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September 11th, 2001 - Lessons and Reminders

Like many Americans, September 11th is always a day of some reflection for me. This year is no different. Well, maybe it is. Today still brings up any number of memories. More importantly, it reaffirms my resolve that any challenge can be overcome with the right team, right mindset, right efforts, and the willingness to endure setbacks and failures without losing enthusiasm.

On the morning of 9/11/01, I was asleep on my couch after working a night shift. My sister called me and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. In my mind, I thought it must have been some freak accident. I shook out the cobwebs and turned on the news just in time to see the second plane hit. At that time, I was in the Army. A lower enlisted soldier in the Army Reserve, to be exact. My day job was running a boxing and martial arts gym. It was clear as day that what was happening was no accident, and that America was under attack. I stood out in the street on the phone with friends and teammates, wondering what would come next, trying to gather as much information as I could about the likely culprits. It didn’t take long at all for those in the know to point the finger at Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. The intelligence community had for years been following several of the 19 hijackers responsible for the attack, filtering out details that were never quite specific enough to ferret out the actual attack plan, hindered by an incredibly short-sighted policy of compartmentalizing intelligence inside agencies and never sharing critical information “over the wall” with others responsible for the same problem sets. It was a breathtaking systemic failure. Not just of our intelligence apparatus and how we made use of what we collected, but of coordination and communication and action as well. Standing there in that street, talking to my best friend and mentor, Brad Garrison, I made up my mind that whatever came next, I would be part of tracking down Osama bin Laden and making sure he and as many of his operatives as possible were delivered unto justice.

I won’t bore you with what happened in the ensuing years, but I do want you to think about that for a moment. There I was, standing in a Colorado Springs street in the morning hours, making up my mind to go and be a part of the fight. I had no idea how, no way to even develop an approach. But something was important to me. Really and truly important. Important in the way that makes us willing to cheerfully sacrifice all of the other comforts and conveniences in our lives to achieve the goal we’ve set. Fast forward to May 1st, 2011. I’m no longer in the Army. I’ve moved on and now work at the Defense Intelligence Agency in a secretive organization responsible for targeting terrorists around the world. Inside that organization, I belonged to the team that focused on finding Osama bin Laden and his operatives, developing detailed pictures of their lives and their networks, associates, families, and activities, and then using that information to enable our country’s most elite operatives to kill or capture them wherever they happened to be. Around 7:00pm, I got a call from a colleague and friend. All he had to say was “We got him.” I threw on my suit and tie, rushed to work, and got busy working on what would come next – the mad dash to exploit every single bit and byte of information and raw intelligence gathered at the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

About a year later, after many months of sifting through the intelligence haul from the bin Laden compound and hundreds of new targeting packages against al Qaeda operatives and their allies, the work and efforts of my leaders and the team on which I served were recognized by the Director of National Intelligence. We were gathered together in an auditorium at the National Geospatial Intelligence Center and presented with an award for Meritorious Service citing the targeting effort and exploitation of the Abbottabad compound haul.

When I look back at that chapter in my life, I cannot help but apply that lesson to business. From the catalyst of the 9/11 attacks through the next decade of “how do I get there,” my whole life centered around solving an impossible problem. There were times the path was clear to me, but they were precious and few. Most of the time, it was like trying to find my way into a fortress in the dark. You try to obvious stuff, and when it doesn’t work, you feel your way around for cracks. Anything to get you one more inch through that wall. Every time the approach fails, you make the choice to see failure as a data point – a marker for where a particular path might go wrong – and you file that away for future reference as you work out the next approach and the one after that.

In this chapter of my life, I’m focused on a different kind of challenge. I help people start their own businesses, grow their existing business, and overcome the obstacles that are keeping them from being where they want to be. Sometimes those challenges are familiar. A business faces the same kinds of things other businesses have faced for years, and all an owner needs is someone who’s seen that kind of problem before to fill them in on what others have done to overcome it. Other times, we find ourselves on the frontier of a new challenge. No map, no “prior art,” no pioneers that have come before to act as guides. Where that happens, I remember that Colorado street and what the journey felt like going from a lower enlisted Army Reservist and martial arts school owner to walking across the Defense Intelligence Agency seal as I walked in after hours to write an intelligence report that would tell the president of the United States what he should expect from al Qaeda in the wake of bin Laden’s death. After 9/11, Americans resolved to get back to their lives. They swore to remember, but they also swore never to cower or let fear stop them from working and going out and living. My days of hunting terrorists are behind me, but I still pay tribute to that American spirit by helping people create their own prosperity and define their own lives. Now, 19 years after bin Laden attacked the United States and 9 years after he was delivered his final justice by our nation’s elite, it isn’t the attacks I choose to remember. It’s the spirit that carried us through them and refused to lie down. I choose to remember the courage, fortitude, and resolve show by everyone from those caught in the panes and Towers to those who rushed toward the disaster as others fled. It’s the stubborn persistence of those who refused to stay inside and fear what might happen, who flew their Flag and announced, “We will not yield.” It’s why Tornberg exists.

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