'Important' vs. 'Urgent' by Col. Mark Blum Commander, 212th Field Artillery Brigade, U.S. Army

posted Jan 19, 2017, 5:22 AM by 21 Army Cadets Cambridge
My wife and I took our daughter to college a week ago. She's our last child to leave the house as our son has been in college for a couple of years now, and it seems a little empty right now. Phone calls and e-mail will be poor substitute for kitchen conversations, and it is difficult to envision exactly what she's doing, with whom, through a phone line. I suppose we'll have to get used to her being grown up, but I still remember the little girl who loved gymnastics and didn't like to play with dolls.

As I look back, I wonder what I might have done differently if I'd known everything I know now. The Army is a great place to raise a kid, but I think I'd make a few changes given the chance. For instance, I remember a Thanksgiving in Germany as a major when I worked through the day and all night, only going home for an hour to wolf down some Thanksgiving dinner and then going back to work again. I don't even remember what the subject was, but I now know it wasn't important enough to miss Thanksgiving with my family.

There are a lot of good reasons to spend time with your family, and far fewer good reasons not to. I've been in the field on my share of birthdays and holidays, and there's not too much we can do about that.

Still, here's what I'd change:

I'd leave work every day by 1800 if at all possible and earlier if I could.

We work from before our children go to school until after they go to bed at night sometimes when they're small. How many hours might I have spent with them in the evening if I'd realized the chance doesn't come around again?

I'd save less money and have more fun. I think I'd take more long summer vacations to really memorable places with the kids instead of making the PCS move part of the vacation. I'd make it a priority for them to see their grandparents more often, regardless of where we lived. I'd be more selective about the social engagements I accepted, even if it was "expected" that I attend. My kids "expected" that I'd be with them too, and I don't recall any banquets where my presence determined the outcome of the evening. Sometimes I made the wrong choice. I would pay more attention to which teachers my children had and less attention to the grades they made. I'd be more help on school projects and less irritated when they brought one to me for help at the last minute. I get things every day at work at the last minute, for a lot of reasons. I would be more understanding that it happens to kids, too. I'd go to all the PTA meetings, not just some, and every sports. Through the door at night I'd be more absorbed in their worlds. I could have thought about most of those problems after they went to bed. I'd throw a Frisbee more often with the kids and do less yard work. I can rake leaves anytime. We'd clean the house less and spend more time messing it up doing fun stuff. I'd never again lose a day of annual leave. One year I lost 24 days - what a waste.

I once had a boss who talked about the difference between what's "urgent"

and what's "important." He hadn't learned that lesson until late in his career, and didn't want others to make the same mistakes. He always worked long hours, even once missing his son's Eagle Scout initiation because of something happening he felt he needed to deal with, but later wished he'd left to someone else.

He had three rules to determine the difference between "important" and "urgent," and if an event were important he'd offer that you should think long and hard before missing it. To him, an event is important if:

  1. It is important to someone who's important to you;
  2. Your personal presence makes a difference; and
  3. The opportunity is not going to come around again.

If those three conditions are satisfied you have a pretty good idea what you should focus on. He would always use this one example: As a Division Commander his unit was having a Warfighter Exercise - a major event for a Division. One of the Brigade Commanders' daughters was starting her freshman year in college, and he indicated he was going to take her and get her settled, and would miss most of the exercise.

As might be expected he was not real excited about one of his senior commanders missing the Warfighter, and pressured him to just have his wife take his daughter. The Brigade Commander insisted, even knowing he could be killing his career. After the Warfighter ended he said he gained a great deal of respect for that commander as a result of his decision, and took a hard look at some of the choices he'd made in his own career. His own wife had made him see the wisdom of the man's choice.

Overall, I think military life has been great for my family, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. The choices I've made have been mine, and I haven't always made the right ones for the right reasons. Even so, kids survive parents learning "as we go." My advice is to make your choices wisely. The object for all of us is to make sure we run out of career before we run out of family. For more than 20 years we've had at least one kid in the house at all times. Now it's just as, which is what we had when we started, at least until Thanksgiving. We're already looking forward to that time this year!