The Origin of GUTS (Greatness Under Tremendous Stress)

When I started my own “journey home” after 20 years of service, I reflected on my days as a lead instructor, training people to become U.S. Navy SEALs, a time I will always remember with reverence and awe. Navy SEAL training is known to be one of the toughest and most rigorous military training regimens in the world. At the height of the wars on terror, we received nearly 10,000 applications a year; of those, we could accept only 1,200 or so to even begin training. Attrition is high, and the most we have ever graduated in a year is 250 SEALs. The odds of getting in and making it through to graduation are low.

Our Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training is what most people think of when they think of SEAL training, but BUD/S is just a portion of the complete basic training a student goes through to become a Navy SEAL. Before students get their coveted Navy SEAL Trident, they must successfully complete more than a year of grueling training that includes:

•   8-week Naval Special Warfare Prep School

•   3-week Orientation

•   21-week Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training (including Hell Week)

•   7-week Parachute Jump School and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE)

•   19-week SEAL Qualification Training (SQT)

Upon graduation from SQT, a trainee receives the coveted Navy SEAL Trident, which officially designates him as a Navy SEAL. He receives a Special Warfare Operator Naval Rating or, in the case of a commissioned Naval officer, the designation Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) Officer. He is then assigned to a SEAL Team or a SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Team, and begins an 18-month predeployment training program consisting of:

•   6-month Professional Development (ProDev)—individual Specialty Training

•   6-month Unit Level Training (ULT)

•   6-month Squadron Integration Training

In total, this represents two-and-a-half to three years of continuous training until the new SEAL deploys for the first time—and then his journey truly begins.

An old wooden plaque inside the training compound reads: “The only easy day was yesterday.” This expression sets clear expectations that being a SEAL is never easy; only yesterday is because it’s over. After a six-month deployment, the 18-month predeployment training program starts over, and each time the SEAL conducts ProDev, he masters a new skill, such as explosive breaching; becoming a sniper, professional driver, or interrogator; leadership training; and more. As the SEAL continues to deploy, he develops new skills, but also retrains in the fundamental skills. His training and development are never complete.

When I look back to training SEALs, my mind always takes me to graduation, the day when students become Navy SEALs and join the brotherhood that we all genuinely love. For the first time, we see the students with their families and loved ones. In a sense, it’s a clash of past and present, as students become aware of their own transformation, one that is also recognized by their families.

“My son is different now” was a common refrain, especially from the mothers, on graduation day. Something had changed, and it was noticeable. It was a moment to celebrate, but it was also a moment of sadness, of missing the son who used to be. It wasn’t a physical transformation, but something else. The mothers would tell me that their son’s presence had changed, that he now walked, talked, and carried himself differently, and that he addressed the world around him differently. It wasn’t arrogance or cockiness: he had developed a different relationship with life and his place in it. From my perspective, he had developed GUTS—Greatness Under Tremendous Stress—a systematic approach to accomplishment that enables him to become an “alpha” in his professional and personal world.

This book is not about helping you become a SEAL (although if that’s your intent, it certainly won’t hurt). It’s about helping you develop GUTS, so you can take an alpha approach to everything you do in life.


In the animal world, many species travel in packs led by an alpha male or female. The other animals in the pack always sense and know who the alpha is, just as the families can see and sense the change in their loved ones at graduation. From this interaction he can see and feel this transformation himself, and he has what I call the “alpha swagger”—a focused and authentic state of mind and a sense of being fully present, living life on his own terms with intent. This “swagger” isn’t necessarily permanent—I felt I had lost some of it when I came home from my 20-year career.


When I started to develop the GUTS concept, I dissected my life, studied what had worked in the past, and identified what had made me successful, happy, fulfilled, and thrive in such a dangerous and challenging profession. All of us have to deal with fear and stress and must manufacture the motivation to get ourselves past it. GUTS serves as a bridge to help you cross the accomplishment gaps in your life.

An accomplishment gap is simply a gap between who or what you are and who or what you think you should be or want to be. A “State of the American Workplace” Gallup poll shows that 70 percent of employees are either passively or actively disengaged with their work. Apathy is prevalent; people aren’t motivated and thus waste their lives. These gaps pop up in our personal lives, too.

Now I don’t recommend that everyone become a SEAL—it surely is not for everyone! What I do recommend is that you borrow the GUTS page from the SEAL playbook, and use GUTS and the alpha approach to deal with the accomplishment gaps in your professional and personal lives. Deal with fear, become a warrior, get it done, and learn from your success!


Published in 1899 by Elbert Hubbard, the essay “A Message to Garcia” continues to be taught to this day at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, West Point, and virtually all Officer Training Programs in all branches of service. It tells a story that took place during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States declared war against Spain due to Spanish interference in Cuba. The war was triggered by the sinking of the American battleship the USS Maine. After the sinking of the Maine, President William McKinley needed to make contact with the senior Cuban insurgency leader, General Calixto Garcia. As Hubbard wrote:

In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion.

When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses [secluded places] of Cuba—no one knew where. No mail or telegraph could reach him. The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly.

What to do!

Someone said to the President, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and having delivered his letter to Garcia, are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?”

By the Eternal! There is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college in the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this or that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies; do the thing—“carry a message to Garcia!”1

First Lt. Andrew S. Rowan, a junior Army Officer, was entrusted this mission by his Commanding Officer directly from the president. He was given no guidance, no instructions; he was on his own. Rowan knew it and accepted it. He left by ship at night and landed soon after in Jamaica, where he met up with the head of the Cuban junta. A carriage drove up to him, and someone in Spanish said: “It is time!” Rowan was smuggled in a wagon across Jamaica and then transferred onto a small boat loaded with weapons to the island of Cuba. He cut through jungles and escaped and evaded the Spanish. He rode horses for days and was smuggled by unknown men he had never met and had no way of vetting. He encountered countless trials and tribulations, but he never stopped pressing forward. In the worst of times, he was at his best and delivered the message to Garcia.

He then carried a message back to the United States to help coordinate the war plans, and his actions proved critical to the war’s success. One hundred years ago, Rowan was a household name. A Senate bill was drafted that called for a statue to commemorate his bravery and perseverance, and he received the Army’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross.

Rowan’s effort is timeless; that’s why it’s still taught today. His capacity for independent action, initiative, courage, and problem solving and his ability to perform during times of uncertainty and duress are legendary and something to aspire to. Rowan had GUTS!


SEALs know that we will face difficulty, that we will be challenged in ways that we cannot predict, but that we must be prepared mentally and physically to carry the message. Before we can lead others, we must learn to lead ourselves. Beyond the distinct traits of physical and moral courage, a SEAL must learn how to become an expert at being an expert quickly. SEALs learn to be what I call “Blue-Collar Scholars.”

The perfect Blue-Collar Scholar is a highly adaptable handyman with expertise in philosophy, science, psychology, and art, with the spirit and curiosity of a pioneer and entrepreneur. Like Rowan, he is ultimately a practical doer.

Knowledge is power, but doing empowers.

The Blue-Collar Scholar is not after perfection. His focus is on the 80 percent solution, so that he can start taking action now! This approach includes a personal growth mindset and an openness to learn and evolve.


A Blue-Collar Scholar becomes the expert at being an expert by using a simple system I call “STICKS”:

•   Situation

•   Toss aside beliefs

•   Immersion

•   Conscious, competent learner

•   Kick out what’s not useful

•   State of mind

You must see your current situation clearly, and be able to toss aside beliefs in order to grow and change. To become great, you must immerse yourself in what you do, learn as if you are preparing to teach, and kick out what you can’t or don’t need to use. Finally, you must be in the right state of mind to evolve.

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.



Part of the Blue-Collar Scholar approach includes asymmetrical, or out-of-the-box, thinking. SEALs plan and train hard, so that when we are on the mission, we have a sense of déjà vu, a feeling that we’ve been there before, so it’s not as scary. But while we plan and prepare, we want to tap into a sense of “vuja de,” of seeing something we’ve seen countless times before with fresh eyes, as if we’re seeing it for the first time, so that we’re seeing asymmetrically.

Let’s get after it!

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