Finding a Mindful Balance

Army Lieutenant General Walt Piatt discusses the role mindfulness plays in conquering fear, avoiding procrastinating, and training for combat.

Mindful’s content director Anne Alexander sat down with Army Lieutenant General Walt Piatt, who currently serves as the Director of the Army Staff. Piatt has been working with neuroscientist Amishi Jha to understand the impact of mindfulness training for high stress situations.

Anne Alexander: You have been in extreme situations, including combat. How do you deal with fear?

General Piatt: You have to embrace every environment you’re in and fear is a real thing; it serves a real purpose to heighten your senses to the threats around you. However, if it reaches high intensity and you’re not regulating, then you could act irrationally, which we’d never want.

Anne Alexander: So how do you stay calm and see things clearly when things are at their absolute worst?

General Piatt: It’s a very difficult thing to do as a soldier or even as a boxer. How do you take a punch while keeping your eyes open? How do you operate in a combat environment where you may have friend and foe? It’s incredibly complex and nothing is clearly identifiable. Fear helps you. You can’t suppress it. You can’t dismiss it because you will lose an awareness that you absolutely need. 

Fear helps you. You can’t suppress it. You can’t dismiss it because you will lose an awareness that you absolutely need. 

Anne Alexander: In a situation like that, what do you do? Just walk me through what’s happening.

General Piatt: We train all the time, putting soldiers in high stress situations. So you prepare for it mentally, physically. Little things that you do in your mind: you’re alert, you’re paying attention to everything so that when you see something out of the ordinary, you’re not responding out of fear. You calibrate your approach. When things are not right, you actually move to that area. See what that is. Sometimes it will happen when you’re not expecting it. But then you try to work the problem and not overreact. 

Because if you overreact, soldiers, especially in a combat environment like Afghanistan or Iraq, if you overreact on the wrong target, you’ll build up sympathy and combat power for your adversary. By trying to do something right and you do the wrong thing, you actually help your enemy.

I just always remember saying my wife used to say when my children were small and they were not cooperating and I couldn’t get him to calm down. She would always say, “If you want calm, be calm.” That didn’t really work well with me and my kids. But it works with soldiers.

Using Mindfulness to Set Priorities

Anne Alexander: In all my interactions with everybody on your staff, you guys do not procrastinate. Nobody seems to have that creeping thought of “I’ll do it later.” How do you do that? 

General Piatt: Well, this office is a little special. We’re the Director of the Army Staff, which means it’s a big job. And we’re doing a lot of things every single day. And all of it has to be done with equal importance. And that’s kind of our that’s our approach to things, whether it’s a very mundane routine task or it’s for our national defense. We have to treat them all like it’s very important. We don’t get to vote on the priority. We have to get it done because our army is depending on us to do these things for our country. We have to be very efficient with it.

You recognize what requires more thought and what doesn’t. Being in the moment on each one of these, you can see right away.

I go to a lot of meetings where we’re in a lot of preparation because our nation’s security is very complex problem. When you see all the different parts of the problem, you can help build towards a better solution for our nation’s leaders to make. 

Practice has shown me when I’m not paying attention. I can feel it. And I’ve worked hard to call myself back a little bit, maybe right in a meeting.

I’ve learned this throughout my career: be prepared to be wrong. Actively seek where you are wrong. And if you do that, you’ll know where you need more information, because this is complex. You just can’t run with your gut or your instinct. These are very difficult challenges. Whether it’s building a future weapon system, that’s going to be billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars invested.

We’ve got to make sure that the right decisions are based on what we know. And it may be an unknowable solution to a problem because it’s in the future. But you take the right steps with everything. You just stay open minded, pay attention. Someone comes to you, whether it’s a five minute meeting or a five hour meeting, be there. Don’t be somewhere else. Because if we’re going to give our strategic advice—what we call our best military advice—we better paid attention. That’s what I tell folks. And that’s what I want to bring to this job every day.

And more importantly, practice has shown me when I’m not paying attention. I can feel it. And I’ve work hard to call myself back a little bit, maybe right in a meeting. I’ll lose a few minutes, but I’ll get back on right back on point.

Anne Alexander: What are the signs that you’ve lost focus?

General Piatt: You can feel little signs in your body that maybe you start thinking about other things. You’re jumping ahead or trying to get to a solution faster. I can feel it and say, wait a minute, I better listen to this. In other jobs, I could use my experience. But this job, experience could be a disadvantage. These are very difficult strategic challenges. And you can’t rely on experience alone. In fact, experience could lead you down a very narrow path and I’ve learned that you need to aggressively seek different perspectives.

Anne Alexander: Last question. You’re in a position where everybody is saying, “Yes, sir! Yes, sir!” to you all day. How do you stay humble? 

General Piatt: I credit my family. My father believed that his humility was a strength and he was sincere about it.

The stakes are too high. You need to tell others that the worst way you can serve me is by telling me that I’m right. I need you to look for altering perspectives and different points of view. You have to encourage that in your workplace environment.

I learned it from many people, including Justice Kagan. She told me about her first argument to the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia cut her off 30 seconds into her argument. She’d obviously prepared days, if not a whole career, for that one moment in time! And he says, “We already know your argument. What we want to know is what’s the weakness of the argument?” 

And that really taught me. We can’t possibly have all the answers and in the Army, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for perfect information.  So, what don’t we know? Just acknowledge that. You’re not wed to your plan. You have to be open. I think the military is very open minded like that. 

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  • Barry Yeoman
  • July 3, 2019