Airborne Ranger combat veteran Spencer Coursen has had a colorful career filled with unexpected plot turns, including an appearance in the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Coursen has since moved on to the OPSEC and PERSEC industry, where he has built his business, Coursen Security Group, as a premier threat management consultant to world leaders, celebrities, Fortune 500 titans, and organizations. Coursen is a strong veteran advocate and mentor. In this article, he details his life as an entrepreneur and what it takes to succeed.
Rangers Lead the Way
A sign outside of Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia reads, “Not For The Weak Or Faint Hearted.” There’s another foreboding sign at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado where SEAL candidates endure Hell Week: “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday.” Both statements reveal hard truths.
Ask anyone who’s survived either course and you’ll rarely hear stories told with sad regret. Quite the opposite. Stories of gut-wrenching hardship, strife, and struggle are told as colorful anecdotes. Those who endured wear said struggles as a badge of honor. They tell their stories with a comedic smile. It was fun for them.
Embrace the Suck
Someone back at Bragg once told me that the hardest part of Ranger School was hearing all of the stories about how hard it was, then deciding to go anyway. That person was full of shit. I heard them all. I still decided to go. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that listening to those stories was the easiest part of the process. Ranger School was an absolute suck-fest.
I’m 6’ 2” and north of two-hundred pounds. It was impossible for me to hide. I wasn’t “blending in.” I was the big guy. Not the strongest, but not the slowest either. I did, however, screw-up a patrol in Florida phase. When asked if I wanted to recycle or go home, my mindset in that moment set the framework for future success. I cycled back through and graduated with the next class. If you really want to know how bad you want something, volunteer to go through hell a second time; it's a good litmus test of worthiness.
Is there a good litmus test for being an entrepreneur? Not officially, but if you have even the slightest twinge of “risk aversion” it’s probably not the life for you. You have to love the struggle. It’s not for everyone. I am constantly shocked by how many people are truly terrified of making a mistake. Most people in life willfully sacrifice every dream they ever had to stay where it’s safe and warm. They crave the security of comfort.
‘Remember Boot Camp? Get Used to Being Uncomfortable Again’
If you want to be an entrepreneur you have to become very comfortable with being uncomfortable. Making mistakes is part of the process. For an entrepreneur, mistakes don’t count as failing unless you pack up and go home. If you try again, that mistake you made gets counted as progress. A true entrepreneur never fails. We win or learn.
Want to know the number one difference between the entrepreneur who becomes successful and the one who doesn’t? The successful entrepreneur tried one more time. That’s it. That’s the difference. Never Quit. Being a good entrepreneur is less about what you’re doing and more about learning who you are. Struggle builds character. Life lessons make you stronger, smarter, more capable. The journey is never a straight line. It’s looks more like a ball of yarn after being tossed by a tornado.
Most of the entrepreneurs I know did not find their success in what they initially set out to achieve. They learned how to pivot. They were heading in one direction, an obstacle appeared, they took a detour and found something better. Part of that entrepreneurial endeavor is the journey. It’s learning along the way. It’s understanding more and more about who you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re getting it done. For an entrepreneur, the journey is the reward. Success is just a by product.
Adapt or Die
My own journey was full of pivots.
I became an entrepreneur because I wanted to make a difference. I was working in a field that was benefiting a very small percentage of the population. Very few people will ever know the luxury of having their own protection detail, but everyone deserves to be protected. I wanted to take the service model of helping the few and pivot those same skills to empowering the many.
Here’s something people say, but that you really need to take to heart. Having an idea is easy. Making that idea real is ridiculously difficult.
I’ve had several missed ventures along the way. “Safe Haven” was an idea I thought would change the world. I worked on it day and night for months on end…blood, sweat, and tears. I raised $350 of a $25,000 goal. That was a gut punch. So, I took what worked and threw the rest away. Eventually I got to where I am today. Building a business is a lot like learning your leadership style. Learn from everything and everyone. Take the parts that speak to you, then mix them up, and make them you own.
Here’s another important thing to consider: You don’t have to buy into the “you either build your own dreams or you work for another to build theirs.” It’s just not true. The only thing that matters is that you know what “winning” looks like, and that you are taking steps to make that goal a reality.
Adapt, Improvise, Overcome. Repeat.
There’s a difference between having an entrepreneurial spirit and being an entrepreneur. I know some brilliant, creative, and innovative people who do some truly amazing work inside a corporate structure. I used to be one of them. There is nothing wrong with a hybrid approach to innovation. There are a lot of great companies which provide the framework and financial security that form a system of support for your innovation to thrive. Go do that. Create, thrive, invest, save, and then, when and if the timing is right to go out and do your own thing…go and do that thing. Become an entrepreneur because you have to. It’s not a choice, it’s a calling.
Whatever you do, don’t become and entrepreneur because you want something. It’s easy to look at the advertisements and say, “Yeah. That looks fun. I want that life. I want the nice suit. The expensive watch. The private plane.” Don’t be fooled. A lot of what you see is just good marketing. Every photo is nothing more than a moment frozen in time. Years of hard work, setbacks, and sacrifice shortened to the shutter-speed of a single frame. What you are NOT seeing is the thousands of hours it took to get there: the tears; the sacrifice; the pain.
Just like the Ranger School grads. Don’t be fooled by the comical anecdotes. Don’t think it’s easy just because they tell good stories. If you want to know the truth, ask to see the bottom of their feet — blisters and bruises tell their own tails about travel and terrain — about where they’ve been, and what they been through.
I can’t tell if you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. No one can.
You want to be an entrepreneur?
Ok. Great. What’s stopping you?
Onward / Upward
— Spencer Coursen
Spencer Coursen, Airborne Ranger veteran and founder of Coursen Security, is a nationally recognized threat management expert who has an exceptional record of success in the assessment, management, and resolution of threats, domestic and global security operations, investigations, policy authorship, and protective strategy. Follow him on Twitter at @spencercoursen
-- Sean Mclain Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @seanmclainbrown.