Startup Lessons from Army Basic Training

In Israel most 18 year-olds are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces for almost 3 years of service. Despite my age, previous work experience in startups and venture capital, and my university degree, I too was recently drafted to serve in the IDF, in the Air Force’s Innovation Department. Being a recent immigrant to Israel, I knew that I would be required to serve, and I was very excited and proud to have the opportunity to serve my newly adopted country. However, I was not fully prepared for the transition from working in the heart of the Israeli startup scene in Tel Aviv to living in a tent in basic training with a bunch of teenage Israelis. The change of scenery proved to be quite an enlightening and entertaining experience and I thought I would share a few anecdotes and relevant insights for startup founders and the population in general from my time in army basic training.IMG-20160307-WA0005-01

Humor: life is full of frustrating situations, and the army has its fair share as well, so it helps to listen to Monty Python and “Always look on the bright side of life”. Remembering that helped me get through a number of frustrating situations, like when I confused the Hebrew word for kitchen (mitbach) with the word for firing range (mitvach). I learned that mixing up the two words can be dangerous, disappointing, or both.

Also, do not forget that there are two things that you cannot forget when going to the bathroom in the army… Your own toilet paper and your gun (forgetting either will land you in a bunch of crap)

On a more serious note, there are many life and business lessons that I learned as well:

Freedom: The freedom to make your own decisions in life and have control over your own time is something that I value very much as an entrepreneur, but it is something that I had come to take for granted.

The army, especially basic training, is a very rigid place, and there is very little room to be innovative and make decisions without being fettered by overbearing commanders (or managers in real life) and fear of being punished.

Make the most of your freedom and time, take risks and make stuff happen.

Sleep: Many people say they are are not morning people, and I used to think that I was not either, but when you wake up at 5am after only a few hours of sleep the night before, you realize how much you can get done before 9am and that so much of your life can be wasted by sleeping in.

So, stop making excuses, set your alarm, and start your day off right.

Time: In basic training time is a confusing concept. Your commanders have you set a timer before you do anything, but it takes 10x as long to do anything as they never give you enough time to complete simple tasks like cleaning your tent before you must line up again to request more time. While time in the army is both valuable and wasted, a 5 minute break makes one realize how little we value our time. We only have a limited amount of time (in the army, in our jobs, with our family and friends, and on this earth).

Make sure that you make the most of it and savor each moment, especially the short breaks between following orders and and picking up trash (both in the literal and metaphorical sense).

Age & Respect: Age is a social construct… When your commander is 18 and you are 25, it does not matter how much more life experience you have. You do what she says or then you will have to deal with the battalion commander (read as CEO) who is only 22.

Despite their age, they, literally, command respect. So, respect is something that is earned irrelevant of age, both in the army and in business.

Education: After going to university and working in startups and VC, taking off time to serve in the army has allowed me to meet many new people, and learn things that I never thought I would. Such as, gun maintenance, first aid, how to march in a straight line (it’s actually harder than it sounds) and that there is never a moment that you should not be stepping out of your comfort zone and trying to learn something new.

Serving with 18 year old Israelis has proven to be an enlightening experience, as they have a very different view on life. On the one hand there are many interesting and deep conversations to be had with them about life, and on the other they still make fun of your mother (sorry mom, its nothing personal).

Besides meeting and learning from people of all walks of life, embrace every opportunity to experience and learn new things.

Having finished basic training, I am now part of the Air Force’s Innovation Department, the only unit of its kind in the world that is working to make the army a more innovative and entrepreneurial place through some amazing initiatives. I am now in a place in the army that actually encourages innovation and looks for recruits who are self starters and want to make a change.

While I have many more anecdotes to share, I’ll conclude with one more… A gun (or your office keyboard) does not make a good pillow, so get out of the office and remember that life is full of interesting experiences that you should embrace whenever you get a chance.

Startup Lessons from Army Basic Training
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