Service before self: It's a balance

Col. Jacob Middleton

Col. Jacob Middleton, 50th Space Wing vice commander. (Courtesy photo)


I think we all have a good understanding of the Air Force Core Value, “service before self.”  This core value seems self-explanatory, but how much service is enough?  Where should we draw the line?

In 2010, I was selected to attend the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.  SAASS is known as the book-a-day club because students are required to read approximately 300 pages per day.  There is a common Air Force adage that says, “it’s only a lot of reading if you do it.”  For me, there was no other option than reading the assigned 300 pages per day.  How could there be an option?  Why would the Air Force assign 300 pages to read if the expectation wasn’t to read them all?  Compared to the sacrifices deployed Air Force members are asked to make every day, reading 300 pages a day seemed quite trivial.

It took me a few months to figure out how to read 300 pages a day, but I figured it out; to the point where I could read, understand, and retain 300 pages of information after about 10 hours of study. Things were going well, right up until the oral exam. 

At the time, SAASS required all students to take an oral exam with three Ph.D. professors presiding.  These professors could ask you any question, about any book assigned to you during the last 11 months.  I studied for four days. To be clear, I studied and didn’t sleep for four days, sustaining myself on a diet of Ritz crackers and energy drinks. 

On day four, I started feeling dizzy, sweating profusely with heart palpitations, and was transported to the emergency room. The doctor initially thought I was having a heart attack, but as it turned out I had just gone without sleep for too long.  It wasn’t just the last four days; over the course of that year, I’d consistently go without sleep for days.  I got an “A” on my oral exam, but I almost died.

Now, before you pass judgment, allow me to elaborate a little more.  During my year at SAASS, I couldn’t care less about getting an “A” in every course or on every paper.  In fact, it became clear after the first 30 days I was not going to graduate in the top 50 percent of the class. 

You may be asking yourself, “If he wasn’t going to graduate at the top of the class, why would he push so hard?”  There are two answers to this question: I always strive to give 100 percent, and I had no sense of balance.

There should never be a question about your effort.  We should always strive to give 100 percent effort, every day, in everything we do.  It does not matter whether this results in praise, a distinguished graduate honor or some other recognition.  The only thing that matters is you did the best that you can do, because if you give 100 percent what more can you give at that particular time? 

After giving 100 percent effort, the only thing left to do is to learn how to be more efficient in the future.  This is where balance comes into play. Without balance, a task becomes all-consuming.  This is the definition of 100 percent effort, but is detrimental to other areas of life we hold dear. I think we can all agree there is more to life than successful task completion.

Each of us needs to pause and take time to figure out what is important to us.  For me, it is family, military duties, exercising and relaxing, but for you it can be anything that is moral, ethical and legal.

The important thing is when I am spending time with my family, I am 100 percent present, involved and committed. The same goes for the other things that are important to me. At the end of the day, I feel good about myself because I’ve given 100 percent effort in everything that is important to me. 

This means there are days when I spend 50 percent of my time with my family, or only 10 percent on military duties. 

Balance is about dividing the time available on any particular day.  It is not about the amount of effort one gives.  However, when any of us decide to give less than 100 percent of our time to anything, we should be prepared to accept less success, less recognition and less satisfaction, and this is ok. Giving 100 percent of your time to anything can be bad for your health. 

Because family is important to me, there are many days when I am prepared to accept less with lower priority items to spend time with my family.

I learned a lot at SAASS, and although none of the books I read provided me a good understanding of work/life balance, my experience at SAASS did.  

What did I learn? 

I learned the Air Force’s most important weapon system is our Airmen, and while we should always give 100 percent effort, we must divide our time among the things that are important to us.  Balance is different from one person to another, because what is important to some, is not important to others. 

Nevertheless, it is important for all of us to be balanced.

In the end, service should always come before self, but never forget to take care of yourself and your fellow Airmen.