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How You See The Problem, IS The Problem

Before BUD/S (Navy SEAL training), I liked the ocean. I liked running on the beach. I enjoyed SCUBA and sought out diving everywhere from the Galapagos to the Great Barrier Reef, and then some.

But now I don’t. In fact, I hate the water.

It’s funny how repeat exposure has a way of overstaying its welcome.

The more you’re exposed to something the more you learn about it and the more you learn about yourself.

The flipside of that coin is that you don’t have to like everything you do. You just have to do it.

Don’t like getting up early? Too bad, it’s the most productive time of day.

Don’t like eating healthy? Get over it, your ass will thank you.

Don’t like going to the gym? Perhaps the emergency room is better because that’s exactly where you’re headed someday if you don’t.

I remember one two-mile ocean swim in BUD/S better than the rest and it wasn’t because of a higher “suck factor” — every single one of those swims sucked mercilessly.

Every week in BUD/S you have three “evolutions” (events/training) that you must pass:

  • A four-mile run
  • An obstacle course run
  • A two-mile swim

This is in addition to ALL the other physical training evolutions like log PT, conditioning runs, PT (physical training like pushups, pull-ups, and those God-forsaken flutter kicks). Needless to say, you don’t get any stronger in BUD/S — physically, at least.

But you do become a mental management expert.

You learn how to manage the mental game for everything you do.

Okay, back to the swim…

On this particular day, the sea state was rough. That was the bad news.

The other bad news (there wasn’t ever any “good” news in BUD/S, only “bad,” “worse,” and “awful”) was that the instructors didn’t care.

They didn’t care how tumultuous the sea state was. The standard was to either pass the two-mile ocean swim or not. That’s the standard — pass it or don’t.

It’s safe to say that the only place to find “sympathy” in BUD/S was in the dictionary between “shit” and “syphilis,” because you certainly didn’t find it from the instructors--or your classmates, for that matter.

And that’s exactly the type of person BUD/S forges.

Yes, forges.

You see, every class has a weak link; somebody who’s just slow — mentally and physically.

Our “slowest” member was someone who I’ll call Smith (I know, creative), and Smith sucked in the water.

He was slow and always last to finish.

The thing about swimming was that you always needed a swim buddy. We swam in pairs because two is one and one is none. In fact, you needed a swim buddy everywhere you went in BUD/S. Everywhere.

Swim Buddy Pros
The good part about having a swim buddy is that it forces you to always think outside yourself; to open your panoramic to something greater than just you.

Swim Buddy Cons
The bad part is that you’re only as fast as your swim buddy, so if he’s slow — especially in the water — then you are, too.

Smith was slow. To remedy this — to help him swim faster — we assigned a faster swimmer to Smith to literally tug him along for two miles to make him swim faster.

Well, it didn’t work. Not this day. It worked previously but on this day the sea states were just too rough.

Smith and his swim buddy failed.

After finishing up an evolution the class immediately begins preparing for the next evolution, and this day we had a class on something that isn’t important enough for me to remember right now.

So, as swim pairs filtered into the classroom, we could tell who passed the swim and who didn’t, and when Smith and his swim buddy entered, they didn’t look happy.

When the entire class was finally together in the classroom, a SEAL instructor came in and yelled “Smith! Get up here.” He knew Smith’s past performance and his historically slow swim times.

Smith scurried to the front of the classroom, only to be met with a wall of un-want from the instructor: “Smith, you failed. Do it again.”

Smith gave a fake and unenthusiastic “Hooyah!” (as we all do) and then looked at his swim buddy to join him — again. Not only did Smith have to swim the two miles again, but he had to bring another classmate with him to do the same.

Now, remember, this was third phase of BUD/S — the last phase before you’re finished with this grueling six-month, all-volunteer selection course that weeds out roughly 85% of its participants.

Smith had already endured Hell week, pool competency, and had been running six miles a day just to chow (meals) and back for the past five months, yet it would be for nothing if he couldn’t pass the same two-mile ocean swim that he just failed.

I’ll say this again because it’s important…

Smith needed to pass the same two-mile ocean swim that he just failed.

If THAT'S not a mindfuck, then I don’t know what is.

Another classmate chose to swim with Smith this time (different than before). 

While Smith and his buddy repeated the swim, the rest of us continued on with the class. When the class was over, we waited for Smith.

Then all of a sudden in walks Smith with his selfless swim buddy, and Smith was throwing a fit. His swim buddy was not. He was calm, cool and collected and went about his work. Smith, however, was having the adult version of a temper tantrum (although I’m not sure what that is because temper tantrums are quite universal).

Smith felt sorry for himself. He started to traverse the mental spiral of self-doubt and disbelief because he knew he had to run the obstacle course next and he didn’t think he’d pass it because he might be “too tired.”

Might being the key word here.

That’s the beauty of uncertainty. You don’t know--and that's why you try.

Forget about “finding” meaning. Forge it. Forge it to what you want it to mean and run with it. That’s how you build resilience and that’s how you crush life.

For Smith, he had already made up his mind that he was going to be too tired for the o-course; that he would show up less of what he was capable of showing up as.

That’s when the same instructor returned, and yelled, “Smith! Front and center.” Again, Smith ran to the front.

“Smith, you passed. But I’m gonna make you do it again if you don’t clean up your act.”

This is where things took a turn…

“Smith,” the instructor said as he stared down at him, “do you think that if I went into Coronado and asked anyone in town to do what you just did, do you think they would have done it?

You first swam two miles. You failed. You then swam another two miles. You passed. You’re feeling sorry for yourself because you’re tired, exhausted, you know you have to run the obstacle course next, and you think that you’ve done more than your classmates have so you should get a pass.

Well, guess what? You’re in the wrong place for sympathy. You’re going to run the obstacle course, and you know what? Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Don’t wallow in despair at the fact that you had to do twice as much as your classmates.

Relish in it.

Relish in the fact that you did something that 95% of the population would choose against.

Relish in the fact that your mind fought a battle that most people lose, and that’s the battle with themselves.

Now hurry up. You’re late for the O-course.”

The Takeaway
There’s a lot to be learned from good ol’ Smith.

Everybody faces similar battles — especially amidst uncertainty — and how you respond determines how you “show up” next.

There are the personal battles of doubt and self-defeating beliefs you fight when you’re under pressure.

There are battles amongst business teams that fight over limited resources and conflicting interests.

There are battles entrepreneurs face before they choose to take that leap of faith, work for themselves and forge fulfillment, or continue working for the status quo and hate life.

And there are enterprise-level battles that organizational leaders face where the chaos of the day, of staying relevant amidst constant change and bridging the gap across silos stifles their company’s latent potential from being fully optimized.

The good thing about all these “battles” is that they also provide opportunity.

They provide the opportunity to forge clarity from direct experience; to forge better ways to work together and therefore create a more compelling competitive advantage.

You never really know a person’s character until he or she is under duress. That person you trusted to be a great partner might just be a complete fucking nightmare when the shit hits the fan. Is that somebody you want to work with?

Chaos is an opportunity, an opportunity to learn, create and forge that which you must be.

Smith continued on through the obstacle course and crushed it. He also graduated with us. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he made it a personal challenge to overcome — and he won.

He leveraged the power of curiosity to reframe how he saw the problem. By taking a preconceived disadvantage and turning it into an advantage, he learned a very powerful lesson:

And “how you see” something is a matter of choice.

The next time you want to blame others or things for how you feel or what you believe, ask yourself this question: How am I contributing to the problem?

Your willingness to answer that question will be revealing in itself.

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