You get comfortable being uncomfortable.
BY STEVE WEINER
I’m no stranger to forced isolation. For the better part of my 20s, I served as a nuclear submarine officer running secret missions for the United States Navy. I deployed across the vast Pacific Ocean with a hundred other sailors on the USS Connecticut, a Seawolf-class ship engineered in the bygone Cold War era to be one of the fastest, quietest, and deepest-diving submersibles ever constructed. The advanced reactor was loaded with decades of enriched uranium fuel that made steam for propulsion and electrical power so we could disappear under the waves indefinitely without returning to port. My longest stint was for two months, when I traveled under the polar ice cap to the North Pole with a team of scientists studying the Arctic environment and testing high frequency sonar and acoustic communications for under-ice operations. During deployments, critical-life events occur without you: holidays with loved ones, the birth of a child, or in my case, the New York Giants 2011-2012 playoff run to beat Tom Brady’s Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time. On the bright side, being cut off from the outside world was a great first job for an introvert.
It’s been a month since COVID-19 involuntarily drafted me into another period of isolation far away from home. I’m in Turkey, where a two-week trip with my partner to meet her family has been extended indefinitely. There were no reported cases here and only a few in California in early March when we left San Francisco, where I run a business design studio. I had a lot of anticipation about Turkey because I’d never been here. Now I’m sheltering in a coastal town outside of Izmir with my partner, her parents, their seven cats, and a new puppy.
Shuttered in a house on foreign soil where I don’t speak the language, I have found myself snapping back into submarine deployment mode. Each day I dutifully monitor online dashboards of data and report the status of the spread at the breakfast table to no one in particular. I stay in touch with friends and family all over the world who tell me they’re going stir crazy and their homes are getting claustrophobic. But if there is one thing my experience as a submarine officer taught me, it’s that you get comfortable being uncomfortable.
My training began with psychological testing, although it may not be what you think. Evaluating mental readiness for underwater isolation isn’t conducted in a laboratory by clipboard-toting, spectacled scientists. The process to select officers was created by Admiral Hyman Rickover—the engineering visionary and noted madman who put the first nuclear reactor in a submarine—to assess both technical acumen and composure under stress. For three decades as the director of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, Rickover tediously interviewed every officer, and the recruiting folklore is a true HR nightmare: locking candidates in closets for hours, asking obtuse questions such as “Do something to make me mad,” and sawing down chair legs to literally keep one off balance.
Rickover retired from the Navy as its longest-serving officer and his successors carried on the tradition of screening each officer candidate, but with a slightly more dignified approach. Rickover’s ghost, though, seemed to preside over my interview process when I applied to be a submariner as a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. I was warned by other midshipmen that I would fail on the spot if I initiated a handshake. So, dressed in my formal navy blue uniform and doing my best to avoid tripping into accidental human contact, I rigidly marched into the Admiral’s office, staring straight ahead while barking my resume. When I took a seat on the unaltered and perfectly level chair in front of his desk, the Admiral asked me bluntly why I took so many philosophy classes and if I thought I could handle the technical rigors of nuclear power school. My response was a rote quip from John Paul Jones’ “Qualifications of a Naval Officer.” “Admiral, an officer should be a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.” My future boss looked at me, shook his head like he thought I’d be a handful, and told me I got the job…