For 10 Years, I Failed to Recognize How a Critical Lesson from World War II Applies to My Life. But What Now?

Yesterday, I started watching a World War II documentary on Netflix, one that converted black and white camera footage into full color. As a military history major in college, even though I studied the war quite a bit, I didn’t think I would learn anything new, but I thought it would be interesting to see the old video footage in color. I scrolled through the episodes and found one called “Overlord,” the codeword for the invasion of Western Europe by Allied forces, what most of us refer to a D-Day.

That day at H-Hour (about 6 a.m. local time), tens of thousands of American, Canadian, British, French, and even some free Polish troops stormed the sandy beaches of Normandy, France, establishing a bulkhead on the mainland, and eventually securing enough area where the Allies could build an off-shore port to deploy more men and supplies. The Allies liberated France shortly thereafter and eventually achieving full victory with German surrender the following year.

Four years and a half years before D-Day, France and Britain declared war on Germany in response to Germany’s conquering of Poland and began to deploy troops in Northern France, leaving only a few units in the south to man the Maginot Line, a system of defensive fortifications along the French-German border. The Germans, with new armaments and technologies, outflanked the Allies by blasting through the seeming impassable Ardennes forest, situated was between Allied forces positioned along the Belgian border and the Maginot line. The Allies, caught by surprise and in disarray, fled to the port of Dunkirk, where they were evacuated along the beaches and taken to England.

With all of Western Europe under Hitler’s control or allied to him, he instructed his generals to begin building “Fortress Europe,” a massive system of shoreline fortifications around the English Channel, spanning from Germany to Spain (the latter of which was loosely aligned with Germany but moreso struggling with its own civil war at this point). The Germans built massive bunker systems, installed large anti-ship guns, dug foxholes and machine gun nests, and littered the beaches with tetrahedrons and long wooden posts with anti-ship mines on the end of them.

For years, they built, and they built, and they built. The defensive position was seemingly everywhere, and Hitler installed one of Germany’s greatest generals, Erwin Rommel, to oversee the project and command its forces. It seemed as if all of Europe was defended. But according another famous general, Napoleon Bonaparte, Germany had it all wrong.

Napoleon is credited with a saying about defensive positions:

“He who defends everything, defends nothing.”

It’s the idea that it is simply not possible to have enough manpower and resources to defend everything, so you have to be smart where you defend, and in many cases, use what you do have to funnel your attacking enemy into a place that is advantageous for you, rather than just building up everywhere. The Germans, in this case, “defended everything,” and as we learned from history, defended nothing. Rommel, who had a reaction force ready to repel the invasion, hesitated just long enough because he wasn’t sure the invasion was the “real” invasion but also because he didn’t want to commit his smallish reaction force if it wasn’t.

So what is this lesson from World War II and how does it apply to me?

The tagline on my original website from 2016 was “Aspiring To Do Everything.” In 2018, I published a book that told the stories of all of the different things I had done in life and the associated lessons learned. Friends and people I meet regularly tell me that there’s nothing I haven’t done.

But that got me thinking.

“He who defends everything, defends nothing.”

“He who does everything, does nothing.”

That phrase may be hyperbolic, but there is relatability. At 35 years of age, I find myself struggling to find my expertise…the true value I provide to the world. My friends are engineers, doctors, lawyers, computer scientists, artists, etc. They’ve studied a specific discipline and honed that over the last 15 years. Me? I was a military history major in college, who became a financial advisor, then a military analyst, diplomat, public affairs officer, strategic communicator, leadership course instructor, and Congressional liaison. I was in the Air Force and Navy, been a volunteer music instructor, author of a published book, and musician with distributed original music. I used to skydive a lot, I’ve been to five continents, and I’ve worked in sports entertainment and deal casino games for an entertainment company. I’ve been in movies and TV shows and performed stand-up comedy.

So I’ve done everything. Right?

But I’ve done nothing. Maybe?

By this time in life, I feel like I should have a true craft, something truly specialized I can offer the world. But what is the expertise I bring? What is my expertise? This, of course, is quite a metaphysical question. What do we all bring? Maybe the expertise I bring is my multitude of experiences. Maybe it’s the culmination of all of me that I can bring to something.

That sounds great on the surface, but that is a difficult sell to a traditional company looking for an expert in some particular fashion. “Hi, I’m not an expert in anything, but I’m pretty good at a lot of things.” Saying that probably won’t get you past the first interview.

I don’t know what my way forward is, though I presume in due time I’ll figure it out. But it’s something for me (and perhaps you) to think about, asking ourselves these questions:

  • What expertise do I bring to the world?
  • Do my cumulative experiences outweigh my lack of expertise in certain areas?
  • Am I still flexible enough to learn new things, even if I don’t have expertise?
  • In this highly connected world, does expertise matter? Or is it good enough to know the experts and find the answers when I need them?

Maybe Napoleon was right. But maybe he was wrong. After all, Napoleon tried to fight Russia in the winter, and lost all but 10,000 men of his original 422,000-person army. So what the hell did he know?

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