When Second Place Isn’t Good Enough

On the beaches of Coronado during BUD/S training you can hear the instructors yelling from afar: “It pays to be a winner, gents!” When the students hear those words, they know what is coming. They will be divided into six-man boat crews and will compete in a race or an “evolution,” a sequence of races and other activities. We put students of the same height in boat crews to equalize the load in each boat. Winners and winners only are rewarded because in our business, second place in a gunfight doesn’t earn you a trophy; it puts you in a box to be carried home. There is no second place—a concept fundamental to elite organizations—and to anyone aspiring to be the best they can be.

We line up the boat crews on the beach for a briefing. Each team carries a 200-pound rubber boat on their heads, which, as you can imagine, is not exactly pleasant. The boat is merely a tool we use to make the students uncomfortable and to force teamwork. The event may go something like this: each crew will conduct races 500 meters down the beach, and the winner of each race gets to sit down by their boats. The other teams line up again and race, and that winner gets to sit down and rest, and so on until only one team remains. That losing team “gets” to hit the surf; there is nothing a student likes less than getting wet and sandy. The students understand that the winners are rewarded with rest, while the losers do the entire evolution, including getting wet and sandy. The motivation to not finish second is high, which creates tremendous focus.


It is human nature to focus on faults and failures. Most organizations focus on what isn’t working and what people are doing wrong. But good leaders and self-leaders focus on what is going right and reward that behavior because that feedback reinforces winning and creates good organizational habits. Successful, well-recognized teams develop and maintain good practices and serve as models for others, while poorly performing teams don’t know what success looks like and even successful teams that go unrewarded may fail to sustain good practices permanently. That doesn’t mean leaders should focus only on the good stuff— it’s important to correct mistakes—but an emphasis on positive actions can deliver better results faster because most people don’t have a problem seeing the errors.

Don’t find faults; doing that creates a losing mentality.

Focus on what you and your team are doing right.

By the way, which crew do you think wins most of the races? It’s usually the boat crew with the shortest students (we call them “Smurfs”). We’ve never done a scientific study on why Smurfs tend to win. From my experience, they win because they focus on teamwork and strategy, knowing that their stride is shorter and they are carrying a higher percentage of their body weight on their heads. Because they are at a physical disadvantage, they have to work smarter.

Focus on teamwork and strategy, rather than relying on raw talent alone.

In our training, we never play dead, and we never stop fighting even when it appears we have been shot or “killed” in a scenario. We never quit; we continue fighting until we win—just like the Chief in Chapter 2 did. We never practice losing. Yes, this seems obvious, but people continually practice losing with their focus and internal self-deprecation. In our work and lives, if we use defensive language or succumb to awfulizing, we are, in a sense, practicing to lose. Remember, what comes out of our mouths is an indication of what goes on in our minds.

Never practice losing—you’ll end up getting a lot of practice.


Winning is an addiction, and losing is a disease. Let’s pause for a moment to put some blue-collar science behind that statement.

In our bodies we have more than 100 neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that transmit information to our nerves, muscles, and glands. They are used by the brain to help regulate digestion, breathing, and heartbeat. They affect focus, sleep, and mood, and they drive our behaviors. For my purposes, I’ll discuss four key neurotransmitters: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins—a grouping I will refer to as “DOSE.”

Dopamine: The Reward of Pleasure

Among its many functions, dopamine motivates us to achieve, to act to fulfill our desired goals. It’s a habit-forming, addictive neurotransmitter that gives us pleasure when released. Drugs such as cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, nicotine, and alcohol all increase levels of dopamine, which in turn signals our reward system. Behaviors like gambling, sex, and eating are driven by rewards of dopamine.

To create positive habits, we must understand dopamine and take the first-strike approach to produce it. Praise, accolades, compliments, and other reinforcing language trigger a release of dopamine in our bodies. But the odd thing about good habits is that the reward often comes later, not at the time of the action. The reward for eating well takes time; we don’t lose weight overnight. In weightlifting, it takes time for the muscles to respond and grow. The reward for bad habits, on the other hand, is instant gratification: As soon as someone uses drugs or eats a slice of cake, he is high on dopamine. When a gambler walks into a casino and hears the slot machines ringing—“ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!”—and the coins falling, she gets a shot of dopamine, and those shots keep coming until she’s penniless. This is why bad habits are easily formed.

Discipline is all about delaying gratification.

The key to delaying gratification is to focus on the moment and win it! During Hell Week, the alternative is to succumb to the pleasure of stopping to rest, wrapping yourself in a blanket, and taking the boat off your head. The trouble is, once you stop, it’s hard to get back into the moment, and when you do, it seems harder than it was before. Getting into the moment and staying there will get you through adversity more quickly and with less pain. And when you finally get the reward, the pain will be long past.

Self-Leadership and the Importance of Rewards

Good habits take time and more than just willpower; they take offensive action. By recognizing success in ourselves and in our teams, we get a quick dose of dopamine. We need to celebrate good, positive behaviors along the way, rewarding everything we are doing right. Ding, ding, ding, ding! These small celebrations create habits and a “habitude” (habits of attitude) as these recognized successes create proof for our belief in ourselves and our teams.

Think about the power of social media and how it shapes our beliefs and actions. Those who follow you control your actions by clicking the “like” button. Every like is a little dose rewarding your behavior, so the more likes you get, the more you post similar content. In your work and home life, find the “like” buttons and don’t be afraid to push them to celebrate victories. If you are a leader, lead with likes. Identify and praise what people are doing well. By the same token, like yourself—recognize when you do something good as well.

Lead others—and yourself—with “likes.”

When I formed my writing habit, which I definitely had fears and doubts about, I rewarded myself for getting out of the bed at 4:30 a.m. and getting my fingers on the computer keyboard with a delicious cup of bulletproof coffee, coffee that has a little MCT oil (a brain function-enhancing nutrition supplement) and butter. Delicious! I created a new relationship with my writing, and what I once dreaded has become fun and enjoyable. Now when I wake up, I’m excited and don’t have issues getting in front of the computer.

When I mine a nugget of “thought gold” from my mind, I celebrate and congratulate myself; sometimes I do a little dance in my office. There are so many good ways to create dopamine: exercise, music, and meditation, among others. We can use these to help create the habits we want and gain the success we desire. We can manufacture motivation; we just need to go on the offensive.

We can manufacture motivation; we just need to go on the offensive.

Oxytocin: The Love Drug

Sometimes called the “love drug,” oxytocin forges relationships and builds trust and intimacy. During pregnancy and birth, a woman’s oxytocin levels skyrocket, which is nature’s way of bonding mother and child. The simple act of touching someone—respectfully and appropriately, of course!—can help build connection and strengthen your influence as a leader. Even a single hand on a shoulder when complimenting or praising a team member can go a long way.

Humans are designed to work in teams and to sacrifice for one another. This helps ensure our survival; we need each other. However, when Covid-19 swept the country, and the sacrifice asked of us forced us to stay apart from each other and to avoid group gatherings, we saw how isolation and disconnectedness impacted the mental health and well-being of our society. It’s unnatural for us to be apart for extended periods of time.

There is a special bond between SEALs who went through BUD/S, especially Hell Week, together that remains for life. During training, you are always cold and wet, so every chance you get, you huddle together for warmth. Even when standing in line, you lean so close into the person in front of you that no space exists between you. If the instructors wish to punish the class, all they need to do is say: “Spread out.” They know how important it is to maintain body contact in order to warm up. This amount of contact during training contributes to the bonds we form for life.

Serotonin: The Happy Chemical

Commonly referred to as the ultimate happy chemical, serotonin makes you feel significant and important, boosting confidence and helping you succeed. Gratitude increases serotonin levels and makes you happier. Serotonin also either directly or indirectly influences many of the functions that are key to our success and well-being, such as sleep, memory, appetite, and even sexual desire.

Most of the medication prescribed to treat depression and anxiety consists of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which block the reabsorption of serotonin, therefore making more serotonin available. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is caused when diminished sunlight triggers a drop in serotonin levels, resulting in depression. I experienced this when I spent nearly six weeks in Norway during the winter. The sun never came up. It was dark the entire time, and it definitely affected me. Although I loved Norway, all I wanted to do was hit a beach and get some rays.

Endorphins: The Body’s Painkiller

Endorphins are produced by our nervous system to help us deal with pain and stress. They are the body’s painkiller and make us feel good. Have you heard of the “runner’s high”? It’s the euphoric feeling caused by the release of endorphins that follows a run, workout, or other exercise. Listening to music, laughing, having sex, and eating chocolate also trigger the release of endorphins. When we are high on endorphins, the executive part of our brains wakes up, and our ability to think and solve problems improves. We become more productive.

Cortisol: A Losing Path

When I said winning is an addiction and losing is a disease, I meant it literally. Why is losing a disease? Because fear, shame, anxiety, and stress trigger the production of cortisol, which is our body’s built-in alarm system. It fuels our fight-or-flight instinct, and helps us survive, but if too much accumulates over time, it can kill you. It’s beneficial to us when we are in danger, but having it present all the time is harmful.

Someone who is working in a toxic environment, being judged or insulted constantly, also experiences a constant drip of cortisol. It’s like an IV dripping sickness, apathy, and a lack of productivity into their veins. The more we stress, the less we can think. Our performance on complicated tasks decreases, which in turn increases our fears, so we produce more cortisol, and the cycle continues.

Cortisol does strange things not only to our minds, but also to our bodies. We heal more slowly and bruise more easily, and our skin gets thinner. It may even cause acne. Here’s an interesting fact: soldiers in Iraq, on average, gained 10 pounds on deployment. Why? Cortisol makes you crave sweets to build a store of quick energy for fight or flight. I know, it’s counterintuitive. You’d think all the stress and hard work in combat would cause you to lose weight, but, no, you actually may gain it!

Stress and Body Chemistry

After my last deployment to Afghanistan, I went to see one of the doctors who worked with the SEAL Teams. He drew blood samples from older SEALs with multiple combat tours under their belts to see the effects of combat and stress on our body chemistry. The results were not surprising: high levels of cortisol. At the time, I was in great shape from regular training, but the negative compounding effects of elevated levels of cortisol had wreaked havoc on my mood, productivity, sleep, and overall wellness. Beyond that, I had the testosterone level of a person 30 years older, even though I was training heavily with weights. Constant stress is a disease; it will infiltrate all parts of your life, zapping productivity. It will kill you if you don’t treat it.

Managing Your DOSE

As mentioned, for simplicity, I use the acronym DOSE to refer to the neurotransmitters dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. I will also use DOSE when I describe ways to form habits and get in a better state of mind.

Language matters: a single word can trigger different neurotransmitters, and give us either a DOSE or a disease. Over time, the language we choose will have consequences not only on our performance but also on our health and relationships. When we choose to focus, we can influence the timing and rate at which these neurotransmitters are produced. Discipline is about delaying gratification. If we can focus on the moment and delay gratification, we can win the moment. With each moment, we gain momentum with small victories, each time giving ourselves a DOSE. Each DOSE fuels more positive moments, so stay focused!

A single word can give us a DOSE, or it can give us a disease.

These seemingly small adjustments over time remind me of compounding interest and the rule of 72. The rule is simple: if you receive compounded interest in an investment, you can divide 72 by your return percentage to find out how many years it will take you to double your money. For instance: if your return is 12 percent a year, you double your money in six years. Like compounded interest, small wins executed steadily over time grow into something more significant. GUTS is like getting a little return on every part of your life. Imagine, if you build motivation, discipline, and good habits at a rate of 2 percent each week—in 36 weeks, you will be twice as good as you were when you started!

Much like financial compounding, the compound effects of steady drips of positivity can add up quickly. So, too, can drips of negativity take you in the other direction.

Every action is a vote. To win the election, you don’t have to be perfect; you just need to win the most votes. It’s easy for us to fall into the all-or-nothing mode, but it’s more important to keep making incremental progress.


In a dangerous profession, lessons are often “written in blood,” meaning mistakes may cost someone his or her life or limb. In business, mistakes may not be a matter of life and death, but they can still be costly. However, mistakes aren’t all bad. They are also opportunities to learn and evolve; in that way, they can be treasures.

When something goes wrong, SEALs spend an enormous amount of time and energy dissecting the evolution to identify the reasons the mistake was made to ensure it never happens again. We also acknowledge what we did right to enforce that behavior and to anchor good habits and habitudes of continuous improvement. We never waste an opportunity to learn. This process of recall, learning, and evolving is called an After Action Review, or AAR.

The process is quite simple. It mostly consists of awareness and acceptance; over time, the process becomes a habit, a routine part of life. An organization must have what we call an economy of motion, so that all learning leads to prioritization and streamlining for greater productivity. We keep what is useful and discard what is not. For example, in combat shooting, our goal is to put a bullet as quickly and accurately exactly where we want it. Every movement that doesn’t facilitate this we discard. There are no wasted movements.

We do AARs after every single evolution. We dissect what we just did to find out what went well and what didn’t, what mistakes we made, and what we will correct. We do this constantly and consistently. This is a process of discipline. To be the best in the world, you must continuously evolve, always seeking perfection, never being complacent. The AAR process becomes a way of life.

What’s in an AAR?

The structure is pretty simple:

•   Goal: what did I/we intend to do

•   What happened

•   What went right

•   What went wrong

•   What could be better or What I/we have to fix

AAR Rules

If you are doing an AAR, whether professional or personal, you must set boundaries, so that facts dominate, not feelings. It’s not a battle of egos. It’s not a time to beat yourself or others up. It is about objectively figuring out what happened, so that you (and your team) can improve.


•   Do be inclusive

•   Do be candid and professional

•   Do be active (there are no bad ideas)

•   Do leave the ego outside

•   Do listen and respect

•   Do explore disagreements

•   Do have an open mind

•   Do focus on learning

•   Do takeaways and assignments


•   Don’t dominate the process or bully

•   Don’t use seniority

•   Don’t grade

•   Don’t use as a performance review

•   Don’t have preconceived prejudices

•   Don’t get personal

•   Don’t take it personally

Of course, some of these rules don’t apply to an AAR we do for ourselves, but you get the point: be objective.

AARs include goals, what happened, what went right, what went wrong, and what could be better.

The AAR process permeates the entire SEAL organization. We do it in small teams of two or more. Every deployment cycle, which is six months, the whole force does an AAR, referred to as a Command AAR. During these Command AARs, small “tiger” teams collect the data and assign to-do lists with a completion date. To survive, you must evolve; the most adaptable survive. Every technology company and every market leader that has been disrupted by a technology company knows this. If they are complacent for too long, they become extinct.

AARs should be objective, honest, inclusive, respectful, and lead to action.

AAR Feedback

Doing an AAR and getting feedback is essential to improving, but getting accurate and timely feedback is critical. Bad feedback is worse than none at all and can anchor bad behaviors into habits or habitudes. Look for input in every part of your life, and don’t limit your reviews to your team or yourself. Use technology when you can as well. Fitbit and similar devices are simple examples. When I started meditation, I used a Muse Headband wearable brain sensor, which provided immediate feedback on when the mind became calm and attained an alpha brain waves state. From a meager percentage of calm time, I went to a very high percentage very quickly because I got immediate feedback that I could feel. I can reach that state now quite rapidly. I instill the feedback AAR concept in every part of my life as I monitor my heart rate, blood pressure, steps, body fat, muscle density, and so on.

Learning what you’re doing right gives you a DOSE each time, which enables progress and eventually builds good habits.

Time-Out for a Movie, Anyone?

In 2000 the founder of a new struggling company called Netflix approached an industry giant called Blockbuster Video. At the time, Blockbuster was the king of the video rental industry. It had thousands of stores around the country, with millions of customers and massive profits. Netflix wanted to run Blockbuster’s online business, and in return, Blockbuster would promote Netflix in its stores around the country. Netflix received a blessing in disguise: they were laughed out of the meeting. By 2010, Blockbuster was bankrupt.

Many case studies have been written about what happened, and a couple of things jumped out at me. The first was this: if you wanted to rent a video, you had to go to a Blockbuster store and get one. Hopefully, the one you wanted was in stock. If not, you settled for another that was available. As you signed the receipt, Blockbuster gave you a date to return the film. The date depended on the popularity of the movie; the newer and more popular the video, the less time you had. If you didn’t return the movie on time, Blockbuster penalized you. Every day after that due date incurred additional penalties, often totaling more than the original rental price. Blockbuster made as much as $200 million a year in late fees. This was a significant income stream for them, and they didn’t want to give it up. Who would? But as a customer, it angered me to no end, and as soon as Netflix came online, I was happy to jump ship and let Blockbuster go belly-up. Just like leaders who focus on faults whose employees leave when the opportunity arises, maybe Blockbuster should not have made its revenues by penalizing its customers. Perhaps Blockbuster should have avoided finding (and charging for) faults and instead rewarded the customers who returned movies.

Arrogance was the second problem I saw with Blockbuster. It exhibited considerable complacency and had a fixed mindset with little interest in evolving. Its CEO laughed at Netflix as the meeting ended. Arrogance and ego will hamper your ability to explore other ideas and insulate you from valuable insight into other possibilities—mainly because you think you already know it all. An AAR would have little impact in this environment.

AARs enable you to adapt to change. Species that adapt to change survive.

AARs: Becoming Part of Organizational Culture

I have a program called SEALpreneurship through which I teach mental toughness and GUTS to children as well as adults. During the first summer camp program at San Pasqual Academy, a foster youth high school in southern California, I used the Blockbuster story as an example of evolving and of asymmetrical problem solving. None of the kids knew what Blockbuster was, so Blockbuster really is extinct! As a client and friend who is a senior vice president at Microchip Technology, an Arizona semiconductor firm, would say, “You are either green on the vine and growing, or ripe on the vine and dying.”

Living our lives focused on faults will destroy our productivity, our business, and our relationships, and even steal our happiness. Some of you may be thinking that people need to be held responsible. Of course, they do! But are we looking to be right, or would we rather be successful? Rewarding victories and focusing on success is not a zero-sum game. You lose nothing by praising others. People and organizations that learn from success create good habits, which evolve into discipline and ultimately become part of the organization’s culture. Like a flywheel, the culture of winning gains momentum on its own. Eventually, when you hear, “It’s just what we do,” then you know it has stuck.

People and organizations that learn from success create good habits. These habits first evolve into discipline and then become part of the organization’s culture.

Image EXERCISE Image

Adopt a pays-to-be-a-winner mindset in all aspects of your life. Notice what people are doing right, and let them know it. Praise them for it. This reinforces good habits. Do this consistently and you will see a positive change in behaviors in those around you.


•   Never practice losing. Don’t find fault and reinforce a losing message. Focus on successes and wins.

•   The DOSE neurotransmitters (dopamine, oxycontin, serotonin, and endorphins) affect focus, sleep, mood, and behaviors.

•   Praise, accolades, gratitude, wins (even small ones), and other positive outcomes trigger a steady drip of DOSE.

•   Cortisol is triggered by a toxic environment, negative feedback, pain, or stress. Too much cortisol creates more pain or distress, and can lead to health problems.

•   DOSE, a little at a time continuously, compounds for you much like compound interest. Likewise, cortisol compounds against you.

•   Language is powerful. A single word can give you a DOSE or a disease.

•   An After Action Review (AAR) sums up the goals, what happened, what went right, what went wrong, and what could be better. AARs should be balanced, objective, discussed openly, taken seriously, and lead to action.

•   Don’t just wait for positive (or negative) feedback from others. Do self-reviews and AARs constantly. You can manufacture motivation if you take the offensive.

•   It’s not the strongest or the smartest that survives; it is the most adaptable to change. When done right, AARs enable and fuel this adaptation.

•   AARs help make winning part of an organization’s culture.

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