Leadership

How thinking like a Navy SEAL can help you exceed your goals

Thinking like a Navy SEAL may be the key to unlocking your potential. As Eric Barker explains in his book, "Barking Up the Wrong Tree," SEALs develop their mental fitness to enhance their willpower and resilience.

Their strategies aren't hard to imitate. The first Barker discusses is simple: positive self-talk. "Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass," he writes, "but one of the keys to that is thinking like The Little Engine That Could."

During the notorious "Hell Week" of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, aspiring SEALs face seemingly insurmountable challenges. Over the course of 110 sleepless hours, Barker notes, they undergo tasks that induce panic and even thoughts of death. Many don't make it.

"SEAL class 264 had a 94 percent attrition rate," writes Barker. "Of the 256 men who started, only 16 graduated with the class." What distinguishes the successful, it seems, is mental fitness.

"When the Navy started teaching BUD/S applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased nearly 10 percent," he writes.

Positive self-talk can be useful in any industry. What makes a good insurance salesman, for instance, is the ability to endure constant rejection. As Barker notes, research has shown that exceptionally optimistic salesman sell exceptionally well.

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Another mental tool that Barker says SEALs utilize is "cognitive reappraisal," a term psychologists define as changing "the trajectory of an emotional response by reinterpreting the meaning of the emotional stimulus." Put simply, it means telling yourself a different story about what's happening.

Barker introduces Joe Simpson, a mountain climber who fell down a 100-foot crevasse in 1985. Because he landed on snow, Simpson did not die, but his leg was broken. Determined to live and unable to go up, he used a rope to descend down, and eventually found a glimpse of sunlight — a way out.

With a broken leg, he managed to climb 130 feet up at a 45-degree slope and emerged from the crevasse. But Simpson wasn't done then. He still had to make it back to the campsite, which was miles away. And because his leg was broken, he had to crawl.

Against all odds, over the course of four days, he made it.

This, as Barker explains, is how he did it:

"In the most dangerous, high-stakes situation imaginable he did the craziest thing: he made it a game. He started setting goals: Can I make it to that glacier in twenty minutes? If he made it, he was ecstatic. If he didn't he was frustrated, but it only made him more obsessive."

Simpson changed his dilemma. He didn't just focus on one insurmountable challenge or the consequence of failing that challenge — death. He established small, achievable goals, and he won.

Navy SEALs do the same thing. "Using a game frame at BUD/S makes perfect sense," writes Barker. "BUD/S is winnable."

James Waters, a SEAL who Barker interviewed for "Barking Up the Wrong Tree," agrees. "What they're doing at BUD/S is assessing your ability to handle a difficult circumstance and keep going," he said. "It's a game. You've got to have fun with it and you've got to keep your eye on the big picture."

There is a lot of research that supports this approach to success. For example, Barker discusses the work of Harvard professor Teresa Amabile, who found, "The best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress."

"Life satisfaction is 22 percent more likely for those with a steady stream of minor accomplishments than those who express interest only in major accomplishments," she said.

So, no matter how daunting or difficult something seems, getting past it is all about your mindset. Remind yourself what you are capable of, and make a winnable game of the challenges you face.

"The story in your head," says Barker, "is always the answer to perseverance."

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