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Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Sometimes you just want to quit. You know you shouldn’t but nothing seems better than crawling back into bed and hiding under the covers. (I am there right now, actually, with my laptop.)

The emerging science of grit and resilience is teaching us a lot about why some people redouble their efforts when the rest of us are heading for the door.

Research is great, but it’s always nice to talk to someone who’s been there firsthand, and to see how theory holds up against reality. So who knows about grit and persistence? Navy SEALs.

So I gave my friend James Waters a call. He was a SEAL Platoon Commander. BUD/S class 264 had a 94% attrition rate. Out of 256 guys only 16 graduated — and James was one of them.

James and I talked for hours but what struck me was how much of what he had to say about SEAL training and his time in the teams aligned with the research on grit, motivation, expertise and how people survive the most challenging situations.

So what can the SEALs and research teach you about getting through life’s tough times? Here we go.

1) Purpose And Meaning

To say SEAL training is hard is a massive understatement. The initial vetting phase (“BUD/S”) is specifically designed to weed people out who aren’t serious.

How do you get serious? Grit often comes from a place of deep purpose and personal meaning. Here’s James:

And the research backs James up. Without a good reason to keep pushing, we’ll quit. Studies of “central governor theory” show our brains always give in long before our body does.

Via Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them:

But this isn’t just true for athletics, it also holds for careers. In a study of West Point alums, those that had intrinsic goals (“I want to serve my country. I want to test my abilities.”) outperformed those that had extrinsic goals (“I want to rise in the ranks and become an officer because that’s a really powerful position and it’s prestigious.”)

(For more on how people stay resilient in the most deadly situations, click here.)

So purpose matters. But what’s the attitude that keeps you going in the moment? It’s actually a bit less serious.


2) Make It A Game

When I hear something over and over from very different sources, I take notice. And “make it a game” is one of those things.

James said the same thing about getting through the tough times at BUD/S:

(For more on how astronauts, samurai and Navy SEALs make good decisions, click here.)

Obviously, much of what SEALs do on a mission is quite serious but in getting through the training, treating it like a game is a great perspective. But how confident do you need to be?

3) Be Confident — But Realistic

In the book Supersurvivors the author makes an interesting distinction: People in tough situations need to be very realistic about the danger they’re in — but they need to be confident about their ability to handle it. Lack of confidence isn’t an option but neither is denial.

James echoed this same sentiment when talking about the attitude SEALs need to have when on a mission:

Research has shown that hope and despair can be self-fulfilling prophecies.

(For the three things you can learn about fearlessness from Special Ops and Navy SEALs, click here.)

Confidence is always good. But what builds confidence when you’re unsure?

4) Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Marathons aren’t as hard after a few months of training. But if I said you had to run one tomorrow you’d probably cry.

Most people think SEALs are going from mission to mission, always in the field. Nothing could be further from the truth. James spent only 25% of his time deployed. He spent 75% of his time training. Why?

Skills are perishable and SEALs need to be so good at so much. Here’s James:

According to the research, who survives catastrophic scenarios? The people who have prepared.

Via David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself:

Research shows that reducing uncertainty reduces fear. According to Dan Coyle, before the Bin Laden mission SEALs built two full scale replicas of the building they’d be entering and practiced the raid for three weeks.

(For more on how a good attitude promotes success, click here.)

So what do you do after you prepare?

5) Focus On Improvement

When you frame things as a win/lose scenario and they don’t go well, you’re a loser. And so you quit.

When you take the perspective that everything is a learning experience, there are no winners or losers. And you just keep getting better. James said this attitude is key for SEALs:

Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford shows that a “growth mindset” (believing abilities aren’t fixed and you can improve) is a key element of success. And Angela Duckworth has found this attitude is tied to grit:

And how do you become an expert? By focusing on your weaknesses, not your strengths.

SEALs take this very seriously, doing a debrief after each mission to review what happened and spending 90% of the time discussing what they could do better next time. Here’s James:

Some of you are thinking, “Oh, they’re SEALs. They were just born experts.” Not true. As Angela Duckworth’s research on grit shows, gritty people often start out less talented. But by hard work they end up better than the naturally gifted:

(For more on the science of how you can become an expert at anything, click here.)

So maybe you’re doing all these things and are well on your way to grit Valhalla. Great. But you can’t do it alone.

6) Give Help And Get Help

James had buddies who supported him and who he gave support to. Lone wolves don’t make it in the teams. Here’s James:

The benefits of getting help are obvious. But by giving help and taking on the role of caretaker we increase the feeling of meaning in our lives. This helps people in the worst situations keep going.

As The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg explained, having a support network is vital to improvement. Seeing others achieve goals makes us believe we can. James expressed this same point about BUD/S:

(For more on how you can increase your willpower, click here.)

Grit is great but what keeps us motivated when we’re under the most intense pressures imaginable and nothing seems to be going right? It’s the little things.

7) Celebrate Small Wins

The research on motivation is clear: “small wins” are a big deal. Taking a moment to appreciate the little good things that happen is far more motivating than thinking you need to win that Nobel Prize or Academy Award before you’re allowed to be happy.

James said almost the exact same thing about BUD/S. Appreciating the small fleeting victories is essential to getting through the hard moments like the infamous “Hell Week”:

The research on happiness agrees too: Lots of little good things beat infrequent great things when it comes to how good we feel.

(For more on how you can be more motivated, click here.)

Enough big fancy concepts and nerdy research. What’s something dead simple we’re all familiar with that SEALs and academics agree can help us be resilient when the world is treating us bad?

8) Find A Way To Laugh

A while back I interviewed Army Ranger Joe Asher and he said this about making it through the punishment of Ranger School: “If I can laugh once a day, every day I’m in Ranger School, I’ll make it through.”

James said the same thing about SEAL training:

Experts say that humor provides a powerful buffer against stress and fear.

Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

(For more on how to be funny, click here.)

Let’s round this up with the key takeaways from James and the research.

Enough Reading. Time For Doing.

What we can learn from James, the SEALs and the research on how to have grit:

  1. Purpose and meaning. It’s easier to be persistent when what we’re doing is tied to something personally meaningful.
  2. Make it a game. It’s the best way to stay in a competitive mindset without stressing yourself out.
  3. Be confident — but realistic. See the challenges honestly but believe in your own ability to take them on.
  4. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Grit comes a lot easier when you’ve done the work to make sure you’re ready.
  5. Focus on improvement. Every SEAL mission ends with a debrief focusing on what went wrong so they can improve.
  6. Give help and get help. Support from others helps keep you going, and giving others support does the same.
  7. Celebrate small wins. You can’t wait to catch the big fish. Take joy where you can find it when good times are scarce.
  8. Find a way to laugh. Rangers, SEALs, and scientists agree: a chuckle can help you cope with stress and keep you going.

Real grit and dedication pays dividends long after the challenges are over. They build bonds that last a lifetime.

After James left active service he found out one of his teammates had tragically died in a training accident. Most of the platoon had already left their Hawaii training base and relocated all over the country.

But they all returned for the memorial service. Every single one. And it never occurred to him that everyone wouldn’t. Here’s James:

In my next weekly email I’ll have more from James including his analysis of the type of people who make it through SEAL training (and people who don’t), along with discussion of the four methods the Navy used to increase SEAL passing rates. To make sure you don’t miss it, join here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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