Contributed by Vanessa A. Richardson, RMP (Risk Management Professional), of Cygnal Consulting, LLC

The most stressful year of my life was plebe year—or freshman year—at West Point. Real-world situations may have been tougher, had higher stakes, or have taken a greater emotional toll, but the restrictions placed on plebes and the marathon of that first year intentionally tests the metal of every cadet. Plebes are exposed to a year of little sleep, long days, and challenges that are designed to scare or stress them. The scare comes in the form of physical challenges: walk a wobbly log suspended 50 feet in the air with a set of three stairs in the middle. The stress came in the form of endless tasks, none of which are particularly difficult but on top of a heavy academic load, with no sleep, and not enough hours in the day to complete them, you were going to fail, fail badly, and everyone will know it.

Particularly stressful for plebes was being limited to four responses: Yes, Sir (or Ma’am); No, Sir; No Excuse, Sir; and Sir, I do not understand. Every Fourth Class Cadet quickly realizes the toughest response is “No Excuse.” It was eye opening. Being held responsible for all outcomes regardless of who was at fault sharpened my focus.

Incredibly, I learned I could influence outcomes in the toughest of circumstances. The results were terrific. It taught me to prioritize work, know my resources, prepare properly, and to be creative. It taught me personal responsibility, and I learned that good leaders take full responsibility for failures while delegating success to their teams. Living the results, I developed an incredible sense of confidence; the confidence of someone who knows how to complete the mission.

Everyone should challenge themselves to two months of these responses in their professional and personal lives—and perhaps we could challenge our teenagers! Imagine replacing the sounds of, “But Mom, it wasn’t my fault…” with “No Excuse, Mom,” and seeing rooms cleaned, grades improved, and curfews met! Limiting ourselves to these four responses is a clarifying, enlightening experience. In fact, it is a life-changing perspective, and I am grateful for being forced through it!

Army veteran Vanessa A. Richardson, RMP (Risk Management Professional), is the owner and founder of Cygnal Consulting, LLC. Providing risk management solutions for clients worldwide, Vanessa is based in Davidson and can be reached at