Why we should retire our inner drill sergeants

I was selected in October as a 2022 MacArthur Fellow and grant recipient, and I am still reeling in shock at being included in this class of 25 remarkable individuals. As the wave of congratulations came my way, my shock was amplified when, after a few weeks, I realized that there was someone who hadn’t bothered to congratulate me, and that person was none other than me. The honor of becoming a MacArthur “genius,” as selectees are colloquially known, showed me how incredibly hard it is for me to feel proud of myself, let alone congratulate myself. 

I started reflecting on why that is. After graduating from a Venezuelan military boarding school, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. As any Air Force veteran recalls, you arrive at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas on a bus, at night, in the dark, and then you find yourself under floodlights on a drill pad where you and all the new recruits are hit by a wall of screaming uniformed training instructors. These are the drill sergeants, and their creed goes roughly like this: “I will assist each individual in their efforts to become a highly motivated, well-disciplined, physically and mentally fit airman capable of defeating any enemy on today’s modern battlefield.” 

I realize now that I have always had within me an inner drill sergeant. While he has not given me all I need, he has given me strength. Like so many others across humanity, I have suffered traumatic events and experienced discrimination and abuse of all forms throughout my life. I actually remember some of these traumatic events while in my crib. I got through them because of a voice — my drill sergeant — that pushed me to rise from my own ashes. My enemy was the world and my environment, meaning those who intentionally humiliated me, abused me, discriminated against me at the times and places of their choosing. When things felt hard, when I felt the heels of others crushing my face, my drill sergeant would tell me, “Suck it up, be a man” (whatever that means). He reminded me that I’ve been through tougher things before. If I cried, he asked me if I was a sissy. “No one is coming to save or even help you. So cry all you want. It won’t get you through.” 

All my life, I’ve listened to this crass voice, and I’ve achieved a great many things because I did. My own academic adviser in undergraduate school advised me against studying aerospace engineering. After all, I was just a security guard, and why aspire to something so out of my league? My inner drill sergeant responded to this without hesitation and full force, a voice of thunder within me to not allow the opinions of others to become my reality. 

But with my inner drill sergeant leading the way, the achievements came with a cost. I did not respect or honor myself. I was not grateful for being me and for all the things that my body, mind and spirit allowed me to do. I spoke to myself in ways that I’d never speak to anyone I loved. And without self-love, I often accepted that others should come first. I did not prioritize myself at those moments when I should. This epiphany filled me with great sadness, and then the drill sergeant reared up, because I was sounding like a crybaby again. This time, I stopped him and said, “Thank you for existing and all you have done for me to get me to this point in life. We’ve been through so much together, but now it’s time for me to joyously plan your retirement ceremony. You so very much deserve it.”

Many of you who have achieved great things in the face of hardship and despair probably have an inner drill sergeant too. This is why I am sharing my epiphany. Each of us can achieve great things from the motivation that comes from self-love and compassion. There have probably been many times in our lives when there seemed to be no option but to tap into the drill sergeant’s strength. I am not judging. But each of us has the power to know better. We should retire our inner drill sergeant in favor of an inner guidance counselor. As for me, I’m going to have the ceremony soon. If you’ve met me, you’ll likely be able to sense the difference, or so I hope. 

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About Moriba Jah

Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist, space environmentalist and associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. An AIAA fellow and MacArthur fellow, he’s also chief scientist of startup Privateer Space.

Why we should retire our inner drill sergeants