Using Live Ammo and Brutal Honesty to Achieve Excellence

Late one night in Iraq in 2007, one of our SEAL Chiefs was leading a mission to hunt down high-level Al-Qaeda terrorists with SEALs and Iraqis in Anbar province. The goal was to clear the structure and capture or kill the enemy combatants. The Chief made entry into the building, and from 15 feet away, he was engaged by four heavily armed terrorists; the SEAL behind him was killed instantly. The Chief’s rifle was shot and destroyed, but his training kicked in, so he drew his pistol and engaged the enemy. He was shot 27 times (yes, 27 times!), 11 in his armor and 16 in his body, but he didn’t quit. He killed all four enemy fighters with a handgun, all while being shot at point-blank range.

Is this Chief a superman? No, he’s a well-trained SEAL who went through intensive Close Quarters Battle (CQB) training, during which SEALs use live ammunition and plastic marking rounds (simunition). In training using simunition, it’s very common to go into a room in which the opposing force is waiting and starts firing at you as you enter. The instructor cadre will immediately yell, “Fight, fight, fight, fight. Win the fight. Keep shooting!” Even though you are feeling the pain of those plastic bullets, you must not stop fighting, you must continue until you win. Of course, we know that we might not live long enough in combat to win, but we train for it, so when the time comes, we react like the Chief. If you’re not dead, you’re still fighting. The Chief fell back on his training during this worst-case scenario, and he won. Maybe the Chief is a superman because after that, he walked himself to the helicopter for evacuation.

What is so special about SEAL training? What is it about SEAL training that enabled the Chief to overcome his fear and fight on against such odds? As you’ll see, SEALs are trained using scenarios as close to combat as possible to inoculate us against fear and to practice winning during the worst of times.


The “X” is the spot of contact with the enemy. When you are on the “X,” you need to be at your best. Being on the “X” teaches you just how prepared or unprepared you are. In all phases of our training we focus on getting as close as possible to the “X,” so that when we find ourselves in tough and critical situations, we are as prepared as we can be.


In every phase of training throughout our SEAL careers, we use live ammunition and explosives, as well as simunition fired from real weapons, to get as close to the “X” and combat reality as possible. We use live ammunition against static targets and simunition against other SEALs. These plastic rounds are designed to mark the impact of a bullet. Although they’re not lethal, they do pack a sting. During CQB training, we switch back and forth from live ammo to simunition. Firing live rounds in close proximity to each other and going head-to-head against each other dials up the stress factor significantly and gives us a real feel of the fight, enabling us to train as close to the “X” as possible.

The use of live ammunition creates a training environment unlike any other. Once you lock and load a live bullet, the mindset shifts; the reality of the situation demands complete focus and honesty.

When I use the terms “live ammo” and “close to the ‘X’” in this book, I refer to the strategy of putting yourself into situations as real as possible that force you to be honest and compel you to evolve. Doing reveals hidden truths that studying and theory cannot give you. When you use live ammo close to the “X,” you experience uncertainty, fear, and danger, and you develop the intuition to deal with them under fire.

Like every strategy in this book, live ammo forces you to be honest and enables you to achieve excellence in the most challenging situations. You’ll be better prepared, more confident and aware, and better able to respond to the events happening around you. How do you use live ammo at your job? Accept a difficult assignment, a critical project with high stakes, something close to the “X” for the entire organization. Make the tough calls and take initiative and responsibility, even if you’re not given enough resources to carry out the assignment. Teach your team members your leadership philosophy. Why is this so important? Because teaching forces us to be honest, shows us what we do and don’t know, and requires us to commit to what we actually believe while reinforcing those beliefs with action.


Direct action assaults are one of the most common and most important SEAL missions. Direct action assaults involve a team of as many as 40 SEALs who breach an entry point into a building or ship to engage the enemy at close range in CQB. The enemy doors are often heavily secured, so the breaching is usually done with explosives, as manual breaching wouldn’t work. The training for this mission is time-consuming, exhausting, and very dangerous. We use what we call “kill houses,” large structures designed for shooting with live ammunition to simulate and get as close as possible to a combat environment, the “X.” Additionally, we use concussion grenades, a grenade designed to stun people in the room but not harm them. This training is extremely dangerous and requires a lot of focus and coordination. I’ve been involved in two major accidents during this training in which one SEAL was paralyzed and the other was killed. In our profession, training safety is important but not the paramount consideration. If safety were paramount, we wouldn’t train with live ammo, nor would we jump out of planes at night loaded down with 200 pounds of equipment from 30,000 feet in the sky.

Every time we retrain in Close Quarters Battle, we cover the basics of the crawl, walk, run theory: we start slow and progress to live rounds and explosives. Once the live bullets start flying, you can feel the difference in the training. The focus level increases as the level of anxiety increases. If someone loses situational awareness of exactly where he is in relation to the others on his team, he can get hurt, or even worse, hurt one of his teammates.

In all of our training, our philosophy is “train like you fight, because you will inevitably fight like you train.” This concept pervades every aspect of our organization. When the stress dial gets turned up, you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back on your level of training. During times of stress, you need to act without thinking. Your training is what saves you. We train for the worst-case scenario so that we react in a way that wins the fight.

Train like you fight; fight like you train.

Miyamoto Musashi was Japan’s most celebrated swordsman. Throughout his life, he killed more than 60 men in armed combat, in fights to the death. In his Book of Five Rings, written at the end of his long career as a warrior, he describes the importance of training like you fight. “It is essential that you understand there is no difference between using the sword in combat and in practice. There is no such thing as a grip for striking and a grip for practice.”


You may not be risking your life when you go to work, but you do face metaphorical bullets every day. If you put yourself as close to the “X” as possible by using live ammo, no matter what the situation, you’ll do better when the going gets tough. Here are a couple of examples: If you are going to give a big sales presentation to a very important potential new client, the first shots fired at you should not be during the presentation. Just as attorneys prepare their witnesses for trial by subjecting them to relentless and aggressive questioning, you should prepare by doing a mock presentation to critical naysayers you’ve tasked to shoot holes into everything you say, so that you don’t freeze in fear when those shots come during the actual event. Don’t practice stopping and starting over during the mock presentation, keep going—just like the Chief never practiced quitting.

As a SEAL leader, negative performance counseling is one of the most stressful and important things we do. Performance reviews, especially to direct reports who are underperforming, can be challenging, but they are a highly beneficial tool to help people grow. However, if not executed well, they can lead to future hostility and resentment. Don’t leave it to chance. Do a mock review and ask someone you trust to play the role of the problematic employee, shooting live ammunition at you, so you get as close to the “X” as possible before you conduct the review.

Learn to speak to top leadership by doing it. Take on hard assignments by volunteering for them. Put yourself as close to the “X” as often as you can, and when the chips are down and you’re under fire, you’ll inevitably perform optimally.


SEALs are responsible for the nation’s most critical missions, and we don’t plan to fail; every mission is a no-fail mission. We push ourselves in training to find out exactly where we stand, and this creates honesty and, more importantly, humility. In a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) environment, humility opens the door to understanding, to learning and evolving, to continuous improvement. Ego shuts this door to preserve a distorted self-image.

In social psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a theory that people overestimate their own competence; they have cognitive bias. In 1999, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger tested participants in grammar, logic, and humor. After the test, they interviewed the students to ask them about their perceived abilities in each of the fields tested. The students who performed way below average on the tests believed they were well above average in those areas, while the students who scored the highest underestimated their abilities because they thought the test was easy, so they assumed it was easy for everyone. The danger zone is arrogant unconscious incompetence because we believe we are competent, but we aren’t, and our arrogance stops us from learning.

Almost 90 percent of people believe they are above average drivers, nearly 95 percent of college professors think they’re better than their colleagues.1 How can that be? It seems the less you know, the more you think you know, and the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. As Charles Darwin once said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”2

The Blue-Collar Scholar approach to improving and learning is to step as close to the “X” as you can with a humble conscious incompetence mindset—knowing that you do not know—as a starting point. And when I refer to the “X,” I mean situations that carry real risk that will force you to change and grow. Nothing is more honest than a live bullet, and any highly successful organization needs to use brutal honesty to strive for excellence. Brutal honesty is a form of live ammunition.

On the “X,” conscious incompetence becomes unconscious competence.


The truth is, we all lie to ourselves. Or, to put it more generously, we deceive ourselves and hide from reality. Walk into a gym, and you’ll notice a guy hitting a speed bag so rapidly that it looks like a fan blade, so fast you can’t even see it. But once this guy steps into the ring and gets punched in the face, everything changes. The speed bag doesn’t hit back, but on the “X,” the other fighter does. If he spars regularly and gets punched in the face enough times, then he will know what to do because he has learned how to deal with it. The feeling you have when you get punched in the face for the first time cannot be taught; it can only be learned. As SEALs, we train as hard as we can, but the first time you get shot at—“baptism by fire”—it teaches you nuances that you would not have otherwise known. The deeper and more frequently you train with live ammo, the less fear you will have in the future when you get on the “X.” You’ll have experience close to the “X” under live fire.

The feeling you have when you get punched in the face for the first time cannot be taught; it can only be learned.

Growing up I was fascinated by Arnold Schwarzenegger. I started to pump iron like him. I couldn’t get enough of his determination to be a champion. I give him a lot of credit for my success and ultimately earning a Division One college baseball scholarship.

During his ascent to the top of the bodybuilding world, Arnold noticed that, despite his well-developed upper body, his calves were small and unimpressive. Yet even he could not find the motivation to work on his calf muscles. In his book Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, he includes a picture from his late teens, showing him posing in water deep enough to cover his calves. When he noticed this weakness and realized that he could not solve the fault by himself, he forced himself to use live ammo. As he explains:

The first thing I did was to cut off the bottoms of my training pants. Now my calves were exposed for me and everyone else to see. If they were underdeveloped—and they were—there was no hiding the fact. And the only way I could change the situation was to train my calves so hard and so intensely that the back of my legs would come to resemble huge boulders. At first, this was embarrassing. The other bodybuilders in the gym could see my weakness, and they consistently made comments. But the plan eventually paid off. No longer able to ignore my calves, I was determined to build them into one of my best body parts. Psychologically, it was a brutal way to accomplish this, but it worked, and that is what I really cared about. When I stepped on stage at a competition two years after I first began trying so hard to bring up my calves, and I turned my back to the audience, my calves were so huge that I got an ovation even before I flexed them.

Finding the “X” in life is to expose your weaknesses so that you can work on them. It forces you to be honest.

What does this mean to you and how can it work for you? Your task is to find your own live ammo in the areas in which you wish to achieve something, and then to be honest and figure out under what conditions you will improve the most. For instance, when I wanted to lose a few extra pounds, I didn’t avoid the beach, I went to the beach and took my shirt off, and I got a scale that measured body fat percentage. I did what Arnold did. I put myself in a position that forced me to confront my goals, and it worked.


In planning for the publication of First, Fast, Fearless, I began preparing to speak professionally. In the SEAL Teams, I was regularly in front of groups, having given briefs on hundreds of missions and strategic analyses to hundreds of people. My confidence was reasonably high, but I knew that speaking in front of military personnel wasn’t the same as speaking in front of business leaders. When I’m giving a mission brief, I’m not exactly interested in connecting emotionally with the audience. It’s all about providing information about the mission, while showing nothing other than courage and confidence. I don’t have to gain their attention—the situation does it for me.

I wanted to get better on the “X,” so I used live ammo by finding local groups and volunteering to speak at events whenever I could. It didn’t take long for me to realize how much I didn’t know and how much I needed to learn. It was painful. I had an issue with vulnerability. I didn’t want to open up in front of people, so I was terrible at connecting with an audience. As a consequence, I spoke like a robot. Honestly, I was quite dull. But I kept speaking in front of small groups until I started to find my rhythm and grew comfortable with being myself on stage, which was not easy to do. I also did improv (comedy) classes to really put myself out there and to experience new things. Practicing in front of a mirror is excellent and helpful, but once you get on stage and the fear and vulnerability kick in, and you see the faces in the crowd—most are staring at you, but some are on their phones or may even be nodding off—you learn what the mirror can’t teach. I am building my skills with each event, figuring out what went well and what I can do better. I haven’t mastered it yet, but I am working on it. It’s a process.

Developing this skill has transformed me in ways that I didn’t foresee. I’ve been on dozens of national and local news shows, I did a History Channel series, and I’ve been asked to host future shows by two production companies. None of this would have happened had I not used live ammo. I didn’t start off by speaking to 2,000 people at a national conference. I started out by talking to small groups that I knew wouldn’t be hostile, so that the experience wouldn’t be terrifying. I started small and slowly went bigger; along the way I built my competence and inoculated myself against fear. A little live ammo goes a long way.

If there is one skill that I would recommend, it’s to train in public speaking. Get in front of people, and learn to tell stories that connect with the audience. Leaders and self-leaders must be excellent communicators, and the best way to get there is to use live ammo.

I realize that using live ammo—whatever it may be for you—dials up the fear and doubt. It requires motivation. It may be daunting, but if you use live ammo and are ruthlessly honest about it—and yourself—you will reap rewards you never imagined possible.

Image EXERCISE Image

Look at the areas in your life that are important to you and see how you can use live ammunition in those areas to force improvements. For example, if you are a leader, lock and load a 360-degree evaluation to find out how you lead. Work on self-improvement. Begin by telling your team what you are working on, and ask them to hold you accountable whenever you fall back on bad habits or unproductive behavior. Demand brutal honesty; it drives excellence.


•   Train like you fight, and fight like you train. There is no substitute for doing.

•   Using live ammo close to the “X” is the strategy of putting yourself into situations as real as possible that force you to be honest and compel you to evolve.

•   There is no quitting once you’re on the “X.”

•   On the “X,” you evolve from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

•   The “X” starts as a learning tool and becomes a platform for transformation.

•   Brutal honesty is a trait that drives excellence.

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