Embracing Your Oh S#!t Moment
On this Father’s Day—my first as a father—I’d like to reflect on something that I call the Oh Shit Moment. These indelible instances come in all shapes and sizes, in all colors and contexts. Despite their myriad manifestations, however, they can usually be recognized because they produce a consistent reaction.
Oh shit! Why me? What now?
I had my own OSM (TLA—three-letter acronym—courtesy of the IT department) when I found out I was about to become a father, and realized that becoming a father would require me to make some major personal and professional sacrifices that I didn’t feel ready to—or capable of—making. Likewise, there was the feeling of being ill-prepared for such an unexpected (because it was most unexpected) transformation of life as I knew it. I was a failure (I told myself) for being caught so unaware… for not having a plan… for not having done all that I wanted to do before that new little person arrived and changed everything, demanding an absolute engagement and dedication that almost nothing in my life had ever before required.
Must I do it?
Could I do it?
Oh shit! Why me? What now?
Well, the baby’s been here for a few months now. While the echoes of my initial Oh Shit! have faded, I’m still trying to answer those last two questions—Why Me? and What Now? Luckily, I found some encouragement when I saw that on June 15, 1775, the Father of our Country, George Washington, probably had his own OSM when the Continental Congress offered him command of the Continental Army—a newly-created collection of rag-tag colonial militiamen—pursuant to the aim of fighting one of the world’s greatest military and naval powers so that the purely theoretical United States of America could become a concrete geopolitical reality. While it’s true that Washington lobbied for his position as the leader of the Continental Army, it could be argued that his confidence in his abilities—his assurance that he was the right man for that Herculean task—arose directly from a long line of OSMs stretching all the way back to the start his military career.
That military career began in the French and Indian War, when the 22 year-old George Washington was granted a commission as major in Virginia’s Provincial militia. Tasked with building a fort on the site of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Washington—along with a small force of Indian allies and militiamen—ambushed a French scouting party. The young officer probably thought he was showing some initiative—surprising French interlopers, proving himself as a combat commander, hopefully gaining some vital intelligence from his honorably-acquired prisoners that he could present to his superiors, thereby cementing his still-forming reputation.
But then one of Washington’s Indian allies—bearing the commander of the French scouting party (and the French in general) some ancient grudge—laid tomahawk to skull, cleaving the poor Frenchman’s pate, and proceeded to wash his hands in the unlucky fellow’s blood and brain-matter. The rest of the Indian scouts in the party proceeded to murder the remaining Frenchmen. A horrified Washington bore witness, helpless to stop them until their butchery was done. In the blink of an eye, the bold young officer had gone from patting himself on the back to wondering just what the massacre would mean for international relations and his own military career.
Quite the OSM, nay? All the young George Washington had ever wanted was to be a man of honor and to earn an officer’s commission in the British army. Now, at the outset of his career, he had the blood of military prisoners on his hands, not to mention the lingering question of just what the unprovoked massacre of those French scouts would mean to the two great powers—France and England—currently vying for control of North America. As fate would have it, the slaughter of those French prisoners was a spark in the kindling of hostilities that became the French and Indian War—arguably, the first ‘world war’ ever fought.
And, from a certain point of view, it was all George Washington’s fault.
George’s OSM proved to have very far-reaching implications.
But George Washington, humbled and humiliated, fought on. Although he never gained his much-coveted commission in the British army, he always distinguished himself, even under disastrous circumstances. He led successful retreats and maintained the discipline of his troops during mortifying routs; he listened more than he spoke, gaining a thorough and rounded education in British military operations; and although he was in no position to influence the movements of the British army or the outcome of the war, he nonetheless processed all that he learned and started to build for himself a very clear idea of what did and did not work, both on the battlefield, and in the labyrinthine corridors of political power.
Although faced with a humbling reminder at the very outset of his military career of just how disastrous the smallest operational misstep could be, George Washington managed to embrace his OSM—to be humbled and educated by it, rather than allowing it to define him, ruin him, or paralyze him. A man of lesser constitution might have figuratively (or literally) thrown himself on his sword and retired from military endeavors… but not so young Washington, who simply resolved to carry on, learning from his mistakes and awaiting the next opportunity to distinguish himself.
That opportunity came on June 15, 1775, when high command of the newly-created Continental Army was offered to the 43 year-old George Washington, a man whose first military endeavors were disasters and whose last distinguishing military campaigns were twenty years behind him. Because George Washington did not give up on his imagined destiny, his destiny did not give up on him. Despite failures and set-backs that derailed his sought-after career in the British military, Washington knew that he still had more to do—that ‘Gentleman Planter’ should not be defining title on his epitaph. He was determined to make the losses, sacrifices and abortive dead-ends of his early career meaningful by learning from them and applying them in his dreamt-of arena: war. Therefore, he seized a terrifying opportunity, and proved a spectacular success. By the end of the American Revolution, Washington had finally achieved all that he imagined he could as a young man, yet in a way that his young self scarcely could have imagined: he turned a rag-tag army of scruffy colonial militiamen into a disciplined fighting force; he distinguished himself as a cagey and flexible tactician, a model of military discipline, and as an inspirational leader; and, by virtue of his unique set of skills and experiences, guided by the costly lessons that his successes and his failures had taught him, he won the independence of an infant nation and paved the way for a sea-change in the history of the world.
George Washington took a licking from his OSM but kept on ticking.
Oh Shit Moments can threaten to overwhelm us, to humiliate us, to terrify us and paralyze us. They arrive unbidden and unexpected, and they often demand hasty decisions, even though they often have far-reaching consequences and very high stakes. It is easy to try and duck an OSM, or to disown it, or to let the weight of it crush you and excuse further despondency or inaction.
But that’s not how we profit from an OSM, is it? Those unpleasant forks in the road only pay dividends if we own them—however painful that might be—and resolve to learn from them.
So, dear readers, let me offer this resolution to you, while encouraging you to do the same: Oh Shit Moments may be unpleasant, unexpected, and thoroughly unwanted, but no less a reticent father (to a country) than George Washington noted that ‘useful lessons’ and ‘dearly bought experience’ cannot be gained without them. If Washington could own his considerable OSMs and not be crushed or discouraged by them, I, with my far more humble aims and desires, can do no less.
Why me? What now?
Because the moment is mine, anything is possible.
I invite you to share some of your own OSMs in the comment section below.