There’s a reason why elite Special Operations courses always begin with intense physical training. The shock value of initial stress overload is the best discriminator while assessing an individual or group’s willingness and capacity to accomplish difficult tasks. It’s because after twenty minutes, when you are tired of holding a log over your head, you can’t fake it any longer. When the pressure is on and the stress increases, your true personality comes out.
The vocal, motivated cheerleader types who try hard to encourage others? They suddenly shut up. The pessimists who are there because they were told to be there but don’t really want to be there? They suddenly quit. The eternal optimists who are always positive and see the good in everything? They suddenly wonder if they have what it takes to make it in the first place. The playing field is now even because everyone is in survival mode and doing whatever it takes to get by. Fatigue makes cowards of us all.
Eventually, there is a moment when everybody is miserable and focused on themselves. Our heads are down, and we are contemplating when the suffering will end. As the level of stress increases, our brains narrow our focus, and our sensory attention goes inward. Our body language reflects, as the pupils dilate, heart rate increases, breathing intensifies, heads go down, shoulders slump, and our thoughts begin to race: What in the hell did I get myself into? When will it all end? How much longer can I keep this up? Is it all worth it?
During log PT on day one of selection, for whatever reason, almost counterintuitively, even though it spent energy on something that was risky, I looked up. I looked up and looked around. I deliberately chose discomfort. The guys around me were all suffering just as badly as I was, if not worse. In that moment, my friend Pat lifted his head up as well. He looked around, and we looked at each other. He shouted, “Let’s go, J. You got this!” I shouted words of encouragement back at him, even though it required energy that could have been used on myself.
More guys lifted their heads and looked around. We began to focus on one another rather than on ourselves. Looking up became infectious. Strangely enough, we began to forget about our pain, the time seemed to move faster, and the log felt lighter. The reality is that nothing changed about the situation except our attitudes. The conditions still sucked, it was hot as hell, our bodies still strained, and the logs didn’t get any lighter. It was our minds that had changed. We began choosing how we thought, deciding where to direct our attention and energy.
In these difficult moments, situations that make or break individuals and teams, we find our collective purpose. When the pressure is on and you’re on a team, it’s never about you. It’s about the people to your left and right who are going through the experience and process with you. In this moment, I found purpose. My purpose was to make the team succeed.
Misery is suffering without a purpose. The guys who make it through these types of courses are the guys who experience an aha moment. When they realize that they’re not alone. That they are on a team and the success of the team is more important than their own personal success.
The people who don’t make it are the guys who are self-centered, who don’t risk any energy that doesn’t immediately serve their own interests. The people who don’t look up.
The secret to the elite mind-set of Special Operations Forces, no matter how many books you read or podcasts you listen to, is to look up.
The same “look up” mind-set applies to the everyday mundanity of real life. As a lot of well-intending families do, my wife and I are committed to attending church services every Sunday. As a couple with young children, parenting lessons come early and often. Our daughter is a toddler with boundless energy, which means that we spend a good majority of the service outside in the foyer. Whenever she acts up, screams, or causes a distraction during the sermon or in Sunday school, we do the polite and sensible thing and remove her from the situation.
After several months of faith in the foyer went by, my wife and I looked up at each other and asked ourselves, “What are we doing here?” We don’t hear the sermon; we don’t hear the Sunday school lesson. We just sit out in the foyer and distract our daughter. What’s the point of getting up early and getting dressed to come to church and play with our daughter in the foyer?
I thought back to my experiences during log PT. I was embarrassed that I had forgotten that critical lesson from years ago. I realized that I wasn’t going to church for myself. I was going for the other members of the congregation. I asked myself, “What can I do this Sunday to serve the church and church members’ needs?” Sitting out in the foyer with a screaming daughter, maybe all I could give was a hello or a smile. If that was all I could give, then I would give that. For me, Sundays are sacred because they represent our commitment to spending that quality time together in fellowship to reflect and celebrate our common values and beliefs. This is the foundation of our collective purpose. Is the quality of time we invest now showing an immediate return? Certainly, not immediately, but that’s a limited and short-sighted way of looking at the situation. That’s the same reason why people decide to quit: the log is too heavy right now, and they want to make the pain stop. It’s not about the log, and it’s not about the foyer. It’s about the people to our left and right.
We chose a different perspective and approach to the situation. Through this choice, we realized that if we continued our routine, our daughter’s behavior would eventually improve. By the time she is old enough to know better, this routine as a deliberate and weekly choice will not just be something she does but an integral part of who she is. Suddenly on Sundays, chasing my daughter in the foyer doesn’t seem as bad as it once did.