Heroes can take all types of shapes, from doctors, to military, to basketball players. But what are the common factors that help ER Doctors and Navy SEALs stay focused on accomplishing their goals and acts of heroism in the face of daunting challenges?
My partner and teammate, my better half, and my hero is an emergency room doctor. She and I both agree: Navy SEALs and ER docs share something in common. We—all of us—have a little bit of cowboy, a little bit of a buccaneer in us. We are drawn to the chaos and the challenge. We run into the breach and through the fire because, simply, that’s who we are. It’s why we are drawn to what we do.
But you don’t have to be a Navy SEAL or an ER doctor to be faced with a challenge and fight through it. We are all thrown into chaos at one point or another and it can feel like it’s impossible to win.
I’ve spent 30 years running into the breach as a Navy SEAL and almost 3 years of my life overseas in the fight—Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen. I hope my lessons from SEAL training and war can help you in this moment—in this time of times—and that you take these lessons with you going forward, because another challenge is just around the corner. Internalize the following five pillars of focus, and you will be amazed by what you can overcome and accomplish.
In SEAL training, we have what’s called “Hell Week.” It’s really a marathon of suffering that goes on for five days with little sleep and the freezing cold Pacific Ocean. If the first day of hell week starts with the thought, “I can’t believe I have five more days of this,” the task seems enormous. Insurmountable.
Rather than focus on the size of the task, focus on the immediate. What do you have to do right now? Don’t pull future pain forward. Don’t let your mind wander towards the horizon, thinking of all the hard things still to come.
This concept applies far beyond SEAL training. It applied to me going into war zones. To becoming a single father of three kids. To fighting cancer. Focus on the now. When faced with a challenge or disruption, shorten your time horizon by concentrating on your immediate tasks at hand. You will do what must be done and ultimately keep moving forward.
Everyone is a leader in one aspect or another, and leaders focus on others. Leaders lift others up. In a time of challenge, turning inward and thinking only of how hard things are just amplifies the pain. Inwardness saps willpower and makes it harder for you AND others to achieve and succeed.
With an outward mindset, you are primarily concerned with others and how to help them, even in small ways. Being outward not only facilitates the success of others, it minimizes your own suffering. An inward mindset is harmful to yourself and the team. An outward mindset benefits you and those around you.
In hell week and through BUD/S, anyone can drop out by ringing the bell three times. For us, the bell is a symbol of quitting. Never ring the bell! When I was a senior officer, I asked if I could go back and mentor those in my centennial SEAL class. The main point I emphasized was the idea of self-talk. During difficult times, if your self-talk is centered on you and your discomfort, you are walking toward that bell. When you focus on yourself, you are taking a step toward quitting. If you are focused on the mission—on “our” objectives and winning—your suffering is minimized, and you are taking steps toward your goal.
You really get put through the ringer in SEAL training. They always find something, anything, for a reason to punish you. Most instructors—if you are watching closely—are actually doing this in a funny way. Humor is a great way to bond with your teammates. It comes with you when you’re deployed.
Even in the worst of circumstances, you need to find lightheartedness. In fact, it is so important that the British Special Forces put their teams through classes on how to be funny. It is mission essential.
It’s not about ignoring the enormous weight of the situation. It’s accepting the harmony of life.
I took up yoga recently. I was in a position where my muscles were burning, and it was horrible. The instructor said to me, “Find the ease in the effort.” That’s what humor in absurdity means. Even in the middle of struggle and heavy effort, you can relax your face, have a laugh, and find the ease in that effort.
When I was speaking to Emergency Department residents at Cornell and Columbia, I was thinking about what they are going to do and what they are doing right now. In their situation—dealing with overcrowding, shortages of resources, and life and death decisions—they cannot end or ease the discomfort. That’s not going to happen.
There is a great metaphor to this experience. In SEAL training, they get you wet and sandy. Sand is absolutely all over you. The instructor would say, “Don’t bother wiping the sand off. Your goal is not to get comfortable. You have a mission. An objective. Focus on your purpose, and not on your comfort level.”
This same metaphor holds true when dealing with our own challenges. Just sit in it. Don’t try to remove it. If you focus your efforts on removing your discomfort, you’re wasting your time and energy. Don’t bother wiping the sand off. Accept that you can be so unbelievably uncomfortable and tired and yet do your job.
The human body and our unbreakable will are amazing things. This is not unique to Navy SEALs. It’s a skill that you develop. Where I saw this the most was battling cancer. When you go into the chemotherapy ward, you see people that are just suffering so much, not only in the disease but in the treatment. There is not a way to get out of that discomfort except by going through it. I saw so many displays of the strength of the human body and that unbreakable will. These were not SEALs but they found the STEEL in themselves.
The unbelievable capacity of your body to press on and your unbreakable will take you so much farther than you realize. BELIEVE you have it in you—because you do.
Take care of yourself. The people in your life are depending on you. If you don’t fill yourself up, you can’t pour yourself out.
On deployment at war, it’s easy to drive yourself into the ground—long days and nights with little sleep, probably not the best nutrition, and always more to do than you can possibly do. It wears on you physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You have to find moments where you put something in the tank. Steal some sleep, eat something healthy, exercise, or find a brief distraction. Turn it all off for a moment if you can. The fight will be there when you return.
We in the SEAL teams have changed our narrative about mental training and psychological health. We talk about it like going to the gym because every SEAL knows what we’re talking about.
Go to the mental gym. Especially in these times, you’re going to take some blows, and your heart is going to be bruised. Go see a psychologist or a chaplain or a friend and talk about the things that sit heavy on your heart. It never helps to shove it down and ignore it. That’s our lesson in the military. We’ve seen so many suicides and people who don’t reach out for help. The mentality used to be, “I’m damaged if I ask for help. I must be broken if I want to get better.”
I had a great leader and friend who always said, “You don’t have to be broken to get better. You don’t have to be sick to work on your health.” When you go to the gym, it’s not because you’re broken. It’s because you’re going to get stronger. If you seek counseling or talk to someone about your struggles, it’s not because you’re damaged. It’s because you’re strong enough to get help, to work through it.
I’m concerned about our healthcare workers because of what we’ve seen in the military. Our healthcare workers are seeing things that cause moral injury. As a nation, we need to band together and talk about self-care and taking care of each other.
It can sound a little Pollyannaish to say that focusing on these five things will get you through the hard times. I’ve been around the world. I’ve seen incredible suffering. I’ve seen the humanity not only in those dire circumstances but also in the fight to get out of it. There is no way out of it but through it.
When I was mentoring my centennial SEAL training class, someone asked me, “Do you feel sorry for them?” I told them I didn’t, and I don’t. Hell Week is an opportunity few get—to be tested, to outlast the struggle, and come through on the other side. We all have that opportunity NOW. We didn’t volunteer for it, but all of us are in this fight now.
To the healthcare workers around the world, you are fighting a battle most of us will never know. You have been called upon by your community, your nation, and our world in a time of great crisis. You know in a way most of us can’t fathom what it means to be knocked to your knees time and again only to get up—every time—and keep fighting.
It is important to know who you are and to know what you are doing matters on a scale that is hard to imagine. This is the fight of your lifetime. A fight that you will win. We—this nation and this world—are grateful for you.
We can all learn from the healthcare workers waging this global battle. Remember, you are up to the task. You will be tested, and, at one point or another, you will fall short. That’s human. We all come up short.
Get up, be wet and sandy, and stay in the fight.
Rob Newson, Navy SEAL, retired as a Captain from the US Navy. He served as a Federal Executive Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City and as Director, White House Military Office. He has been deployed to 14 different countries on 5 continents and was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star. Rob is the current VP of Strategy and Vision for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Listen to Rob's Five Pillars of Focus webinar www.arbinger.com/webinars.