Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The 3-Word Phrase Combat Engineers Use to Get Through Any Professional Obstacle

In the five years I spent in the Army, I picked up a number of useful phrases that have stuck with me even now that I work in the civilian world.

One of my favorites stems from my time spent in the company of combat engineers—soldiers whose duties include tackling rough terrain through blowing stuff up (demolition) and building things (construction).

“Breach or bypass,” they would say whenever we came to a sticking point in a plan. It could be a canceled training event that we were counting on to fulfill a mandatory requirement, an uncooperative commander holding up a deadline, or even the mundane (like computers crashing)—if it was identified as an obstacle to getting the job done, it triggered those three important words.

In the Army, a breach is a mission when you use all available means to break through or establish a passage through an opposing forces’ defense. In other words, it’s when you refuse to take no for an answer. It can mean finding a way to sign the client, negotiating for the raise you deserve, or pushing to finish a project by the deadline.

Bypass is when you maneuver around an obstacle while maintaining your momentum. I like to think of it as a boulder in the river; you want to be the water flowing around the immovable rock, not the dead tree limb stuck against it.

Maybe it’s a budget that you can’t increase, so you find creative ways to pull off the event you’re tasked with throwing. Or, maybe it’s finding a way around a manager who says, “We’ve always done it that way,” by demonstrating to your team that it can in fact be done differently.

Whatever it is that must be breached or bypassed, do what you need to do to keep moving ahead. If it’s a factor you can’t influence: bypass and go under, over, or around it. If it’s something you have the power to break down—breach.

The two options help force you to think through challenges to find solutions, rather than stalling out at the first roadblock and throwing your hands up in frustration.

And that’s why it’s become my go-to when I'm struggling to solve a problem.