When I was a young cadet on basic infantry officer training the instructors would give us leadership challenges so we could practise our skills and they could evaluate us. One time I was put in charge of navigation for the platoon. We were on a night patrol and had to advance through relatively open terrain until we came a to a wood line. At that point, I had planned our route to take a different heading toward our objective.

As we walked in single file through the darkness, I could see the wood line approaching ahead. The only problem was that we weren’t supposed to be that close to the wood according to our pace counting, which is how we measured the distance covered (back in the days of map and compass, before GPS). I got more and more anxious as we got closer to the wood line. Finally, I halted the march and told the cadet platoon commander that it looked like I had made a navigation error.

We huddled under an opaque tarp with the flashlight—so as not to signal our presence to the “enemy”—and examined the map closely. No matter how I turned it and recalculated our route, I couldn’t square the fact of seeing the wood line so close with my verified calculations showing we were still at least one kilometer from the wood. I nonetheless concluded that the pace-counters and I had made an error and that we were in fact very close to the wood. I dutifully told this to the platoon commander. He asked me if I was sure and I assured him that we were very close to the wood line. At this point, the NCO who was evaluating me came up and asked what was happening, why we had stopped. I explained my reasoning, he looked at the wood line, and shrugged, saying we should hurry up and not stay out in open terrain without moving.

So the platoon resumed its march toward the wood, which I was sure by now was only 40 or 50 meters away. A few seconds later, we entered a low shrub bush. It was only a few tens of meters deep, and once we were through, there was no wood or wood line. In fact, I could now clearly see in the limited moonlight that the wood line was were it was supposed to be, about 800 or 900 meters distant.

I immediately realized that my error wasn’t in navigation, but rather in perspective. I couldn’t have been more embarrassed if someone had shone a spotlight on me. I felt my face flush and a knot in my stomach. I had mistaken the shrubs a few meters in front the platoon for the wood line one kilometer away. I felt foolish, because I had discounted my calculations and the questioning of the pace-counters and platoon commander in favour of my own faulty impressions, no doubt caused by fatigue, self-doubts about my navigation skills, and anxiety at being responsible for finding our way to the objective. In this particular instant of my young military career, I had detected an obstacle that wasn’t there. To paraphrase the Pogo cartoon of the 1950s, “I had met the enemy, and he was me.”

You’d think that I would have learned a major lesson at that point, but I guess I was too young to generalize it to other areas of my personal and professional life before going through similar processes several more times. How many times did I have to learn that I was often discovering obstacles—enemies even—that simply weren’t there? Over time I realized that most obstacles and enemies in my path were completely illusory.

As I’ve developed my consulting practice over the last eight years I’ve come to the realization that this “enemy is us” phenomenon applies to just about everyone, in at least some areas of their professional and personal lives. When we set out to reach a goal, we often create illusory enemies or obstacles. I’m constantly surprised at how my suggestions for improvement or to try something new are rebuffed with declarations such as: that would never work for me; I’ve tried that once (17 years ago) and it didn’t work; so-and-so try that and it didn’t work; that’s too hard for me; I couldn’t never do that; and, my personal favourite, what if I fail?

I had breakfast with a highly successful businesswoman a few days ago. She was wondering why she could accomplish so much in such a short period of time and get results no matter what happens, while others constantly struggle. I realize now what the “secret of her success” is. She doesn’t doubt herself, or second-guess her approach to reaching her objectives. She just goes out and does it without worrying about trying, or failing, or not doing it the right way. To quote Yoda, that master of enigmatic wisdom, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

What are the imaginary obstacles you put in your personal and professional path? Are there bogeymen that you need to extirpate from your imagination? What enemies lurk in ambush in your mind? What shrubs and bushes are masquerading as trees and woods in your perspective?

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