer. So I pursued it, writing every chance I could on security-related matters.
After a few months, leadership began to recognize me as “a bodyguard who can write!” And the scarcity of bodyguards who can write (not exactly a tenured track) helped catapult me to success as a scholar, writer, and teacher in the company. Every job I’ve occupied since then never existed before I took it. By working with leadership, I created those jobs for myself. I tailored those jobs around my strengths and made them my own. And because of that, I performed well and gained future promotions.
For the first time in my professional life, I felt in control. Even today, when a creative idea hits me that can serve our clients and associates, and accelerate my own growth, I can still hear the barbarian in me whisper, “take it.”
Captain of My Soul
In Cuba, I took it. I swerved off the busy highway and onto the dirt road. I took the wheel in my life’s journey and became “the captain of my soul.”
And I gotta say, it felt damn good to take it and do what I wanted to do. To draft a plan, and then execute it by creating and occupying positions at work that leveraged my strengths made me love my job and life. The more I seized control of my life, the less back pain I felt, and eventually, the back pain disappeared. By listening to the barbarian inside, I swerved away from pain and towards my own needs and dreams.
Swerving Big and Small
Swerving off the track usually doesn’t mean blowing up your life, quitting your job, and joining the circus – or even having an epic meltdown in Cuba. It just means doing things – even little things – that exemplify you being the captain of your soul. Swerving off the track means pursuing a creative activity where you feel vigor, wonder, and/or fellowship. It means swerving from the status quo to coach Little League, help homeless vets, rescue animals, or in my case, start a newsletter and blog. We can also do daily swerves like going for a hike, calling an old friend, or anything else that disrupts the cruise control inertia of life on the track.
Until a few years ago, I would have described swerving off the track as “taking control of my life.” But as I read more about human agency, I discovered that there’s actually a philosophy for becoming the captain of my soul. That philosophy is Existentialism.
While many philosophies are just abstract questions and theories, Existentialism is practical and applicable to you own life. Historian Sarah Bakewell defines Existentialism as, “a discipline for flourishing and living a fully human, responsible life.” Begun by Jean-Paul Sartre in mid-twentieth century France, and spread by authors like Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus (who I write about here), Existentialism promotes human agency. Existentialism says you gain meaning from the agency you take -- i.e. that you gain meaning by swerving off the track. The ultimate goal of Existentialism is for you to become YOU without being dominated by outside forces like institutions, persons, or identities that tell you what you should do and be. Existentialism means listening to the barbarian in you, and acting on those intuitions.
Remember: There are times when the barbarian in you whispers “take it.” He reminds you that you are born free, in the driver’s seat of your life, and can swerve off the track at any time. He reminds you that you are now and forever the captain of your soul.