3 Lessons Learnt from Jungle Confidence Course

The Jungle Confidence Course (JCC) is a 9 day mission with 4 back-to-back exercises in the jungles of Brunei. It is a test of a soldier’s navigation, endurance and survival skills. Unlike the terrain in Singapore and other overseas training sites, the Brunei jungle is especially unforgiving - particularly dense and mountainous. Other than the JCC badge awarded to those who pass, every soldier who goes through it walks away with lessons in self-discovery and bonds with the team they go through with. These are 3 lessons of particular significance picked up during this course.

1. Creating Good Habits

On the first night of JCC, the team was clueless on what to do. By 6pm, it was so dark till we could not even see our hands in front of our faces. For obvious reasons, we were not allowed to travel after sundown, just set up camp and rest. Normally in Singapore, we would take our time to set up shelter as the moonlight and light pollution made night time still visible. But not in Brunei.

Fortunately, we had a voice of reason in the form of a senior officer in the team. After remaining silent for most parts of the daytime navigation, he suddenly started barking orders as the sun was setting. He got us to build shelter, dry our clothes, change to a clean pair and get a hot meal going. All that in the nick of time as it started pouring, as with every night we were there. The same goes for every morning, when we would wake up in a mode of denial - moving sluggishly while our minds slowly accepted the fact that we were about to change back to the pair of filthy, wet uniforms at 4.30am in the middle of a pitch-dark jungle. It took the rest of us a while to adjust and adopt the new routine, but we eventually made it habitual. On the last morning when we were camped beside the other teams, by the time they woke up, we were already dressed, broke camp and had a hot meal in our tummies.

Brian Tracy’s 7 Steps to Developing a New Habit says that it takes 21 days to develop a habit. We were forced to do it within the 9 days. The rewards were essential to our success - it took care of our shelter, hygiene, food and morale. It freed us to focus on the mission at hand instead of worrying about these basic needs. If we can adopt this in our everyday lives, we would have so much more time to focus on what is important.

2. The Stockdale Paradox

At the height of the Vietnam War, Admiral Jim Stockdale of the US Navy was a prisoner of war for 8 years, surviving numerous tortures throughout his imprisonment. He was eventually released and published his account of the ordeal in several books. In the book ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins (that I happened to read on the flight to Brunei), he revealed an interesting observation that it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive. 

“They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

The optimists were dependent on self-delusion that worked in the short-term, but became overwhelming when they were forced to face their reality. Stockdale approached it differently, developing a milestone system that helped them deal with torture. His approach was later named the Stockdale Paradox.

"You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time, you must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This was a principal philosophy that carried me throughout those 9 days. It didn’t matter how many days were left or how many exercises have passed. All that I was sure of was that the training that we underwent and knowledge given would bring us through to the end, regardless of whatever obstacles we might face. It was a mentality that proved vital as we eventually had another day added to the mission. 

3. Group Development

Just like how any group started, we followed Tuckman's Stages of Group Development - forming, storming, norming and performing. Our team took longer than the rest before we could function properly as a team.

Among the teams in the course, ours was the most diverse - the biggest age gap, from various vocations and had different educational backgrounds. Even though we did not have outright conflicts during our storming stage, our different working styles did not make us a cohesive team. Before JCC, we fared much worse than the other teams as we were stuck in the storming stage.

What moved us out of that phase into norming was our willingness to develop each other to fulfill functions for the team. Few of us needed navigational skills for our vocation, but it was essential to the success of the team. So we learned to step out of our comfort zones, compromised on our differences and took on the ambition to surpass the other teams. Only then did we start to perform, with the team being stronger than the sum of our individual parts.

Conclusion

The lessons encompass one aspect of the organisation that I admire - to nurture people to excel in areas where they have little familiarity. Turning civilians into soldiers is no easy feat, what more to turn them into a fighting force to be reckoned with on the global arena. It does that by providing the tools needed to succeed; making success behaviours a habit, giving the right mindset to prevail and synergising effectively as a whole. If there is one thing that getting through JCC proved, it is that working together would enable us to achieve so much more.

M. Farhan Rais