When candidates show up to SEAL Training, we start to control the language they use to establish the mental framework and discipline to be a SEAL. SEALs conduct our nation’s most strategic missions; often they are “no-fail” missions that affect national security. When a SEAL student is asked whether he completed his mission, there are three possible responses: “Yes,” “No,” and “I f***ed up!”
Saying “I f***ed up” is a form of ownership because you own the outcome and are not excusing yourself by blaming something or someone other than you. Saying it out loud is an important component, even if the students are thinking of excuses at the time. There may be circumstances out of their control that keep them from completing the mission. We know that, but the goal here is to hammer home that they will not be excused for failing to complete the mission because they own the outcome. It breaks the cycle of excuses and forces students to be innovative, creating an invisible force that compels them to accomplish what they intend to do. This drives teamwork, self-reliance, and a can-do and will-do attitude. Out of necessity, they start to solve their problems in very creative ways.
Language matters, and the words we choose develop our thoughts and make them clearer. Those thoughts become actions, and our actions eventually make us who we are.
One day my nine-year-old son and I were in the house playing with some of his Star Wars toys. He stopped what he was doing and looked at me. I could tell he wanted to ask a question, so I stopped what I was doing and looked back at him. He said, “Daddy, I bet you cursed a lot in combat, didn’t you?” He had a look of thoughtful curiosity in his eyes, and I knew he’d been thinking about this for some time. I’m not a saint, but my wife and I do try to control our language in the house, and as much as humanly possible in the car, but we know how difficult that can be at times. Obviously, I’m worse than she is, having spent most of my adult life in the Navy.
Our day-to-day language comes from the left hemisphere of our brain, the cerebral cortex, which is associated with our higher thought processes. But cursing comes from our older reptile brain, the amygdala, in the limbic system in the brain’s right hemisphere. Cursing is connected to strong emotions such as anger, lust, fear, and even compassion. Curse words are so emotionally powerful in our society that many have been banned from TV, books, and games; some are also outlawed or considered hate crimes in certain contexts. Words are powerful.
A 2017 New Yorker magazine article by Melissa Mohr, the author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, cites an interesting study. In 2009, Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University in England, asked a group of volunteers to plunge one hand into a bucket of ice-cold water and keep it there for as long as they could. Stephens sometimes instructed them to utter an expletive of their choice—one that “they might use if they banged their head or hit their thumb with a hammer,” according to an article he wrote about the study. Other times he had them utter a neutral word, like “wooden” or “brown.” With few exceptions, the volunteers could hold their hands in the water for longer when they cursed—about 40 seconds longer, on average. Stephens believed swearing to be a form of pain management and empowerment and went on to do other studies to prove it.
In the New Yorker article, Mohr also refers to a 2011 study at the University of Bristol that found that saying swear words prompted an emotional reaction in the people who said them, and researchers could detect an increase in the conductivity of their skin. These studies show, in fact, that the use of strong language can both get you charged up and create a physical reaction that helps you better deal with pain.
The bottom line: Cursing and taboo words trigger the oldest part of our brains, and they can be powerful and useful when used correctly and sparingly as a tool to get things done.
Accountability is the extreme ownership of an outcome. In a dangerous profession, you must understand that the result often happens to you. It’s not something that you observe; it becomes part of you. To understand extreme ownership, you must first believe that we all have free will and can make choices with that free will. Personal accountability is a choice, yet it is also a fact of life. What you choose is what your life turns into; it happens to you.
We give SEAL candidates more tasks than they can complete, and we give them timelines to force them to prioritize and think in asymmetrical ways to accomplish the mission. I know it seems a little harsh, and maybe unfair, that we treat students this way knowing we induce failure, but allowing no excuses serves the goal of breaking the relationship most people have with excuses and with failure. Making excuses wastes mental energy and time hunting for something or someone to blame for failures. It can also affect our belief in our own performance. By not allowing excuses, we demand greater effort from students. Over time, this fosters innovation and all-in commitment. And this individual all-in commitment amplified many times over in teams results in an invisible force capable of achieving the most challenging of missions. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
In the SEAL Teams, leaders can and have been fired, even though they were not directly responsible for a misstep made by their teams. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. As I write this book, a SEAL platoon was sent home from deployment for misconduct; when they came back, the senior leaders were fired, and their careers basically ended. They weren’t present overseas when the misconduct happened, yet they were accountable. It is important to understand that standards become what leaders allow.
One of my pet peeves is watching people cross a road in front of a stop sign while not paying any attention to oncoming traffic, assuming everyone will actually stop. I say this because I watched a 20-something-year-old man texting while walking through the crosswalk, never diverting his attention to a 4,000-pound vehicle coming his way. The driver of the car slowed down enough to make a right turn but did not come close to stopping. He hit the man at significant speed. The man flew over the driver’s side of the car, landing just on the other side of the driver’s door. I ran to the injured man to assess his injuries; they weren’t fatal, but they weren’t good. His leg was broken and probably his knee as well. Whose fault was it? Or should I say, who was to blame? Does it matter? The young man will most likely spend the rest of his life dealing with those injuries—the outcome happened to him.
Of course, the driver will be held responsible. His insurance will probably go up a few hundred dollars a year, but the man on the ground will deal with this for the rest of his life. He owns the outcome; he is accountable for his life. Yes, the driver should have stopped, but the man who got hit had outsourced his safety. Yes, the injured man is in the right, but how does that help him?
Accountability in life cannot be delegated; your life is your own.
The man who was hit had outsourced the outcome of his life to someone or something other than himself. As a society, we often rely on a higher authority—parents, spouses, bosses, law enforcement, teachers, politicians, “experts with certificates and licenses,” etc.—to decide the outcome of our lives. GUTS accountability is about choosing to accept ownership of your life and not outsourcing it to anyone or anything else. The Blue-Collar Scholar takes from the experts what she can use, but kicks out what is not useful. She owns herself.
Ownership of something has an extreme and profound impact on the relationship we have with it. I use the word “relationship” because, just like any relationship, you need to work continually on it, be deliberate about it, and, in a way, fall in love with it.
Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, did a study on anterograde amnesia, a rare condition that makes it impossible for a person to acquire new memories. In his research, he presented individuals with this condition with six paintings and asked them to rank them from the one they liked best to the one they liked least. He told them they would receive a poster of one of the paintings they had chosen, but instead of their favorite, they could choose between their third and fourth picks. The individuals chose their third best-liked painting. He then left the room, waited a sufficient amount of time, and returned. By then the subjects had not only forgotten the experiment, they had even forgotten who he was, so he explained the process again. When Gilbert asked them to rank their six paintings, their choices had changed.
Now one would think that since the participants had no memory of the experiment, they would predictably put the paintings in the same order. But that is not what happened. They actually ranked their third pick second and their fourth pick fifth. Remember that Gilbert had promised to give the participants a poster of their third pick. Although none of them remembered the experiment, somehow, something was triggered in their minds that made them think they owned that poster and therefore they liked it better! The poster they rejected the first time, their fourth pick, they ranked lower and liked less because they had already rejected it.
When we choose to own something, we can fall in love with it. When we choose to take extreme ownership of the outcomes of our lives, we can then fall in love with our lives and stop blaming and finger-pointing to find who’s at fault for failures. That frees us from our past and gives us ownership of our future.
I’m sure you’ve had coworkers and managers (and family members, for that matter) who contribute little to a discussion or outcome, but strive to “find the fault” in anything someone else does or says. It’s the easy way out. Rather than doing the hard work themselves and being fully accountable for the organization’s success, they try to look and act important or smart by finding the faults or weaknesses in the work of others. For many, it becomes the only thing they do day in, day out. Playing “find the fault” may look smart, but it means they do not own the trajectory of their lives. They have outsourced their lives to someone or something else; they are not accountable. They look back and excuse themselves with the past. They don’t care about or love the outcome in a way that gives them ownership of their futures.
Accountability is both freedom from the past and ownership of the present and future.
When we outsource the results in our lives or focus on the excuses, we never fully accept ownership and, therefore, never wholly invest ourselves in the outcome. As a result, we never love our lives the way we can. Excuses feel good, but they don’t do good, so it’s best to sever that relationship with excuses and own the outcome. Don’t get me wrong, SEALs still have the desire to excuse themselves just like anyone else; however, we are conditioned to be aware of it and don’t allow it in our organization. For instance, we often do “monster mashes,” major physical fitness events that challenge and push our fitness levels and that can last almost all day. When we’re all standing around about to start the evolution, it’s not uncommon for some to start making excuses for why they won’t perform at their best: “Oh man, I did a huge run yesterday,” “I pulled a muscle in my leg recently,” “I’ve been out of town for a month,” and so on.
We say, “Go ahead and put that shit in the excuse locker and leave it there!” An “excuse locker” looks a lot like a trash can because that’s what it really is. We laugh at each other and make fun of those who fill the excuse locker the most. But we get it out of our system, and yes, it does feel good. But making excuses up front is like justifying losing before the game even begins; it’s failing before starting. If you leave them behind in the excuse locker, that’s OK—just never mention them again.
A few years ago, I worked with legendary baseball player and pitching coach Rick Peterson to help him develop his book Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most. He was the pitching coach during the “Moneyball” era with the Oakland A’s, a saga told in a bestselling book and very successful movie. We had long discussions about some of his best pitchers and what made them successful. I told him about the excuse locker concept and how SEAL training breaks the relationship with excuses and teaches ownership of the outcome. I compared baseball with a SEAL deployment. Major League teams play 162 games a year; during a typical deployment into combat a SEAL team conducts that many or more missions in a six-month period. It’s not like the movies; it’s a grind, physically and emotionally. You have to get up every day and focus on being your best when you don’t feel your best. Near the end of a deployment, you may have broken fingers, twisted and swollen joints, stitches, a few concussions from blasts, a painful back, all while being physically and emotionally exhausted—but your enemy doesn’t care that you’re not feeling your best. It dawned on Rick that his best pitchers didn’t focus on their small injuries. They learned to play at their best when they didn’t feel their best. They left their excuses in the locker room and didn’t dwell on them during the game.
Break your relationship with excuses and own the outcome.
Outsourcing our lives makes us fragile. Even our happiness becomes dependent on something or someone else, not ourselves. I know this all too well. For years, I was “working” on a book with a family member who was a trained “writer” and was responsible for the writing. And for years nothing got done. I felt helpless and hopeless because neither he nor I held him accountable for deadlines and doing the work. Six months turned into six years. Outsourcing made me feel like a prisoner, helpless to accomplish a goal I’d set. I didn’t feel like I owned my own future; responsibility can be delegated, but accountability cannot. Eventually, I held him accountable and fired him. I took back ownership of the writing outcome. A little more than a year later, I had an agent, a contract with McGraw Hill, and a bestselling book.
In the SEAL Teams, we are quick to learn that although we operate with overlapping fields of accountability, you are accountable for your own life. No one cares about it as much as you do, so take care of it.
Outsourcing our lives makes us fragile and dependent on others.
It is blatantly obvious when an organization lacks accountability. Promises are made, yet there is little evidence of consequences for or ownership of the outcome by those who break those promises.
When I speak to teams about overlapping accountability, I use the metaphor of an organism, not an organization. Organizations often have silos, different departments with conflicting goals that are almost always full of excuses and finger-pointing. When you operate as an organism, you operate knowing that failures and mistakes happen to everyone on the team; small businesses and aviation crews understand that if they go down, they all go down together.
An organization confines responsibility to individual silos and shows little accountability for the total outcome. An organism features overlapping accountabilities, minimizing mistakes and maintaining focus on the total outcome. Everyone has ownership of that outcome.
The more an organization acts like an organism, the better.
The responsibility I refer to is a sense of personal responsibility as a human being and leader that I choose to accept. It goes above and beyond the responsibility I’m given. Although I’m retired from the SEAL Teams, I still consider myself a steward of society, and when I’m around, I want people to feel safer, better off, and happier because I’m in the room. When that 20-something-year-old man was hit by the car at the stop sign, I didn’t wait for someone else to act. And I sure as hell never thought it wasn’t my responsibility to get involved.
In life and in every organization (not an organism), the bystander effect is widespread. This effect often occurs in the presence of others, especially in an emergency situation, like the young man being hit. The more people are present, the more likely each person will defer the implied responsibility of helping and assume it’s someone else’s issue to deal with. The self-leadership I advocate implies a sense of overall personal responsibility.
In the workplace, the bystander effect, or lack of personal responsibility, keeps people from addressing problems that are often elephants in the room. People frequently allow bullying, discrimination, toxic behavior, and, as we’ve seen recently with the #metoo movement, sexual harassment in the workplace. Remember, as a leader, what you tolerate becomes the new standard. So instead of focusing on who else is responsible, focus on building a strong sense of personal responsibility. If you see something that needs to be done, do it or take responsibility. That’s genuine accountability and evidence of true self-leadership. It’s also the kind of leadership that holds others accountable and develops a sense of personal responsibility in team members for the greater good of all, enabling the team to operate like an organism.
If not me, then who? If not now, when?
—HILLEL THE ELDER
Write down the three responses on a sticky note and put it where you will see it often. When you catch yourself responding to others and even yourself with anything other than “Yes,” “No,” or “I f***ed up,” ask yourself why you are doing so. When you stick (or return) to these three answers, it will start to break your relationship with excuses and build a stronger sense of accountability. As you do this, you will become increasingly conscious of the excuses you make, and you’ll gain an appreciation for how frequently most people excuse themselves for their failures. Remember, excuses feel good but don’t do good.
• Accountability is the extreme ownership of an outcome.
• When accountable, the only answers are “Yes,” “No,” and “I f***ed up.”
• Accountability means no excuses.
• Accountability cannot be outsourced.
• Accountability means accepting our own failures.
• Accountability means accepting the failures of others and acting for the common good. Playing the blame game with other team members accomplishes little.
• Not being accountable makes us fragile, fearful, tentative, and dependent on others.
• Being accountable frees us from the past and gives us ownership of the future.
• Organizations operate in silos, with narrow responsibilities but little accountability for common results. An organism has overlapping accountabilities in which everyone has ownership of the outcome.
• Excuses feel good but don’t do good.