2019-10-10 22:32:39 UTC
The U.S. Marine Corps Uses the 'Rule of 3' to Organize Almost
Everything. Here's How Learning It 21 Years Ago Changed My Life
It all started with a copy of Inc. magazine that my dad handed me back
By Bill Murphy ***@BillMurphyJr
This is a story about the U.S. Marine Corps, the Rule of 3, and how to
avoid getting overwhelmed.
It's also about the first article I ever remember reading in Inc.
magazine back in 1998 -- and how that simple rule has served me well and
helped me accomplish my goals for more than 21 years.
The article was headlined "Corps Values," and it said this:
The U.S. Marines are trained to make split-second decisions based on
incomplete information, in life-or-death situations. Can they provide
clues to running a faster-reacting business?
Here's the part I remembered almost verbatim, even before looking it up
to write about it today:
In a nutshell, the rule is this: each marine has three things to worry
In terms of organizational structure, the "rule of three" means a
corporal has a three-person fire team; a sergeant has a squad of three
fire teams; a lieutenant and a staff sergeant have a platoon of three
squads; and so on, up to generals.
The functional version of the rule dictates that a person should limit
his or her attention to three tasks or goals. When applied to
strategizing, the rule prescribes boiling a world of infinite
possibilities down to three alternative courses of action.
Anything more, and a marine can become overextended and confused. The
marines experimented with a rule of four and found that effectiveness
There are three reasons why this has stayed with me so long. (Yes, three!)
The first reason is the Rule of 3 itself. I've used it almost
automatically since reading that article. I've found that for me too,
three the maximum number of things I can focus on at once.
Right now, for example, I have three professional projects: my work for
Inc., plus a new publication I'm launching called Understandably, and a
digital technology product that I'm developing with a colleague. More
projects than that would just be too much.
The second reason I remember it so well is simply because it was in Inc.
magazine. I've been a loyal reader going back many years. I'd started a
couple of small businesses by then, but this publication was a big way
that I stayed connected to my entrepreneurial dreams in those days. It's
pretty wild to me that I write for it now.
Finally, there's how I happened to have read it: I had just moved to
Washington for my first job as a lawyer. My brother had just gotten out
of the Marines and was living with me. And it was my dad who gave me the
magazine with this article on the cover: He and my mom were visiting,
and it was something to read while I was waiting for them at their hotel.
It's not just the Marine Corps that recognizes the Rule of 3. More
recently, my Inc.com colleague Jessica Stillman tackled it from a
different perspective: "Work, Sleep, Family, Fitness, or Friends: Pick 3."
And throughout history, great communicators have known that the Rule of
3 makes messages more memorable -- and sometimes even funny. It's the
linguistic theory behind everything from "Veni, vidi, vici" to The Three
Since this article stayed with me so long, I thought I'd reach out to
its author, David H. Freedman. He told me the story led to him writing a
book called Corps Business.
Glad you reached out. Funny, and of course gratifying, that you remember
that article. [It] came about when I was visiting in-laws, and went out
for a jog with my brother-in-law, who was a captain in the Navy Reserve.
Knowing that I wrote for Inc., he told me I should write an article
about Marine management wisdom, and as an example he gave me the rule of
3. I was sold on the spot, and contacted the Marines soon after.
It's a simple rule, easy to remember, and I think it's truly helped me
stay focused. Hey, what do you know: that's another list of three.
PUBLISHED ON: OCT 10, 2019