To Age Well, Think Like A Four-Star General

Military strategies to uplevel your health (really!).

Have you heard about the Three Levels of Warfare?

Now, I hate to characterize menopause (or anything relating to midlife, for that matter) as something that we have to “battle,” but in reading about military theory recently (don’t ask), I was struck by how much it applies to many of the challenges we face as women ‘of a certain age.’  That might sound like a stretch, but after reading and re-reading commentaries on this piece of military theory, I am convinced that if we would just embrace our inner four-star general and adopt a more strategic mindset when it comes to our health, we would more easily and efficiently achieve all our health goals, making the transition into midlife much more enjoyable.

Some background: the Three Levels of Warfare is a military theory that has its basis in the Napoleonic and American Civil wars and divides war into three distinct levels: Tactical, Operational, and Strategic. 

At the tactical level, the chief concern is short-term – the things that are happening right now or as far out as a week from now.  It is about the specific decisions and actions executed every day in order to create an advantage over the enemy, and mistakes at this level can be destructive, with ramifications extending far beyond the battleground.  In your life, this translates to your habits and routines – what time you wake up, what you eat and drink, who you know, what you think about.  These actions tend to be so small that you forget that you are even ‘deciding’ anything when you perform them, so they are easily forgotten or overlooked in assessing failures.

The operational level is about the campaign or battle.  It is concerned with the design and coordination of specific tactics in order to accomplish a common goal within a defined time and space.  This is where consistent patterns of behavior or action come into play – working 80 hours a week, sticking with a spouse you hate “for the kids,” drinking a bottle of wine every night to “take the edge off.”  If you are doing a thing in order to achieve something specific, even if it is just to keep your head above water, it’s a campaign.  The design of the campaign will depend on a whole host of factors, including available resources, specific objectives, and level of threat.  It’s entirely possible to have multiple wins at the operational level yet still lose the war – that’s an important point.

The strategic level is all about the endgame.  Here the concern shifts from the local to the global view, to noticing how all the seemingly disparate parts work together to influence outcomes.  This level is rife with uncertainty and risk and involves employing a holistic view in decision-making, understanding that sometimes, carefully planned sacrifices must be made at the tactical or operational level in order to ensure ultimate victory.  History has shown a tendency of leaders to depend irrationally on hope or luck rather than true strategy when making their plans for world domination – it’s human nature.  And while this approach can yield some truly spectacular short-term successes, it generally does not lead to long-term victory.  It’s also important to note that while tactical and operational errors can be corrected, the effects of strategic errors are often long lasting or permanent.  In other words, if the over-arching goal is misguided or not well thought out, it doesn’t matter how well the battles go – you won’t get the desired outcome.

We can learn a lot from this, especially as it relates to our health at midlife.

One demonstration of this theory in action is how often we make the mistake of getting sidetracked by lucky or coincidental short-term successes at the operational level that feel awesome right now but do next to nothing to move us closer to our strategic goals.  Like our collective fascination with and dependence upon prescription interventions to “cure” certain physical manifestations of menopause, such as hot flashes.  You can think of eliminating menopause symptoms as the campaign or battle, and you could “deploy the troops” in any number of ways to defeat the enemy - hot flashes in this example.  HRT is probably (the most popular/mainstream strategy, and there is no doubt that employing the tactics associated with this strategy, like a monthly or quarterly pellet, daily pills, or topicals, can very often deliver a quick and dazzling win by making you feel better today, probably next month, and maybe even next year, too.  But winning on that battlefield does not get you closer to better health or a longer, disease-free life, it just means that for now, you feel cooler and more comfortable.  This tactic only affects one isolated and largely coincidental) aspect of your health and menopause, leaving every other issue unaddressed and gathering strength to potentially destroy you on another battlefield down the road, but you don’t see it because you are so confident in your victory. 

That last part sounded pretty dramatic, but I suspect that’s how it feels when chronic conditions like heart disease or cancer emerge.

It is easy to lose sight of how the way we operate at the tactical level – what we do every day, over and over without thinking – affects big-picture outcomes.  In fact, we generally don’t associate tiny decisions like what we eat for breakfast or what time we go to bed or how much stress we endure or the type of people we are surrounded by with anything past tonight or maybe next week.  Downing a pint of Haagen-Dazs or four glasses of wine in one sitting is just about how you feel tomorrow, right?   

The truth is that all the little things - the small, deliberate actions you take each and every day – are building the foundation for what happens two decades from now. 

These tactical decisions support or deter from your overarching goal, whether they are conscious decisions or not.  They don’t usually have immediate or spectacular results because they blend together into the whole of our lives and are taken for granted.  But zoom out and you will see quite clearly that it is these same tactical decisions and actions in the context of the strategic goal of creating vibrant health or a healthy relationship (or whatever it is you are after) that are the ultimate determinants of our outcomes.  A four-star general knows that HOW you win each battle matters and deploys the troops accordingly.  That means that sometimes you will have to give up the easy win in favor of getting closer to your strategic goal.  The general knows this and is prepared to weather the short-term storms.  Sometimes s/he has to endure discomfort while the bigger strategic plan unfolds. 

Every operational and tactical decision contributes to your ultimate outcome, which is almost entirely predictable from a strategic standpoint.

But somewhere along the line we got the idea that everything is supposed to be easy and fast – I blame it on social media to a large extent.  We’ve lost the ability to think and plan and take deliberate action (that may very well involve some sort of sacrifice or discomfort) towards the realization of big, important goals – like capital-H health.  We surrender too quickly on the battlefield, opting for the quick win because it’s easier than shaking up the tactics we employ day-in and day-out, and are somehow surprised a few years down the line when our bodies and spirits are broken down and sick. 

But here’s the rub: these outcomes were predictable.  That’s a hard pill to swallow, because we tend to disassociate ourselves from our health – we don’t like to accept our personal agency in the matter.  Especially when we are suffering.

This needs to change.

I don’t think enough of us of look at our health through a strategic lens.  If we did, I believe we would consider Health as at least a top three strategic goal; menopause as just one critical operational campaign.  We would become the four-star generals of our own lives - deliberate and measured in our decisions and actions TODAY, taking into account all the possible ramifications and unintended consequences and making strategic decisions for the long haul rather than choosing quick wins with no staying power.

This is, after all, a major tactical engagement on the battlefield of Life, and the decisions you make today will absolutely determine your outcomes in twenty years.  Your move, General.

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