The Ranger School Edition

On lines of drift, willpower, and learning through pain

Brady Moore (BM) is a longtime friend of WITI and a former Green Beret officer. Today he’s Director of Mission Support at Cesium in Philadelphia. He’s written extensively about how to translate the planning process that he’s used in harsh/unforgiving environments into the business/startup realms. Here, we’re surfacing some of his hard-learned lessons from Ranger school, originally published in the Quartermaster. - Colin (CJN) 

Brady here. Late one rainy November night in the mountains of North Georgia I woke up lying face down in the woods. I was completely disoriented. Next to me was my rain-soaked rucksack filled with Ranger School equipment - but I had the feeling something very, very important was missing. I was supposed to be holding something. The Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) that was my responsibility to carry was gone - I'd tied it to my chest but the cord had been cut. I asked the Ranger students next to me what'd happened and they didn't have a clue. So I did what anyone else would and retraced my steps. The last thing I remember was guarding the perimeter of our nighttime patrol base, facing out in the prone position. I must have fallen asleep.

In the fall of 2002, I was attending the US Army Infantry Center’s Ranger School in advance of my arrival at 10th Mountain Division as a 22-year-old platoon leader. From October to December I patrolled all over a few key spots in Georgia and Florida and emerged successful, just before Christmas, having traded in about 30 pounds of weight for a Ranger Tab. I was pleased because at the time most light infantry battalions required Ranger School completion of a platoon leader - I had to have the credential in order to lead soldiers and noncommissioned officers in our upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. The entire event was pretty miserable, but I learned a few things about human nature I won't soon forget- the greatest of which is about the nature of discipline. 

Ranger School’s setting for learning is through patrolling - the course teaches leadership by having groups of 4, 9, or 40 students constantly patrol on foot through the woods both day and night. In the hills of west-central Georgia, the mountains of North Georgia, and the swamps of the Florida panhandle, Ranger students learn the right way to patrol as a group and are then tested on their ability to lead patrols in adverse circumstances. For 60 days, these Ranger students consistently only get about half the calories they need and even less sleep (maybe 3-4 hours a night on average) - in order to ratchet up the difficulty. It doesn't take long for a significant struggle to take place in the minds and hearts of every student: do what your body wants to do, or do what you must to get the job done. 

The job, in most cases, is to move your patrol to a site where your group ambushes the enemy or raids one of his sites. You must get there and set up on time without being detected. One rule of movement and for setting up a patrol base is to “Avoid natural lines of drift” - meaning “don't go where someone could easily find you”. This means Ranger students have to take pains to avoid not only roads and trails, but clearings, low ground, and pretty much anywhere people would choose to go without thinking. And it’s not always an easy thing to do- if you take your mind off the task you'll end up drifting to that path in the woods where walking is easiest. Avoiding natural lines of drift takes deliberate effort to stay where it’s uncomfortable or uneasy - and in 2002 I found it not just a commandment for movement, but an apt analogy for self-discipline.

“Avoid natural lines of drift” wasn't just one of many rules to follow while moving a patrol - it seemed to cover everything we did at Ranger School. It took great effort to stay awake at 3 AM and watch the perimeter of your patrol base - the natural line of drift was to find a spot that was out of the rain and wind and get a few more hours of sleep because you'd only had two the night before. When stopped, it took incomparable will to clean and maintain your rifle or machine gun instead of finding a piece of food in your rucksack because you were starving. In fact, the whole course was one long string of willpower battles won and lost. Many students were punished for falling asleep on patrol or otherwise failing to carry out their duties because they were too hungry or tired. They allowed themselves to follow natural lines of drift - or they did so without thinking.

Why is this interesting?

So what's the lesson here? Back on that rainswept North Georgia mountain, I found out that an instructor had come across me asleep on my SAW - it seemed that while guarding the perimeter I succumbed to exhaustion. I was so knocked out that when he took the machine gun and cut the cord I didn't wake up. I found the instructor when I awoke and after some remedial training by way of calisthenics I was cited for the violation, which went on my student record and got my SAW back. I didn't fall back asleep that night.

Discipline is a struggle against the self. I didn't mean to fall asleep on guard, but I fell onto that natural line of drift, and my body took over. I found that I had to create circumstances that prevented me from drifting - handrails I could hold onto that kept me following the right path. Instead of getting right into the prone position to guard the perimeter I might just take a knee or stand if possible. I'd ask a fellow Ranger student to check on me or I'd engage him in conversation to keep us alert. In bad circumstances, willpower can be in short supply, so discipline can hinge on your ability to know you might drift, and to take steps to prevent it. 

As individuals we naturally seek the path of least resistance - we seek to expend the least amount of energy, especially when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. It takes discipline not just to resist the urge to take the easy path or the shortcut (or natural line of drift), but to realize that we have these tendencies and to prepare to avoid them. Real discipline takes a level of self-knowledge and a willingness to overcome human weaknesses through foresight and diligence. (BJM)

Quick links:


WITI x McKinsey:

An ongoing partnership where we highlight interesting McKinsey research, writing, and data.

Look out below. What goes up should come down—but it's a little more complicated when you're talking about space debris. By one estimate, there's around 27,000 pieces of junk in orbit, from mission-related debris to parts from rocket bodies. A new article looks closer at what to do when it's time to take out the extraterrestrial trash.


Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Brady (BM)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing.

A guest post by