Studying in the Pit

I just started reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work and I’ve found myself nodding along in agreement through the introduction and first two chapters. His description of the environment needed for intense, concentrated study reminded me of a time I went through a period of deep work, one that is unfortunately difficult to replicate.

Eighteen years ago I was on my second six-month deployment to the Mediterranean on the USS Platte, an auxiliary oiler. It took us two weeks to cross the Atlantic back then, and once in the Med we would spend anywhere from one to three weeks underway between port visits. Everyone in the Navy has a job, and for the first three years I was in the Navy my job was Machinery Repairman, abbreviated “MR”. Along with your job designation, everyone in the Navy has a rate, and my rate at the time was E3, also called “Fireman”, so my title at the time was MRFN Buys.1

I desperately wanted to make Petty Officer Third Class (E4), the next promotion level. The first three promotions (E1 through E3) are given as soon as you serve the requisite amount of time. The subsequent promotions require testing and a complex scoring system that ranks your performance through reviews. The Navy will have only a certain number of slots open for E4 in each rate (job), so sometimes even if you ace the test, you won’t be promoted because of the “needs of the Navy”. Machinery Repairman was one of those jobs that was saturated at the time. I had taken the semiannual test twice, and twice had not made petty officer third class.

I really wanted to make third. Higher rate meant better pay, and I was newly married with a baby on the way. Working in engineering meant that I spent a lot of my time working in the fire room, where the boilers and other high-pressure steam system equipment lived. It was always hot, I mean really hot, and there was no natural light. We worked in blue overalls with the sleeves rolled up, we took readings on the equipment on a regular schedule, smoked and hoped nothing would break. Sometimes, depending on what else was going on around the ship, we might have to split our shifts on watch down to six and six; six hours on watch, six hours off, and one of those six hours off we had to spend doing our main jobs. So for up to eighteen hours a day I was hot, sweaty, and covered in grease. To be honest, most of the time the rotation wasn’t quite that bad, but from time to time it would be.

When I’d wash my hands and face and head up to the mess decks for lunch or dinner, I’d meet up with some of the guys who had been on the ship for as long as I had who had made rate already and worked in Radio. They’d come down in their crisp, clean dungarees, shiny boondockers with a mirror polish, and complain about how cold it was in Radio. During one of these lunches I decided to cross-rate. The Navy has a system where you can apply to take the E4 test of a different rate. I made up my mind to cross-rate to Radioman, then, I reasoned, I could make rate and get out of the pit.

Cross-rating isn’t easy though. I had to learn an entirely new field of work, and I had to keep up with my existing responsibilities. I filled out all the requisite paperwork, got approval, and started to study. I got ahold of the Radioman 3 & 2 and a thick spiral-ringed notebook and started carrying them with me on watch in the pit. Between times when I had to take readings on the equipment, I focused all of my energy into learning everything I could about the rate, devouring the book while learning about wave propagation and transmitter and receiver theory. I talked some of the senior petty officers into letting me spend some of the time between watches or after my regular job was over up in Radio getting hands-on experience. I had two sets of uniforms in my rack, one for the pit, and one for Radio. I kept this up for weeks.

By the time the test came around, I not only scored high enough to make RM3 (Radioman, Petty Officer Third Class), I blew the test out of the water. The period of intense, focused effort resulted in a major change in my life. After I made RM3 the Navy combined the RM and DP (data processing) rates, creating the new Information Technician rate, who dealt with all of the ship and shore based communications and computer systems. Becoming a Radioman changed my career path from a machinist to what has evolved into devops. It was hard, but my life is immeasurably better because of the work I put in.

After making E4, I turned my attention to the Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist. I spent the rest of the deployment learning about every facet of the ships operation, from the bridge to the engine room, from the main steam cycle to semaphores. I absolutely loved it. My last few months on the ship were the best. Learning how to apply myself diligently to achieve goals is a skill I wish I would have learned earlier in life, but once I did learn it I’ve been able to call on it when I need to. It can be difficult to isolate myself from distractions and focus as a remote knowledge worker in 2016, but I’ve never forgot the lessons of the pit. Hard work, sweat, and diligent, concentrated effort are the keys to success.

  1. I actually was on several fire teams, but this designation as “Fireman” is not the same a a civilian firefighter. It simply means I was at the third lowest pay grade in the engineering.