Before heading off to Afghanistan, knowing I would be driving around in clandestine vehicles with another Special Forces soldier, I went to and trained at a professional race car driving school. At the end of the first lecture, before heading out to the track, the instructor concluded with an important point: “By the way, don’t stare at the wall.” One of the best race car drivers of all time, Mario Andretti, gave the same advice when asked about his secret for becoming a world-class champion. He said the direction you focus on is the direction you will follow, and if you stare at the wall, you will probably hit it.
The direction you focus on is the direction you will follow.
Don’t look where you don’t want to go.
In the world of warfare, you want to become the best shooter possible. You want the weapon to be an extension of your arm, and you want to be able to feel it and be sensitive to its nuances. Only a few points of performance are required to be a great shooter, but you must master them to be at a world-class level. Our secondary weapon (behind the M4 rifle, our primary weapon) is the pistol, one of the most difficult weapons to master. Small mistakes, even at close targets, become exaggerated due to the short sight radius between a pistol’s back and front sight posts for aiming. For decades my technique for firing a pistol was to repeat in my mind and often out loud, “Front sight, front sight, front sight.” I did this thousands of times during my career.
This technique reminds and forces me to focus my eye on the front sight of the weapon so that it is crystal clear, rather than focus on the target I’m aiming at; the target will be blurry. People with no shooting experience will think this is strange, but if you focus on the target instead of the front sight, you will miss. Your eye can focus on only one distance at a time, so it is the front sight post that must be in focus and clear. Being able to control your focus is a necessary skill for any type of success in our lives.
As a SEAL officer instructor running Hell Week for our Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training programs, I did quick counseling sessions with the students when they quit the program to make sure I captured the “why,” but also to make sure the students were being honest with themselves. I would get excuses like “I saw God” or “I don’t want to hurt people,” but I kept pushing because they needed to be honest about why they had quit. We also needed to learn those reasons so that we could improve our mental training program. Quickly they would ’fess up that they were cold and miserable, and simply couldn’t do this training for 20 more weeks.
The students lost their focus on the moment, allowing their attention to shift. They looked into the future and saw the distance between themselves and the target. The reality: the students didn’t have to do this for 20 more weeks; all they had to do was another second, another minute, another hour. They worried that they couldn’t continue this type of rigorous training, and that worry was nothing but predicting failure and pain in the future.
The type of training and level of discomfort involved requires you to be in the moment and to maintain your focus on the present, not the future. Each student I went through BUD/S with just wanted to make it to the sixth week—Hell Week, a six-day intensive training regimen on a four-hour per week sleep maximum. Our “long-term” focus was on starting Hell Week; we didn’t look down the road any further.
In writing this book my focus was not to sit down for eight hours a day and write; my goal was to start! My offensive focus was on getting my hands on the computer. After a few hours, I’d start to discover my ideas and my voice. At that point, I wouldn’t stop because I knew that it would be a long way back to where I’d left off if I did. But the key to it all was getting to the starting line with my fingers on the keyboard.
Many people talk about wanting to write a book. I consider that an empty goal; the real goal is to become a writer. Being a writer is about patience, motivation, and discipline—and about showing up ready to roll when it’s time to write. It has been said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. That applies to success as well.
In the SEAL Teams, we use extreme discipline when carrying any weapon. Having “muzzle discipline”—knowing at all times where the muzzle is pointing—is paramount. For weeks before students even fire a gun, they carry an empty one. They are watched like a hawk to make sure their muzzle never crosses the path of something they do not wish to destroy. Analogous to this “muzzle discipline,” focus discipline in the SEAL Teams is absolutely critical to mission success.
The world is full of “focus thieves” that compete for our attention—pop-up ads, commercials, texts, email and news notifications; multiple tasks; and thousands of others. We have increasingly shorter attention spans and attention deficit disorder is on the rise. You can imagine the number of focus thieves that may be operating in a combat arena, yet those pale in comparison to the focus thieves lurking in civilian life!
We all know how it feels to be talking with people who are addicted to their phones. We barely command any of their attention; it’s absolutely annoying and sad. I see parents glued to their phones while they “watch” their child score a soccer goal or get a hit in baseball. The parents may be there, but they are not present and don’t really experience it. The inability to maintain focus has created a population of people who can do things that require limited attention but can’t master anything. They become transactional, not transformational in their lives. Transactional people can’t transform an organization, much less themselves.
Without focus, we become transactional, not transformational, individuals.
It’s not hard to imagine how being transactional and constantly distracted by the latest stimuli can undermine transformational performance in the workplace, at home, or anywhere else you’re trying to achieve something important. Effective self-leadership to achieve transformational goals—to bridge the accomplishment gap—requires a steadier, clearer, more intense focus on your goals and your means to achieve them. Sure, in combat situations, as well as at work and at home, you need to respond to some of the stimuli present, or else you become insensitive to counter movements, competition, and change. But you won’t accomplish a thing if you change only in response to the latest stimuli and lose sight of your goals in the process.
In the SEAL Teams, we used to debate about whether to travel to train. We were deploying around the world regularly, so we tried to eliminate as much travel to train as we could. To senior staffers, the solution was simple; we built more training facilities closer to our home base so we could be home with our families at night or during the day if we were not training. But as the Training Officer, I knew it was more complicated than it looked. When you travel, you can fully immerse yourself in the training; your focus is on the job rather than on your kid’s soccer game or mowing the lawn. When you’re on the road but not training, you are still immersed in the job, maintaining your gear and studying tactics and other critical pieces of warfare, as well as bonding and building teamwork. In addition, going home and losing focus makes training more dangerous and causes more accidents, just like in combat. When you are close to redeploying, your focus can quickly shift to thinking about home—which can be lethal.
Although distractions aren’t necessarily life-threatening at work, they do interfere with performance. It’s a good idea for teams to get away from their workspaces when collaborating on critical group projects or even periodically; the immersion forces people to focus. Off-site meetings are great, but unless we set the conditions by taking away phones and ensuring team members stop answering emails on their computers during the working groups, we won’t get the excellence that we are looking for.
Try to work out a plan, solve a problem, or develop a concept in two different environments: one, a “high interrupt” space, such as a regular office, and another, in which you have carefully insulated the environment from outside distractions. Observe which environment is better for focus and more conducive to producing better work. Do you save time? Come to better conclusions? Get everyone on board faster? How much does the deliberately crafted environment help your focus?
Your best results occur when you’re “all-in” and distractions are minimized.
How many of us have picked up a book and read a page or two, only to realize you don’t remember what you just read, and now you have to reread those pages. (Of course that would not happen with this book!) Focus is a muscle, and like any muscle, it can be taught and trained. For years, I was fascinated with the Eastern practice of Zen and meditation while conducting foreign internal defense in Southeast Asia.
Focus is a muscle; it can be taught and trained.
Thailand was one of my favorite countries to work in. I spent a lot of time there working with the Thai SEALs and loved it. It was there that I began practicing meditation and mindfulness more than two decades ago, quickly realizing that it was very powerful for training my focus, thus making me a better and more productive SEAL.
Eventually, the SEAL Teams realized the power of meditation, and have implemented it into the training. I’m happy to say that I was able to assist in that process of making it part of the resiliency program. Meditation is a significant focus workout for any SEAL operator. Of course, in the beginning, we had to fight ingrained beliefs many of us had about meditation; it isn’t typically found in a conventional military playbook. But many aspects of meditation, including the spiritual ones, help us get into and stay in the right frame of mind as an operator, a warrior, and even a Blue-Collar Scholar. It has worked with SEALs, and if it works for SEALs, then I know it can work for you, too.
A 2015 Washington Post article described a scientist seeing the benefits of meditation and mindfulness in brain scans. Just eight weeks of meditation increased the volume of the brain in five regions: the areas that control the wandering mind, learning, memory, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion, and neurotransmitter production.
If you can’t focus on the present, you are focusing on something that isn’t there yet (the future) or something you won’t have again (the past). We must be aware and play offense with our focus. We must train ourselves to control it, and not just let it run wild on its own.
When distracted, I use the mantra “focus, focus, focus” until I regain the mindfulness of being in the present and immersed in what I am doing. In war, people often develop anxiety even when they are not engaged in combat and have to be sent home. They worry about a random rocket or mortar attack, awfulize, and focus on those future threats, instead of the moment they are in.
The Japanese have a beautiful concept called Ichigyo Zammai, which means “full concentration on a single act.” People who practice this make their lives a piece of art by focusing on a single action at any given time. We all fall in the trap of doing something while we believe we should be doing something else. We live in the future and become frustrated in the present; we don’t actually experience what we are living and doing.
Focus on the future, and you’ll focus on something that doesn’t yet exist.
Focus on the past, and you’ll focus on something you won’t have again.
Stay focused on the present.
We make our expectations to students clear: the only easy day was yesterday. You’ll feel discomfort for your whole career; it’s part of the job description. They know they’ll have to be at their best in the worst of times, when they’re cold, wet, scared, and exhausted. So we immediately teach them how to focus when they are in pain and discomfort. Often, we will put them in the pushup position, like the plank, and leave them there for an hour or so, sometimes while teaching classes. When they start to fidget and begin moaning and sighing, we tell them to shut up and stop hurting everyone around them with their suffering. Isopraxism is the mirroring effect, meaning people around you mirror your behavior. If a teammate allows himself to suffer, it’s like a disease; it will spread quickly. I say “allows himself to suffer” because suffering is a choice—and we can control our choices.
At this point, I explain to students how they can use a first strike approach to shift their focus. I say: “Make an adjustment. Put more weight on your left hand, arch your back just a little, and keep adjusting to shift the discomfort. Make a mental game of it, and use as many body parts as you can.” When they do, they learn to control what they focus on and learn to distance themselves from pain. If they continue to focus their minds on the pain, it reinforces the idea of the pain, and this establishes a terrible relationship with discomfort. But if they focus their full attention on taking the offensive, and taking action, no matter how small, they are able to distance themselves from the pain.
Take the offensive, control what you focus on, and distance yourself from pain.
The goal for the students is to wear out their bodies equally, to make every body part carry the load, not just the arms and back. Shifting their weight and shifting their focus means their concentration on pain doesn’t build up. It’s a handy tool in all aspects of life, not just the physical. By sharing the load among body parts, you can focus on the parts, not the pain. The pain will become more distant, but you must be offensive and take the first strike. Your body is an organism—a team—so share the load. Make adjustments in life, shift your focus, and change your experience and results.
Early in the Vietnam War, in 1963, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc protested against his government for religious equality and freedom. Duc sat lotus style on a Saigon street while two other monks doused him with gasoline and then set him afire. Duc never moved from his position; he stayed wholly focused in meditation. Malcolm Browne captured the event and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of this seemingly serene monk sitting in the street in flames, unmoving. Duc had spent most of his life learning to control his focus by meditating for long periods. By doing so, he had created distance between himself and the pain that we can only imagine. This may be an extreme example of focusing, but it illustrates its tremendous power and what it can enable us to withstand.
In combat focus, every sense is magnified, and everything happening around you makes sense before your conscious mind can “talk about it.”
In the late 1990s, an Apache trained me and a platoon mate to become expert trackers. We lived in the woods, ate off the land, did sweat lodges, and studied tracking all day, with our faces in the dirt. One of the native techniques we learned seemed a little odd to me at first. It was called the “fox walk.” We received detailed instructions on how to walk like a fox in the grass, with our shoes off so that we could feel the earth (50 percent of our nerve endings are in our face, hands, and feet). If you ever watch a fox walk, there are no wasted movements; it walks with extreme purpose. The fox walks using a “direct register,” meaning it places its back feet perfectly within its front tracks, leaving only two noticeable tracks in the dirt, appearing to be a two-legged animal. Walking with a direct register also makes minimal noise; the fox isn’t disturbing new ground. An interesting fact: a feral cat does the same thing but a house cat doesn’t. The house cat doesn’t hunt to live so it can afford to be sloppy and noisy.
The fox walk was intended to get us into “the spirit world” and become aware of nature. It makes you focus on the small details so that you walk with extremely deliberate intent. If you lose focus, you get sloppy and awkward, so you have to refocus on the performance points of the walk. This technique is an offensive reverse evolution technique: you walk like you are stalking. When you focus on the details, your state of mind changes. Your self-talk stops, the worry of the world ends, and your senses wake up; this is where the “spirit world” is—it’s in the present moment. You then begin to feel what’s around you, and your subconscious mind opens up to new information and intuition.
I call this practice moving mediation. It’s reversing the alpha state by focusing your mind on the details of the walk, moving your body deliberately, and creating a rhythm that can be repeated—just like Marines do when they march. Marines spend numerous hours perfecting a march, fingers aligned, stomach in, head level, eyes forward, foot striking the ground with exactness. Being deliberate and intentional draws your focus into the present.
When you are present, your senses are heightened, and your intuition comes forward—you feel your environment. In your mind’s eye, focus on seeing radar rings pulsing from your head and traveling from close to far, taking your eyes and ears with them. Your listening focus goes from close to 10 feet, then 20 feet, and so on. Just like if you are at a party and hear something 10 feet away that catches your ear, you can laser focus on it and ignore someone talking close by; you can control your listening focus. You don’t have to be moving to practice focusing. You can be still, but the key is to control your attention and not to focus on yourself.
The key to laser focus is not to focus on yourself.
You will notice things that you have never seen. Sitting in a restaurant or a park bench or your office, focus on the rings and what is around you.
When you laser focus, that blabbermouth in your mind stops talking. Neuroscience calls this the default mode network (DMN), the “me” part of the brain that focuses on the future and the past, not the present. Meditators and others who can focus can slow down this area of the brain willfully. This is where your situational awareness (the spirit world) lies.
Now imagine that you are having a conversation with a colleague. Instead of thinking about how you are going to respond to her, you listen actively and intentionally, with focus. The result is an active and authentic conversation that produces results and doesn’t allow the ego to take over.
• The direction you focus on is the direction you will follow.
• Don’t look where you don’t want to go.
• Discipline is focus; focus is discipline.
• Focus turns us from transactional to transformational individuals.
• Total focus requires total immersion and commitment. Your best results are achieved when you remove as many distractions as possible.
• Meditation helps you calm down, empathize, and focus.
• Take the offensive. Focus on what’s in front of you, what’s in the present, and distance yourself from pain.
• Moving meditation—meditating while otherwise occupied—keeps you focused and moving forward while also heightening your sensitivity to your surroundings.
• Extreme focus allows you to notice what you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. It enables active listening, which results in more connected authentic conversations.