“Have a Shared Sense of Purpose:” Life Lessons from a Navy SEAL

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a former Navy SEAL speak about mental toughness and having a team-first mindset. Jason Kuhn became a member of the Navy’s Sea, Air and Land Forces by successfully overcoming some of the toughest military training on the planet.  Jason’s story is one of purpose and courage, but it’s also one of extreme failure and self-doubt. Although most of us will never carry out a counter terrorism mission or jump out of a plane into battle, we can all learn valuable life lessons from a SEAL.

From a very young age, Jason knew he would become a professional baseball player. It was his fate and nothing was going to get in the way. During his Senior year of college, Jason was at the top of his game and playing for one of the top ranked NCAA Division 1 baseball teams in the country. Jason had the talent and the drive to get him to the Major Leagues. He was in near perfect physical condition and he was prepared for this. However, Jason’s future came to an end when performance anxiety paralyzed him to the core. As a pitcher, who once thrived in high pressure situations, he could no longer play a simple game of catch. Jason tried everything he could think of to overcome his performance anxiety, only to continue choking under pressure. He was crushed and had no clue what to do next. Jason hadn’t thought about life beyond baseball. Baseball was his future and it was his only identity. Where would he go from here? Depression set in and Jason starting  drinking.  After a few too many drinking binges and pity parties, Jason realized his victimhood mentality was not serving him. His victimhood mentality was only producing more victimhood.

That fall, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Jason watched as the worst terror attack on American soil unfolded. It was a clear, sunny morning in New York City when an American Airlines Boeing 767 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Less than 20 minutes later, a hijacked United Airlines flight crashed into the South Tower. At 9:37 am, another plane flew into the western side of the Pentagon as the fourth aircraft crashed into a field in Pennsylvania as passengers attempted to overpower the hijackers. The series coordinated attacks killed 2,996 people in all and will forever be known as the day that changed America. It was on this day that Jason decided to become a Navy SEAL. No longer would Jason allow baseball to define him. There was a cause much greater than himself. To his friends and family, the decision to become a Navy SEAL seemed like a risky choice given the fact that his failure in baseball was 100% mental. Jason started his SEAL training alongside 134 men and he was ready to give his performance anxiety the bird.

By the time hell week started, the pack of 135 had dwindled down to just 40 men. During hell week, students train five days and five nights with a total of four hours of sleep or less. Functioning on little to no sleep during training is about preparing students for what will be expected of them once they graduate and make it onto a team, where they quickly learn that things only get tougher. SEALS often say, “the only easy day was yesterday.” Hell Week is designed to test physical endurance, mental toughness, extreme pain and cold tolerance. It’s all about teamwork, attitude, and the ability to perform work under high physical and mental stress.  Jason said there was only one time during hell week in which he was truly scared and that was during the shark swim. He said they made the students watch shark attack videos and then they poured fish blood all over them. They were then instructed to swim a mile, at night, in shark infested waters. Hell week is designed to push men to the brink and do it over and over again. In the end, men either give up or they are hardened in such a way that they can take on any task with confidence, regardless of the danger level. On average, 25% of SEAL candidates make it through Hell Week. Jason’s class finished at 15% and only 20 men.

“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

What made 115 men in top physical condition voluntarily ring the infamous bell that signaled defeat after making it so far? Were the guys who quit not committed? What separates the good from the elite? Jason would say, “at this level, talent no longer matters because talent is worthless when it runs away. Elite teams start with the right people.  Hell week identifies those people.”  Jason said, “when you look at a man and you know he’d die for you without hesitation, you trust that man. Trust gives us the confidence to get in the fight.”  He said, “Character is priceless when it’s time to hold the line. Never sacrifice character for talent. Talent without character can be successful, but this isn’t about being successful. This is about being elite. Consistently elite.” Those who beat out the rest of the class recognized there was a cause bigger than themselves. They kept their commitment and remained disciplined in the face of uncontrollable circumstances. Jason said, “when the inevitable adversity comes, they apply discipline not desire.  Discipline is doing what you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it.” He said during training, students would get overly exhausted and feel hypothermia start to set into their bodies. They would begin to feel sorry for themselves and start to question why they were doing this. Jason said the 20 men who prevailed concentrated on ways to help their teammates through the pain, not themselves. When Jason was scared during his shark swim, he said his teammates got him through it. He said one of his friends walked into the water and started shouting “The Lord’s Prayer.” He said his fear was almost instantly replaced by unity as everyone joined in. They were in this together and they were either going to get eaten by sharks or not. Jason believes that we can’t control outcomes, but we can influence through response. He said as humans, “we can either quit, drift, or engage.” SEALs engage and they do it during times of great uncertainty.”

Jason believes that anyone in decent physical shape can complete Navy SEAL hell week. The only variable is that person’s mind and we have more mental control than we think. He said that feeling sorry for yourself or blaming others during a gunfight will get you killed. Navy SEAL’s practice positive self-talk. They practice visualization. They confront bad situations over and over again, both physically and mentally, so when the real situation occurs, they are prepared to fight it. “Panic has no value.” according to Jason. “Our response must have value regardless of how we feel. Mental toughness includes an ability to act different than how the circumstance makes us feel. Initial emotion does not have to dictate next action. We have to think cause and effect. Compartmentalize fear and let desire to survive (or succeed) fuel your discipline to the process.”  This mentality was put to the test when SEAL Team Six was sent on a mission to kill or capture the world’s most wanted terrorist. The operation took years of planning and was one of the riskiest military missions authorized by a U.S. President. The operation started out with the accidental crash landing of one their Black Hawk helicopters as they arrived at the compound. No one was hurt and the mission carried on, uninterrupted. In just nine minutes from the time the helicopter crashed, SEAL Team Six found and killed Osama bin Laden. Team Six didn’t focus on the helicopter crash or the insurmountable challenge they were facing. Rather, they were a team and together they were going to carry out this mission together. A SEAL on his own is a powerful fighting machine, but a team of SEALs can take on and take down the impossible. The Navy SEAL who fired the shot that killed Osama bin Laden said this after the mission, “I was part of the greatest team ever assembled. I got into the famous bin Laden bedroom because they led me there. I watched cool guys do cool stuff, and then I did something cool.” Now that is badass!

The SEAL Creed ends with this statement & so will I:

We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates and accomplish the mission. I lead by example in all situations. I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight. We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me – my technical skill, tactical proficiency, and attention to detail. My training is never complete We train for war and fight to win. I stand ready to bring the full spectrum of combat power to bear in order to achieve my mission and the goals established by my country. The execution of my duties will be swift and violent when required yet guided by the very principles that I serve to defend. Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation that I am bound to uphold. In the worst of conditions, the legacy of my teammates steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed. I will not fail.


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