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Life Lessons From the Marines: Improvise, Adapt, & Overcome

As thoughts turn to actions, Marines have one overriding thought pattern that weaves its way into everything. You can do it to.

Marines have an amazing capacity for creative thinking. I’m not talking about the arts and croissants crowd who drink espresso from little ceramic cups while discussing Keats. I’m talking about the type of creative thinking that gets a commander six or seven extra truck parts at midnight right before an inspection. This all stems from a Marine’s utter drive and dedication towards accomplishing the mission, even when faced with what appear to be impossible odds.

Historically, Marines have had to do without. We are the smallest branch of the service and we get an even smaller share of the DOD budget. This has forced us to achieve more with less. It is so strongly infused into our being that we just expect to get short changed and still come out on top. (Remember what I said before about assuming victory?) We never let a little adversity get in our way.

The drive to accomplish the mission has given birth to the phrase “improvise, adapt, and overcome.” (Made famous by Clint Eastwood in “Heartbreak Ridge”, it’s a saying that’s been around since well before the movie.) We now use this phrase to describe our actions when we surmount an unexpected obstacle. Some of our detractors would say this is just code language for “cheating” but I would respond by saying there’s no such thing as cheating in war. Accomplish the mission, achieve the desired end state, and don’t bother me with details. If you’re a Marine and you fail at some task, you’re usually counseled about your failure to improvise, adapt, and overcome. It’s just expected. (The down side to this phenomenon has become a corollary saying: “Why plan when we can react?” But that’s not important now.)

Since you are trying to correct your life by thinking and acting like a Marine, this is a phrase that you should adopt and implement. I said that we would start moving from thoughts to actions and this is the beginning lesson. When things look impossible, you just have to get a little more creative.

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  1. HvD

    On November 29, 2007 at 1:45 pm


    Awesome post, Jeff. I read this awhile back, but just read it again and was reminded about how right you are. And have been with this terrific site.

  2. S. Dixon

    On April 5, 2010 at 10:51 pm


    My father was a DI. My mother worked and my father was always busy with recruits on PI so as a result I was raised by many other DIs on the Island (the company commander always looked the other way when I was on the Island).

    I remember at a very early age telling some of my foster fathers (DIs) that I had no one to play with. They told me that they would play with me and I should \”improvise.\” I did and I had a grand time.

    One day I told one of my foster fathers (I later learned he was my father\’s First Sargent) that I had no toys. He said \”adapt\” and he found two sticks that we broke into little pistol \’look-a-likes\’ and we played cowboys and Indians for the whole day. I never had so much fun.

    Later, when I was 6 or seven, my DI father taught me to swim in a fashion only he would do. He rowed me to the middle of my grandfather\’s pond and tossed me in. I yelled \”I can\’t swim\” and he calmly said \”overcome.\” I did and now I swim like a fish.

    My father forbid me to serve because he served in WWII, Korea and Viet Nam, and did so that his sons would never have to taste battle again. I tried to enlist, but he he said \’never again\’ and told me that he had promised my mother that his service stood as reminder that his family had done its duty. Two purple hearts, and a cabbage patch on his chest proved that. Despite my pleas, his will remained and my only service was to learn and carry on what 17 years of \’personal\’ boot camp had taught me.

    All of my foster fathers on Parris Island always told me that I was their \’Little Marine\’ and that no matter what, I was expected to behave like a Marine. I never joined. I never served. But to this day I try every day to live the way they taught me. First, always be faithful to your brother. Then, learn to improvise, adapt and overcome.

    My father has long since passed, as have all my foster fathers. But I have never forgot what they taught me. I may not be able to claim the title of Marine, but I have done my best to live up to those standards. And it has served me well in my life.

    So, for you that may be in doubt at some point in your life…I give you these three words of advice: Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.

    Sempre FI

  3. Guest

    On May 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm


    Creative thinking my ass. Marines usually have an undeservedly high concept of themselves.

  4. Jeb

    On December 18, 2010 at 8:17 am


    Thank you for the post. Getting it done is what we have always done best.

  5. Jeff Draper

    On February 5, 2011 at 11:15 am


    Sorry I haven’t been monitoring the activity here, I’m currently a little bit busy with CJTF-HOA in Africa.

    S. Dixon- Touching comment, in a way that only a Marine could write.

    Guest- I’m reminded of comments from a crusty old Sergeant Major when addressing his detractors: “That’s OK, we all know cream rises to the top and when it does, I won’t see you there.”

    Bill- Your comments reflect my views. Why do we sign on the line and promise to make the necessary sacrifices? …Because nobody else will.

  6. Jeff Draper

    On February 5, 2011 at 11:17 am


    Sorry I haven\’t been monitoring the activity here, I\’m currently a little bit busy with CJTF-HOA in Africa.

    S. Dixon- Touching comment, in a way that only a Marine could write.

    Guest- I am reminded of comments from a crusty old Sergeant Major when addressing his detractors: \”That\’s OK, we all know cream rises to the top and when it does, I won\’t see you there.\”

    Bill- Your comments reflect my views. Why do we sign on the line and promise to make the necessary sacrifices? …Because nobody else will.

    Jeb- And judging by the young Marines I see today, we always will do it best.

  7. Jeff Draper

    On February 5, 2011 at 11:19 am


    Sorry I have not been monitoring the activity here, I am currently a little bit busy with CJTF-HOA in Africa.

    S. Dixon- Touching comment, in a way that only a Marine could write.

    Guest- I am reminded of comments from a crusty old Sergeant Major when addressing his detractors: That’s OK, we all know cream rises to the top and when it does, I won’t see you there.

    Bill- Your comments reflect my views. Why do we sign on the line and promise to make the necessary sacrifices? …Because nobody else will.

    Jeb- And judging by the young Marines I see today, we always will do it best.

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