Even if you don’t plan to jump out of an airplane and into battle, or burst through the doors of an enemy compound anytime soon, there’s a lot you can learn from these elite warriors.
Last year, one of the top Navy SEALs commanders gave one of the best commencement addresses of all time. The New York Times recommended a Navy SEAL book lately–The New York Times!): DEADLY SKILLS: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation.
Heck, there’s even a real U.S. Navy SEAL who is an Inc.com columnist. You should check him out.
Now, here’s the ultimate Navy SEAL guide to exceptional success and achievement–combining the key advice from some of the most storied and prolific members of this elite force. Learn their lessons, follow their lead–and you’ll find you’re more likely to succeed.
1. Develop mental toughness.
Roughly 75 percent of people who make it into the initial six-month SEAL training cource, known as Basic Underwater Demolitions/Seal Training (BUDS), wind up washing out. In his book, Navy Seal Training Guide: Mental Toughness (which by the way goes for $790 on Amazon), author Lars Draeger says there four pillars of mental toughness: goal-setting, mental visualization, positive self-talk, and arousal control. We’ll tackle them in turn.
2. Set (and achieve) micro-goals.
SEALs, according to Draeger, learn to focus on one thing at a time, avoiding all distractions. They do that by determining the overall objective, breaking it down into smaller pieces, and repeating as needed until they get to minute-by-minute pieces. That’s the kind of planning that allowed Navy SEALs to capture and kill bin Laden–and also the same kind of strategy that can help you achieve your goals.
3. Visualize success (and overcoming failure).
During SEALs training, there’s an exercise in which students are required to accomplish a series of difficult tasks…
while wearing SCUBA gear…
while instructors attack them and try to destroy their equipment and keep them from breathing.
Become flustered, and you fail. So the successful ones learn not to visualize ahead of time how they’ll handle each calamity. As the folks at Examined Existence wrote:
Navy psychologists discovered that those who did well and passed the exercise the first time used mental imagery to prepare them for the exercise. They imagine themselves going through the various corrective actions and they imagine doing it while being attacked. … [O]nce the exercise (and the attack) happens, the mind is ready and the [SEAL] is in full control of their physical and mental faculties.
4. Convince yourself you can do it.
As entrepreneurs, how many times do we hear that you should fake it until you make it? That’s part of how you get through SEALs training, apparently. The folks from Examined Existence summed it thusly:
Those who graduate from BUDS block all negative self-talk … and … constantly motivate themselves to keep going. … They remind themselves that should be able to pass no problem because they are more physically fit than their predecessors. They remind themselves to go on and not quit, no matter what.
5. Control your arousal.
Arousal. Heh-heh. We’re talking here about all kinds of sensual distractions–thinking about the lost love back home, or the things they could be doing besides training, or even the warm bed they had to leave in order to go through the day’s training.
Once more, Examined Existence:
When our bodies feel overwhelmed or in danger, [we] release … cortisol and endorphins. These chemicals … cause our palms to sweat, our minds to race, our hearts to pound, and our bodily functions to malfunction. This is the body’s natural response to stress, developed over millions of years of human evolution. But SEALS learn to control this natural response to arousal so that they are poised even under the most stressful of circumstances.
6. Be aware.
The next two are pretty basic, but I guess if you’re a Navy SEAL, it’s why they work. If you want to be in a position to overcome danger, be aware of your surroundings.
So few other people pay attention to their surroundings anymore. In fact, I should take a photo of the slow-moving people I see on the subway each morning, immediately and obliviously checking their devices as they get off the train.
“Get your head out of your phone. … Just look up,” former Navy SEAL Dom Raso told TheBlaze . “It’s just a very, very simple thing to do and no one does it anymore, and it’s really scary.”
7. Avoid bad stuff.
This one also is obvious–so much so that former Navy SEAL Raso seems pretty upset about that others don’t do it. And it goes against the uninitiated, who might believe that a Navy SEAL’s first reaction is always to fight.
“Avoid, avoid, avoid,” he said. “I want to avoid any [bad] situation before it happens.”
8. Practice humility.
Given that last bit of advice, the next one makes sense. Success as a Navy SEAL leader means recognizing that you’re not the solution to every problem. Fail to recognize that, and you’re likely to flat-out fail.
“What it has to do with is the fact that the person is not humble enough to accept responsibility when things go wrong, accept that there might be better ways to do things, and they just have a closed mind,” says Jocko Willink, coauthor of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. “They can’t change, and that’s what makes a person fail as a leader.”
As his coauthor, Leif Babin added: “No leader has it all figured out. You can’t rely on yourself. You’ve got to rely on other people, so you’ve got to ask for help, you’ve got to empower the team, and you’ve got to accept constructive criticism.”
9. Find your three mentors.
Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week among other giant mega-bestsellers, interviewed General Stanley McChrystal, along with McChrystal’s aide, former Navy SEAL officer Chris Fussell, who offered him some key advice:
You should always have three people that you’re paying attention to within your organization:
- Someone senior who you would like to emulate
- A peer who you think is better at the job than you are
- A subordinate who is doing your previous job better than you did
“If you just have those three individuals that you’re constantly measuring yourself off of and who you’re constantly learning from,” Fussell said, “you’re gonna be exponentially better than you are.”
10. Do small things right.
The last items on this list come from a speech that Admiral William McRaven, a Navy SEAL commander who was in charge of the raid that killed bin Laden, gave in Texas last year.
His first commandment–a fairly famous one, in fact–is that you should make your bed in the morning.
Why? Because if you do that, “it will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.”
11. Be smart about assessing others.
Next up: Don’t adopt others’ knee-jerk assessments. McRaven talked about being in SEAL training and reflecting on a crew of physically small classmates, none of whom was more than five-feet-five.
“The big men in the other boat crews would always make good natured fun of the tiny little flippers the munchkins put on their tiny little feet prior to every swim,” he said. “But somehow these little guys, from every corner of the Nation and the world, always had the last laugh– swimming faster than everyone and reaching the shore long before the rest of us. SEAL training was a great equalizer.”
(As a guy who’s like five-foot-eight in my boots, I love this one.)
12. Suck it up.
This is probably the part of military training that people who’ve never gone through military training think of–the part they’ve seen in the movies where sadistic drill instructors put you through hell. McRaven talks about a punishment during SEAL training known as a “sugar cookie.”
The student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. … You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day–cold, wet and sandy.
The point of that training? To learn that when you’re uncomfortable and discouraged, sometimes you just have to suck it up and get through it.
13. Sometimes, go head first.
Another McRaven story. The record for going through the SEAL obstacle course in the fastest time had stood for years. One of the trickiest parts was to maneuver yourself safely but quickly into a rope obstacle known as the slide for life.
The record seemed unbeatable, until one day, a student decided to go down the slide for life–head first. Instead of swinging his body underneath the rope and inching his way down, he bravely mounted the TOP of the rope and thrust himself forward.
It was a dangerous move–seemingly foolish, and fraught with risk. Failure could mean injury and being dropped from the training. Without hesitation–the student slid down the rope–perilously fast, instead of several minutes, it only took him half that time and by the end of the course he had broken the record.
The point? It’s the same in business and in any facet of life. Sometimes if you want to excel, you simply have to accept the risks and dive in anyway.
14. Take on the sharks.
Long before the television show, Navy SEALs learned to be afraid of sharks. There’s a part of their training when they have to swim in the waters off of San Clemente, California, which they are told is a breeding ground for sharks.
But, you are also taught that if a shark begins to circle your position–stand your ground. Do not swim away. Do not act afraid. And if the shark, hungry for a midnight snack, darts towards you–then summons up all your strength and punch him in the snout and he will turn and swim away.
This is the story of life. Bandits and bullies are all around. Usually, the only way to beat them is to take them head on.
15. Identify the moment that matters.
One of the keys to success is consistency–but of course we all know that there are some moments that simply matter more than others. One of the toughest during SEAL training involves training to attack an enemy ship–by swimming two miles alone underwater and, in the dark, approaching it from below.
“The steel structure of the ship blocks the moonlight–it blocks the surrounding street lamps–it blocks all ambient light,” McRaven explained. “To be successful in your mission, you have to swim under the ship and find the keel–the center line and the deepest part of the ship.”
The “darkest part of the mission” is the hardest–and the most important. We all have them in our lives.
16. Be happy–and if you can’t be happy, fake it.
Truth to tell, SEAL training sounds flat-out sadistic at some points. During his training, McRaven talked about his entire team being forced to stand in freezing water up to their necks, while their instructors told them they wouldn’t let them out until five trainees gave up–and quit the entire course.
Their reply? They started to sing.
“The chattering teeth and shivering moans of the trainees were so loud it was hard to hear anything and then, one voice began to echo through the night–one voice raised in song,” he said. “The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two and two became three and before long everyone in the class was singing. We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well.”
Standing in the surf and mud and freezing cold still sucked, but it sucked a little less McRaven said, and that’s how they made it though–because they gave each other hope.
17. Persevere–don’t ring the bell.
One way that SEAL training is a lot like the rest of the world is that there is an easy way to quit. You can simply give up, ring a brass bell in the middle of the compound in front of all of your peers, and walk away.
All you have to do to quit–is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT–and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell.
The vast majority of trainees ring the bell. The very few who don’t become U.S. Navy SEALs. They face even greater challenges, and someday people write about their example.
“If you want to change the world,” McRaven says, “don’t ever, ever ring the bell.”