The Warrior Within (2022) shows you how to harness and strengthen your inner power so you can fulfill your roles in business and life. Find out how to cultivate your warrior spirit and live with strength, humility, and connection.
Introduction: Cultivate the power of your warrior spirit.
What makes a warrior a warrior? Immense power? A muscular physique? A habit of never losing?
Well, despite what the media would have you believe, true warriors are not stoic, fearless superbeings focused on winning physical fights. In fact, anyone can be a warrior. That’s right, anyone.
But if warriors aren’t defined by being incredibly strong, emotionless fighters, what are they defined by?
A true warrior is someone who helps others. Someone who fights for something bigger than themselves, not just for personal glory. Someone who makes a difference.
Many people today try to achieve these goals by pushing themselves to the breaking point in service of others. But that doesn’t work. Not taking time for ourselves, avoiding unpleasant feelings, or trying to meet that unfailing warrior stereotype – these actions smother the flames sustaining us.
You can’t serve in any role when you’re a burned-out shell. But you can learn to strengthen your warrior spirit, achieve your goals, and avoid burnout by serving the right way.
In The Warrior Within, D. J. Vanas draws on his Anishinaabe heritage, his experience as a captain in the US Air Force, and the testimony of numerous modern warriors to explain how anyone can strengthen their warrior spirit and live a fulfilling, service-filled life. He emphasizes how anyone can make a difference – without burning out – even amidst the chaos of modern life.
In this summary, we’ll show you how you can cultivate a true warrior spirit: You’ll learn the importance of taking time for yourself, uncovering your unique mix of skills, and staying focused but flexible while pursuing your goals. Discover how to own your power, serve your community, and protect what matters to you.
What is a warrior?
As we’ve already said, a warrior is much more than the stereotype of a fearless, emotionless fighter. Trying to bend yourself into this shape leads to feelings of frustration at best, to burnout at worst. And yet the image pervades, sustained by media images and personal expectations of what being a warrior means.
Think for a moment about the last time you gave more of yourself than you should have. Perhaps you accepted so many shifts you barely got any sleep or helped every time someone asked despite having your own work to do. How did you feel afterward? Tired? Resentful? Run down? Mad at yourself for not being able to do it all?
You don’t have to keep up the dizzying cycle. A true warrior does serve others. But they also know they’re not bulletproof, that they must care for themselves first before they can help other people.
What else defines a warrior?
They come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. Anyone can be a warrior. You just have to cultivate your warrior spirit.
A true warrior understands they’re not a lone wolf. They need support. And they don’t let fear stop them from seeking it out. They find the right way to serve, so they don’t burn out. They’re not arrogant, and they don’t quit. Though they do know the value of strategic surrenders!
Find your unique mix, values, and vision.
How would you transport 300 babies from Vietnam to the United States for adoption? Probably with copious planning, helping hands, and car seats.
Well, in 1975, LeAnn had none of those things. Plus, she had to get the babies out of Saigon before the North Vietnamese Army overtook it. Birthed from fathers from the US services and Vietnamese mothers, the babies were referred to as Amerasians and were hated by the North Vietnamese Army. If LeAnn couldn’t rescue the babies in time, the army would enact terrible revenge on the innocent infants. To make the task even harder? She’d originally expected only six babies and had only a few helpers.
But LeAnn had a warrior spirit. She knew we almost always have what we need to solve a problem, even if we don’t have exactly what we’d like.
So she and her fellow volunteers transported the babies in batches via an old bus with no seat belts – let alone car seats – and cardboard boxes. They evacuated the babies from Saigon only three weeks before it fell to the North Vietnamese Army.
LeAnn’s incredible story exemplifies some of the key things you must do in your role as a warrior: utilize your unique mix of traits and abilities, clarify your values, and build a vision for your life.
LeAnn dug within herself, drawing on her creativity, dedication, and values to achieve her vision: saving the Amerasian babies from the North Vietnamese Army’s terrible vengeance.
Every one of us has a unique mix – a “personal medicine bag of characteristics,” as Vanas describes it – that we can leverage to achieve our visions. Consider what your unique traits might be. Are you especially good at making others laugh, for example? Or solving engineering problems? Or perhaps you have a vast knowledge of bees you can share with others and use to help create habitats they thrive in.
Whatever your unique mix, it’s important you spend some time recognizing it. Then, determine what you value – whether that’s clean neighborhoods, time with family and friends, rehabilitation of injured wildlife, or something else.
Once you’ve determined your unique mix and your values, you can craft your vision. This determines how your life proceeds, what roles you seek out, and how you channel your warrior spirit to do the most good.
And if you never save 300 babies from an army, well . . . we can’t all be LeAnn, but we can be warriors in our own way!
Face your fears.
Remember that fearless warrior image we talked about before? In reality, all humans have fears. It’s what we do despite them that defines us.
A warrior faces their fear and acts anyway. Doing so is what we call courage. To be a warrior, you must practice being courageous.
The good news? You can strengthen your courage in small, meaningful ways every day. Doing anything that scares you, whether it’s clearing away cobwebs or trying something new, builds your courage. Facing one fear emboldens you to face the next. As these victories pile up, you’ll find you eventually have the courage to face any truly big fears you have.
Two common fears are failure and criticism after a failure. These fears are natural. It can be really hard to deal with them. And just building up your courage might not be enough to help you successfully face them.
But you can combat these fears: by using a perspective shift. Remember, warriors aren’t almighty. Real warriors sometimes fail. Everyone fails, usually many times over the course of their lives. The only way to avoid failure is doing nothing.
If we let fear of failure stop us from attempting anything, we won’t even have a chance of succeeding. So keep building your courage, keep facing your fears. And maybe think of Crazy Horse while you do.
Who was Crazy Horse? He was a nineteenth-century Lakota war leader defending against the US Army. He was the last to surrender, and only after striking fear in all he fought against thanks to his brilliant tactics. And yet, when he was younger, he might have been called a nerd, had the word existed at the time. His tribe found him a strange child, and he grew up to be a strange man. Nonetheless, he was loved for his warrior spirit. He had to overcome any fear of failure or criticism in order to become that man.
So, if you’ve been building your courage and still have trouble facing these big fears, remember Crazy Horse. Even such an iconic warrior had to face down what you’re now dealing with to become a successful warrior.
Now we’ve covered what a warrior is and isn’t, the importance of finding your unique mix, your values, and your vision, and how you can build your courage and face your fears. You’re well on the path of living as a warrior.
In the next sections, we’ll discover how warriors stay focused yet flexible, feed their motivation, and deal with setbacks, change, and loss.
Stay focused but flexible.
You might have heard that you’ll never finish everything on your to-do list. This is a difficult thing to acknowledge for warriors seeking to do the most good and help the most people they can.
But it does highlight the importance of determining your values and vision. We humans simply don’t have time to do every single thing we’d like to. Because of this, we must say no to the things that don’t matter as much, so we can say yes to the things that do matter.
How do you determine what does and doesn’t matter? Revisit your values and your vision.
Stay focused on your vision, so you know what you need to do to achieve it. There’s not enough time in the day to do everything, but do something each day, and you will make progress.
With all this talk of too little time, it can be tempting to fall to multitasking as a solution. Getting multiple tasks done at once sounds like a great way to check everything off your to-do list! Right?
But this way of thinking is a trap. What really happens when you try to multitask is that multiple tasks get accomplished . . . but poorly. True warriors know the value of focusing on one task at a time. When you give your entire attention to an activity, you can complete it well.
But as you focus on your vision, take time to come up for air once in a while and check on the world around you. It can be tempting to put your nose to the grindstone and work, work, work. But in doing so, you might miss changing circumstances around you.
Consider the lynx. These cats are incredibly specialized predators – their giant feet help them walk over snow and their pelts help them blend into snowy environments. They’re powerful, cunning, and deadly. These are wonderful traits for hunting the only prey they eat: the snowshoe hare. And yet according to a recent study reported in Smithsonian magazine, the number of lynx in Montana has dropped to less than a tenth of what it was about 30 years ago. Why’s that? Because they’re so specialized, so focused on their single source of food, that recent changes in their environment and increased competition for food – from their cousins, bobcats and mountain lions – have made it harder for them to survive.
So keep your vision at the forefront of your mind, but check your methods every once in a while. Stay up-to-date with what’s going on in the world. You never know what new idea might help your efforts.
Feed your motivation.
Another pernicious myth perpetuated in our world is that once you’ve found your true calling, you’ll be automatically and unceasingly fulfilled and motivated for the rest of your life.
The truth is, motivation is much like a fire in a hearth. It burns brightly at first, but if you don’t feed it, you end up with a pile of ash.
To keep the fire of motivation alive, return to your values and vision and check in with your community.
In the past, within various Native American tribes, warriors could depend on other tribe members for support, to keep them motivated while on their path of serving the tribe. Today, that might look like reaching out to your tribe: coworkers, blood relatives, or chosen family.
And it’s not just the fuel for your fire you need to keep an eye on. If you don’t shelter your fire in the right environment, it might go out. So you need to cultivate the right environment for your warrior spirit to thrive.
You probably already know a fire’s ideal environment – dry, with lots of fuel available. But what exactly does a warrior spirit need?
Similar to how you can maintain your motivation, you need community to help you keep your warrior spirit strong. Remember, warriors aren’t – nor need they be – bulletproof. If you’re struggling with something, look your fear in the face and ask for help.
Another way to keep your warrior spirit strong is to balance your stress. The goal isn’t to eliminate stress entirely. Stress can help you determine which things truly matter, what must be done versus what can wait until later or be dropped entirely.
Finally, consider again your unique mix. What do you, personally, need to keep your spirit strong? Maybe it’s a daily bubble bath. An hour-long call with someone you love. A good book. Whatever it is, make sure you incorporate it into your life frequently enough to keep yourself rejuvenated and ready to keep fighting for what you believe in.
Deal with setbacks, change, and loss.
We just covered how to keep yourself motivated and thriving during the day-to-day strivings of your warrior path. But one thing’s for certain – life is full of surprises. How can you stay focused and motivated when faced with a setback, unexpected change, or loss?
To deal with change or setbacks, it helps to stay philosophical, focused yet flexible, and connected to your tribe. By now, you might be sensing some repeating themes when it comes to living as a warrior. The same things that help you face your fears and live within your warrior spirit can indeed help you gracefully face change.
Keep in mind that change is the only constant in life, other than death. And setbacks happen to everyone. Everyone. Knowing these are inevitable, you can better accept them when they come, then move on to actually dealing with what they mean for your vision. Remember to stay focused on your vision, but be flexible in adapting to new situations.
But what about loss? There are no easy answers when it comes to dealing with the strong and difficult emotions loss raises. But a warrior does at least these two things in the face of a loss: reach out to their tribe, and face and acknowledge the pain of the loss.
When Vanas and his wife lost their son, Vanas tried to push the pain away and get right back to work. But he felt lost and stuck inside. It wasn’t until he faced his heartbreak during a “wiping of the tears” ceremony that he was able to truly begin healing.
Though the prominent image of a warrior is a cool and collected, physically-powerful winner, warriors focus on helping others. But they know they have to serve themselves before they can serve others. Warriors know they’re not bulletproof. They work to strengthen their courage and connections to community to help them deal with the challenges of life. They know their individual assets, and they stay focused yet flexible in working to realize their vision.
You might ask, When is a warrior’s work done?
The answer is never. A warrior doesn’t stop serving, they simply transform into an elder whose purpose is to share the wisdom they’ve collected over their years as a warrior. This shows exactly how important it is to maintain your motivation and cultivate the right environment. If you keep your warrior spirit strong, you can make a difference in the world throughout your entire life.
About the author
D.J. Vanas is an internationally-acclaimed speaker for Fortune 500 companies, hundreds of tribal nations, and over 7,000 audiences nationwide. An enrolled member of the Ottawa Tribe of Michigan and a former U.S. Air Force officer, he inspires others to practically apply the power of the warrior spirit in business and in life. He is the author of The Tiny Warrior and Spirit on the Run and was featured in the PBS film The Warrior Tradition. He hosted the Discovering Your Warrior Spirit show on PBS. He lives in San Diego.
Inspiration, Personal Development, Personal Finance, Personal Transformation Self-Help, Motivational Self-Help
Table of Contents
1 Own Your Warrior Spirit: Putting It to Work 1
2 Live Off the Land: Using What You’ve Got Right Now 19
3 Prepae for Battle: Vision Questing for Life 43
4 Count Coup on the Enemy: Facing and Defeating Fear 65
5 Attack Again and Again: Overcoming the Impossible 87
6 Keep the Fires Lit: Sustaining Your Strength in the Headwinds 105
7 Read the Signs and Stay Vigilant: A Warrior’s Work Is Never Done 129
8 Use Your Medicine to Heal: Creating the Right Environment for Sustained Strength 151
9 What to Do When the Wolf Comes: Navigating Change, Setbacks, and Loss 169
10 Transform into an Elder: Warriors Don’t Retire 195
A transformational guide to getting yourself right in order to accomplish the work you were meant to do, from speaker, former U.S. Air Force officer, and member of the Ottawa tribe D.J. Vanas.
When faced with an important job, and people depending on you to do it, most of us will give and give until there’s nothing left. But running on empty, even for a worthy cause, only sets you up for failure in the long run. To persevere on the path to success requires more than sheer fearlessness and willpower. It requires what D.J. Vanas calls the warrior spirit, the kind of strength that looks outward but comes from deep within.
Drawing inspiration from Native American philosophy and tradition, The Warrior Within outlines a new model for personal power in the face of overwhelming chaos. A true warrior is not the toughest or bravest person in the room. A true warrior is committed to self-mastery, knows how to navigate change and disruption, transforms setbacks into opportunities for achievement, refuses to quit, and most importantly, always fights for something bigger than the self. With a vast array of stories and examples, from vision quests to treacherous hikes to veterans and service providers at the front lines, Vanas shows how to apply these principles to transform how you show up both for yourself and those around you.
More than an empowerment manual, The Warrior Within is a call to accomplish the world-changing work you were meant for by tapping into the power of the warrior spirit.
“Warriors, as Air Force Veteran D.J. Vanas shows us, are not the square-jawed, broad-shouldered, two-dimensional characters we so often watch on the screen. They aren’t fearless, are rarely brilliant, and lose as often as they win. But in his thoughtful The Warrior Within, Vanas captures the essence of steadfast courage, self-discipline, and resilience that describes those among us who embody the true warrior spirit.” – General Stanley McChrystal, retired, author of Risk and Team of Teams
“The powerful lessons imparted in these chapters will inspire strength, confidence and motivation, so that you can deliver your best in the worst of circumstances—while keeping your sanity and health! I encourage every healthcare giver to read The Warrior Within, for they truly serve, fight, protect and heal every day, often at their own expense.” – LeAnn Thieman, author of the Chicken Soup for Nurse’s Soul series and founder of SelfCare for HealthCare®
“I highly recommend The Warrior Within! Through great storytelling, D.J. Vanas shares an often overlooked element of leadership … taking care of yourself. Our beautiful Anishinaabe teachings emphasize balance in all things. Being a warrior means recognizing your needs and honoring your gifts. Way to go, D.J.!” – Angeline Boulley (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians) New York Times bestselling author of Firekeeper’s Daughter
“D.J. Vanas inspires us to find our ‘warrior spirit’ of courage, perseverance, resilience, and teamwork in life’s most fearful times. Your heart will soar like an eagle as you read how ordinary heroes use this inner strength to serve others—and how we can learn to do the same.” – Joseph Pfeifer, FDNY Assistant Chief, retired, author of Ordinary Heroes
“This is it: the book I’ve been waiting for! There isn’t another on the market that applies indigenous principles and ideas in order to expose the warrior in you. A comprehensive, compelling, emotional and amazingly insightful book. I couldn’t put it down. I wish I had this book years ago!” – Juanita Mullen (Seneca), AI/AN Veterans Liaison, Department of Veterans Affairs
“DJ Vanas describes a life of leading and doing through Indigenous identity and values. Combining his personal story with advice, The Warrior Within is more than a leadership book. It is a story of living a life of abundance and rich relationships, with DJ as your terrific guide.” – Cheryl Crazy Bull, President & CEO, American Indian College Fund
“The Warrior Within is more than a book …it’s a leadership tool written by a man who emulates its teachings in his personal and professional life. Packed full of real-world anecdotes and practical advice on facing adversity and dealing with change, it will empower you to face life’s battles with honor and courage. Embrace its teaching and you will certainly cultivate your warrior within!” – Lieutenant Colonel Waldo Waldman, executive coach and author of Never Fly Solo
“D.J. has captured the essence of being a warrior in a thoughtful, deeply meaningful way. No matter how successful we may be professionally, personally, or financially, we all struggle with challenges along the way. Recognizing your fallibility doesn’t make you less capable, rather, it adds to the strength of your experience. DJ helps us view the warrior spirit as a journey, rather than a destination.” – John B. Herrington, CDR (U.S. Navy, Ret.), and first Native American astronaut
“This book is for readers who want to tap into something deeper – that warrior spirit Vanas so eloquently describes – to serve at their best every day, and become strong enough to do it for a lifetime. Filled with the distilled wisdom of the ages and proven in the toughest of times, Vanas shows you how to become more tenacious, courageous, and ultimately, become a warrior of good. A fantastic read! If understanding and applying the warrior spirit was an Olympic sport, DJ Vanas would win the Gold Medal!” – Ruben Gonzalez, four-time Olympian and author of The Courage to Succeed
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Chapter 1: Own Your Warrior Spirit
Putting It to Work
One morning, while I was still in the Air Force, I woke up with what I thought was the beginning of a heat rash running from the right side of my torso to the top of my thigh. Immediately after waking up, the bumps and tracks started burning like they’d been touched by a match. It felt like liquid fire under my skin. It was excruciating, and I wouldn’t have wished this on my worst enemy. I had shingles, and it tormented me for six weeks of living hell.
During that time, I was an active-duty Air Force captain, serving as chief of minority enrollment at the U.S. Air Force Academy, my alma mater, where I led a full-time team of ten junior officers and advised a field team of another hundred. At the same time, we were just starting a family, and to complicate matters, I was also in the process of launching a new speaking and consulting business. I was committed to making a difference in the world by both serving with distinction in my military role and creating a business to impact communities, organizations, and individual lives in a positive, meaningful way.
In other words, I wanted to do it all, and I sure tried. I would get up at four in the morning to work on the business for three hours before going in to work. Then I would lead my team during the day, come home at five, and continue to work on the business until ten or eleven at night. I even worked on the business through the weekends, creating content, fine-tuning my programs, and building a database of contacts. But I felt the constant pulling tear of going in several directions at once, the overwhelming feeling of having too much on my plate, and the agonizing frustration of trying so hard to do my best for those I was responsible for serving. It was slowly breaking me down.
The more frustrated I got, the harder I worked, but the more I neglected myself, the more depleted I became. Eventually, I developed every classic sign of stress-headaches, upset stomach, restlessness, agitation, lack of focus. I was drinking Maalox and Pepto Bismol like they were protein shakes, eating Tums and Rolaids like candy, and kept saying, “I’ll take care of myself later.” I so desperately wanted to make an impact, to make a positive difference-and it was killing me.
Later showed up with a vengeance, and I suffered greatly for it. I was twenty-eight at the time, and the doctor I saw explained that shingles, the resurgence of chicken pox due to stress, was usually something we get when we’re older and our immunity isn’t as strong. He asked me point-blank, “What are you doing to yourself?”
My intentions to serve were good, but my execution had become a mess. Through that experience, I learned a hard truth: We can’t be warriors when we’re falling apart.
If you have a job that others depend on, and you serve in roles where your efforts have real-world impact and your best is required every day, even when you’re not “feeling it”—this book is for you. Whether you’re a frontline healthcare worker, a teacher advocating for education reform, an engineer coming up with new ways to insulate our cities from the effects of climate change, a deployed military member protecting our country, a dedicated government employee, a leader of a business team, or a social worker trying to help families stay together-if you’re fighting to make a positive impact, you can do it consistently only when you own your own need to get yourself right.
I’ve met thousands of rising, established, and retired stars in healthcare, government, education, social work, and other service industries, and I’ve found that, almost without exception, everyone has experienced the painful, and sometimes dangerous, effects of having our intentions and execution out of alignment. The intention to serve was there, but they ultimately couldn’t deliver because they weren’t taking care of themselves in the process. Many of those I interviewed mentioned experiencing the battle damage of unaddressed health and wellness needs, from relationship and sleep problems to migraines, to becoming overweight due to stress eating, to experiencing a terrifying wave of ministrokes as a result of pushing beyond what they could bear.
When there is a strong will and intention to serve, there must also be an equally strong will and intention to serve the right way. This means honoring and following a set of principles that will keep you resilient, healthy, energized, and able to sustain the good fight. Without it, you suffer and fall short. Instead of being an asset and contributor to your tribe, you become a detriment to it. We can’t respond to threats, leverage opportunities, serve others well, or navigate crises if we’re already in a crisis ourselves.
Learning this lesson for myself inspired me to create the model that I’m sharing with you in this book. I looked to the past and found beautiful principles and a time-tested framework of perseverance and resilience through chaos followed by our warriors in tribal communities that enabled them to endure against incredible odds and unbelievable obstacles and remain resilient and effective. I found solutions to keep us strong in the fight, stay balanced, serve at our best through chaos, keep improving, and enjoy our lives of service so much more through the process. It’s worked wonders for me and resonated deeply with thousands of service providers when they understand that the role of warriors can make us warriors in our roles. It can work for you too. These principles require no special background, affiliation, or training and are available for anyone choosing to use and benefit from them. And they are needed.
Before we learn how to become warriors in our roles, we must first learn what a warrior is. And that begins with breaking down what a warrior is not.
What a Warrior Is Not
The word “warrior” is loaded with emotion and comes with a host of dangerous expectations, behaviors, and stereotypes. Throughout history, our Native American warriors have been constantly misrepresented, typically seen only through the lens of their fighting skills. In the media, Hollywood in particular, a warrior is often portrayed as a chiseled, fearless, and violent character who destroys scores of enemies and city blocks, who shoots eight million bullets, bazookas, bad guys, and surly looks at the camera, all in the name of glory.
These stereotypical media images not only foster toxic personas bent on dominating others, but they also create harmful and unrealistic expectations of perfection and invulnerability. Living out those harmful expectations leaves committed servants under tremendous pressure to not make mistakes, not ask for help-or even admit that they need it. This leaves those same people suffering in silence or working so hard they’re burned out beyond repair, harming their health and relationships, and actually doing more damage than good.
A warrior isn’t just a man’s job
Women are the birthplace and backbone of our tribal nations. They’ve always had a strong presence, serving as chiefs in matriarchal tribes, but rose to a special place of prominence after the Great Indian Wars. Many of our men were either killed or spiritually broken, having been disarmed and forced to farm, as hunting, our cultural and spiritual way of life, was greatly restricted or forbidden by the U.S. government and its institutions. Our women became full-fledged warriors in every sense of the word as they protected children, kept families intact, and fought to preserve our culture. They’ve been honorably fulfilling that role for almost 150 years and undoubtedly will continue to do so, not only in our tribal communities but also in government and military service, education, science, social services, healthcare, and leadership roles across industries.
Society in general continues to change, becoming more equitable and erasing stereotypical roles that locked women into fixed responsibilities and behaviors. As the proud father of two amazing daughters, I’m thrilled to see this change continue to progress. Warriors in our communities include Autumn Peltier (Anishinaabe/Wikwemikong First Nation in Canada), who was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize at the age of thirteen and told the UN to “warrior up” in protecting clean drinking water for future generations. Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee) had her tires slashed and endured death threats to become the first woman elected to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. U.S. Army soldier Lori Ann Piestewa (Hopi) was the first Native American woman killed in combat on foreign soil during the war in Iraq.
There are countless warriors who don’t fit into the warrior stereotype yet are making a positive impact in the world. This is a welcome evolution of the role, blunting the toxic masculinity that may have blighted this role in the past, making it inaccessible or unapproachable to our mighty women. The modern traditional warrior role would be incomplete without them.
A warrior isn’t in it for the glory
Think of all the work you do in your role. Let’s be honest here. Most of what you do, you don’t get credit for, right? But you do it anyway because you know it’s the right thing to do and you’ve committed to doing it to the best of your ability. When we make a mistake, it seems we get called on it from every direction. But doing a great job in your role may feel like wetting your pants in a dark suit-it makes you feel warm and tingly but no one else really notices. That is tough, but when we know we’re in it not for the glory but for the impact, it makes this reality much easier to navigate.
A warrior doesn’t go at it alone
What can you do with a single finger? Poke an eye, pick your nose, or give someone “the finger.” But you can’t manipulate a doorknob, open a pickle jar, or hold someone’s hand. You need your other fingers to do that. Going at it solo not only limits our ability to create impact but can also quickly lead us to what I call “overwhelm” and burnout. Our warriors understood the power of a tribe and never fought alone for that reason.
A warrior isn’t arrogant
When you’re active, busy, and starting to get results, it is easy to drift into a mentality of dominance. Dominance can breed arrogance, where we place ourselves above all those who are fighting beside us to make a difference. If left unchecked, that arrogance can lead us to step on others to move ourselves forward or to get our way. Arrogance weakens our ability to collaborate with others and therefore our ability to serve effectively.
A warrior isn’t bulletproof
We must avoid the temptation to overromanticize the role of the warrior as we so often do. When we do that, we sell their character and achievements short and keep the warrior role out of reach. Our legendary warriors like Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, Osceola, and Chief Joseph are often cloaked in an aura of invincibility in which they needed no one and were impervious to hurts or doubts. But of course, they dealt with fear, faced pain, and stumbled. They needed outside resources, encouragement, and self-care, as do we all. They were human beings, not Hollywood superheroes.
What a Warrior Is
A warrior is different from a fighter
A warrior needs to be a fighter, but there is a difference between being a fighter and a warrior. A fighter is someone who leverages their time, talent, and effort toward an objective, and the primary beneficiary is that individual. This is critically important in self-improvement and spurs us to go back to school, leave bad relationships, get a better job, stand up for ourselves, or lose weight. We need to be willing and able to fight for the things that improve our life or else they don’t happen.
However, fighting for the self is not the role of a warrior. Warriors take those hard-earned lessons and skills and use them to serve others and impact their world in a positive way.
My friend Nancy Griffin (Saginaw Chippewa) is a powerful example of how a fighter can become a warrior. She grew up in an abusive home and married an abuser. She wanted to serve and fight for others as a rehabilitation counselor to help those with disabilities get employment, but she first had to fight for herself. She went back to school, but says, “I would go to classes after being beat up, which was usually around finals, with black eyes, broken nose, and broken bones. You get to a place where you think this is all life has to offer.” But a committed passion to serve pulled her through her fear, doubt, and painful situation.
Through lots of support, encouragement, and a warrior spirit in action, Nancy started making different choices, including a divorce. She decided to change her circumstances by changing her choices. “A medicine man prayed for me and told me I had a future, though many times I couldn’t see beyond the moment.” Nancy fought step-by-step to change her situation, get her education, and become a warrior equipped, trained, and able to serve others. Because of her, several hundred people have become successfully employed over the expanse of her career. At one point, Nancy had the highest success rate in the state of Michigan for minority youth getting and maintaining employment!
A warrior fights for something bigger than the self
My people (Ottawa) called a warrior ogichidaa, and that term has little to do with what we see in the media portrayal mentioned earlier. It’s not about being the toughest person, it’s not about seeking glory, and it doesn’t require a uniform or combat boots. A warrior is fully engaged in developing their talent and ability over a lifetime to become an asset to the “tribe” they serve. Today, that tribe might be your family, community, company, students, patients, clients, or taxpaying citizens. But make no mistake, we all have one to serve.
A warrior nurtures their warrior spirit
In our tribal communities, the warrior role was a spiritual endeavor as much as anything else. Between ceremonies, prayer, sacrifices, and use of holy medicines, spirit was interwoven throughout all their actions and intentions. When our spirit is involved in an activity, the activity itself becomes a spiritual event, and we’re answering to a higher power and higher purpose. We’re all in. When we incorporate our own spiritual beliefs and practices into our efforts, they can pull us through pain and fear and help us get out of our own way to accomplish what we set out to do.
Your warrior spirit is the driving force to face and overcome challenges and to develop yourself so you can serve and contribute to your tribe. It is a can-do, persistent, resilient, optimistic, uncompromising attitude composed of grit, determination, love for what is fought for, consistent focus, courageous commitment, and a willingness to own mistakes. Your warrior spirit is that voice inside you that shouts, “I will find a way forward!” and surpasses motivation.