In a remote area in North Queensland, Australia, an aboriginal tribe offers some insight into how critical language can be and how it shapes how we see the world and life in general. The Guugu Yimithirr tribe has a unique, almost magical ability to orient themselves and successfully navigate the world around them, no matter where they may be. They seem to have an invisible compass that enables them to feel Earth’s magnetic fields.
What’s the secret behind this tribe’s ability to know their location and direction at all times? The answer is simple: language. The language most of us use employs egocentric directions, which describe the relationship of an object or place relative to one’s self. We are at the center, and we use such words as left, right, front, and back relative to ourselves. The Guugu Yimithirr tribe, on the other hand, uses cardinal directions or geographic directions: north, south, east, and west.
They don’t have words that place them at the center of the directions they are giving. They wouldn’t say: “To the right of the parking lot, there is a building. Go in the first door, take the third hallway to your left, continue until the end, and then take a right down another hallway.” Instead, they would say, “Go to the building north of the parking lot. Go in the first door, and then go west at the third hallway. Continue to the end and go north down another hallway.” If they were line dancers, their directions might go something like: “Face to the north, two steps to the east, two steps to the west. Now spin to the east, now spin to the west, etc.”
The Guugu Yimithirr don’t have words for “left,” “right,” “front,” and “back.” They teach their children at the age of seven geographical orientation. By shaping their language this way, the children grow up paying attention to their physical environment and the clues it gives. They feel where the sun, moon, and wind are, and can find most anything as it relates to these.
Language has the power to shape our minds and to shape outcomes. It’s a filter of perception, memory, and attention, so it can ultimately be used as a tool for or against us. How we use it is our choice.
“First strike” and “first strike mindset” are maxims from the SEAL playbook that convey the seizing of the initiative and taking the advantage by acting or moving first. You make the enemy respond to your moves, rather than letting them take the initiative, forcing you to respond to them. The fundamental concept of the first strike is a form of inverse evolution: “being the cause of the effect, not the effect that was caused.”
According to the belief in evolution, it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one most adaptable to change. My goal is to help you understand how to shape your world to evolve, not by chance, but by design, and to do that through language.
Fight like you picked it; live your life like you chose it.
By controlling your language, both internal and external, you start to form a different relationship with life and your place in it. You can even change your beliefs by having the discipline to control what language you use. It’s not tough to do. You just need to be conscious of it, and have faith that what you are doing will transform you.
Remember, if we embrace accountability and extreme ownership of our lives, we love them more. It means we own the future, and everything in our past that got us to this point. The victim mindset is the opposite. Victims point fingers and make excuses for their present state, meaning that their dubious past owns their future. This fuels anger, fear, negativity, and an overwhelming sense of being out of control. The feeling of loss of control can lead to depression and apathy.
Language is a compass that can guide you in the direction you wish to travel.
As Yoda famously said in The Empire Strikes Back, “Do or do not. There is no try.” When you add the word maybe to anything, you might as well admit you won’t do it. Maybe is a powerful failure word.
The online invitation company Evite will only let you take “Maybe” off as a response if you pay for premium service. You either commit or you don’t. That is why you have to pay to get that button removed—commitment has value.
In the invitation world as in ours, you either commit or you don’t.
When I made changes in my life, I had to accept where I was and control my thoughts through my language. I had to quit awfulizing. Once you start awfulizing, it gains speed and momentum. There was no “maybe.” I either did it or didn’t, and it was my choice because I was accountable for my life and well-being. Just like any order that I have ever given, I didn’t give myself wiggle room. I told myself, “Listen up! This is what you’re doing!”
Here’s the rule of thumb: when you are giving an order, there are no maybes. Don’t even hedge with “I’ve decided.” The way to give an order is to state it: “This is what we are doing!” This takes the possibility of another option off the table, and makes it clear the discussion is over.
Life is like a mirror. It reflects back what you think and believe.
As SEALs, we have cultural words and expressions that shape us into the force that we are. Every person and every team—SEALs or otherwise—should have a cultural language that is guarded fervently. While patrolling on a mission, depending on the terrain, SEALs may take a break every hour to rest and regroup. When we stop, we don’t just flop down on the ground, we form a predetermined perimeter around the terrain, as close to a circle as we can. Firepower is spread out evenly around the perimeter, so we have balanced protection and are ready to fight in any direction. The perimeter is sacred. Anything inside is good; anything outside is a potential threat. Our language should be treated like our perimeters. We should protect it and not allow defeatism, complaining, awfulizing, and general negativity to penetrate it.
Language is part of an organization’s culture; it defines the perimeter that protects the organization and its ethos.
In BUD/S training, we must brief our doctors and medical staff on the concept of organizational language and culture. Countless times, I’ve seen a student go to medical and never come back. When a student gets there, the staff often—consciously or subconsciously—feels sorry for the student. Before you know it, the student feels sorry for himself and quits. In BUD/S, medical is known as the expressway to quitting, and most students avoid it like the plague. Students need to go to medical if they are hurt, so we now place SEAL instructors in the medical room to ensure doctors respect our organizational culture. It’s a hard balance to manage.
The human mind is designed to see danger and focus on it, so we tend to dwell on it if we don’t intentionally control our thoughts. I never let the sounds of fear and doubt come out of my mouth, and I sure as hell didn’t want them to go into my ears and into my mind. When I was leading missions in some of the most dangerous places in the world, I sat the intelligence officers down and gave them explicit orders not to mention improvised explosive devices (IEDs) more than once during their intelligence brief. In some cities, IEDs were so prevalent, it was almost certain you would encounter them. Nobody likes the thought of seeing a big white flash and possibly being instantly killed or maimed. Fear and doubt are contagious and will spread like wildfire.
When I train people in these concepts, their fears immediately come to the surface. They will say things like, “You don’t understand, (fill in the blank) happened to me,” or “You don’t al-ways win; sometimes you fail.” My response is always, “Of course there are times you will fail, but focusing on it will make it more likely.”
If you control your language, you control your life.
When I look back on my life, I do so with gratitude and give thanks for my success. I’m grateful for the tough environment I grew up in because it strengthened me and enabled me to be a SEAL. I’m grateful to have been poor and gone through hard times because impoverished people who suffer tend to develop a strong sense of empathy for others. I got to serve and fight in three different wars. Had I not, I don’t believe I would have developed the deep love and gratitude that I have for this country and what it affords me. I know this country isn’t perfect, but I have chosen to focus on what it does provide me, not what it doesn’t. When you travel around the world and live in countries with extreme poverty and suffering, it brings perspective and engenders a strong sense of gratitude. I am thankful for everything—even a difficult past—that has led to my success. Most people don’t credit their challenging backgrounds for their success, but it’s a beneficial concept to keep in mind and practice. If you can love who you are, then everything that happened to you contributed to you being you.
One powerful communication tactic I’ve used to elicit positive focus is reframing. When I see a student shaking violently from being wet and cold, I would often say to him: “You’re lucky you get to stand up here, shaking with some of the hardest men on Earth. What a gift!” I would always see the confusion in his eyes, but eventually, he understood. We empathize but we don’t sympathize, as we want to avoid training students to feel sorry for themselves. The sympathy mindset will clearly hinder their ability to accomplish the mission.
At work, if you think, “I have to present to the CEO and her staff,” reframe that to “I get to present to the CEO and her staff.” In your personal life, if you think, “I have to go to the gym,” shift your language to “I get to go to the gym.” Take whatever dread you have, shift into gratitude mode, and finish sentences and thoughts with gratitude. I remember when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, and I wasn’t part of the first wave of deployments to Afghanistan, my family said, “Thank God, you don’t have to go.” My response was, “I don’t get to go.” A few words can shift everything. Over time, they will change your performance and ultimately your outlook on life.
In 2007, while conducting a mission in Fallujah, Iraq, Navy SEAL Lieutenant Jason Redman came under heavy fire during a direct action mission. He and his two teammates were wounded. Jason was shot twice in the arm and once directly in the face. His helmet, night vision goggles, and body armor were also shot up. This gunfight was at point-blank range in thick weeds, so it was a very lethal and violent confrontation. Just like the Chief, he and his team didn’t quit; they won the fight. But that’s not what made Jason a legend, it’s what he did next that did.
A few weeks later, as he was recovering from his life-threatening wounds, Jason did something that still inspires people around the world. He managed to write a letter that he had the staff post on the front door of his hospital room in Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. The letter read:
ATTENTION—To all those who enter here. If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20 percent further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid regrowth. If you are not prepared for that, go elsewhere.
Jason understood that he needed to write that letter and to go on the offensive with his recovery. Alphas don’t allow feeling sorry for themselves because they are not victims. Jason knew that he had to design his environment. He understood accountability, so he focused on the future, not the past. He controlled the language around him to help with his recovery. He may not necessarily have felt that way at first, but he shaped the conversation in his environment, so that he could control how he would evolve. Jason came to this point and said to himself: “F*** it. It’s time to move on.” The emotional power of saying “f*** it” helped Jason make a decision and move on, not looking backward or dragging a victim mentality forward. Once Jason made that decision, he could move on, but not before. It was his choice, and he made it.
Jason knew that people would naturally feel sorry for him. When he committed and put that note on the door, it also gave him the external motivation to live up to what he had declared. He knew what he was doing; he had manufactured his own motivation.
Give empathy, not sympathy, because sympathy makes people feel sorry for themselves.
One of the primary traits we cultivate in SEALs is problem solving. We create a problem-solving mindset by changing our language, so it doesn’t allow people to quit on a problem. SEALs learn that quitting is not an option. In our ethos, we declare, “I will never quit,” “I am never out of the fight,” and “I will not fail.” This is part of our daily language and becomes part of how we judge each other in the team.
Our nation expects us to solve problems under extreme duress and in challenging circumstances. When we don’t know, we find out. When discussing an ambiguous situation and I don’t know the answer, I say that I will find out. Finishing a sentence or a discussion with that phrase creates an evolutionary, problem-solving way of thinking.
You may not feel that way in your work or personal lives as you read this, and I say not yet! Practice! Practice makes permanent, and perfect practice makes perfect permanence. To develop a can-do attitude, practicing internal and external language control will help create a default first strike mindset.
Practicing internal and external language control will help create a default first strike mind.
Controlling the language you use to talk to yourself and to talk to others will shape who you are and how you react to the world—and it can do the same for others. This is why when students are in discomfort, we don’t allow them to complain or to make sounds of weakness. We don’t want them to infect the other students around them. Defeatist language will cause fear and doubt and undermine motivation, shaping your beliefs in yourself and those around you.
We often give students tasks outside their skill sets and knowledge. When we ask them if they know something or can do something, the only acceptable responses are “Yes” or “Not yet, but I will find out.” “Yet” is the evolutionary term because we train ourselves to understand that we will eventually figure it out. This simple concept ingrains the belief that nothing is out of reach.
Phrases like “I’m not good at (fill in the blank),” “I don’t understand (fill in the blank),” “This isn’t working,” and so on, spell trouble. When you allow yourself to end a dialogue on those thoughts, you stop improving in areas that mean something to you. You need to complete the sentence or thought with “yet” or “I will figure it out.” Challenge yourself never to finish with a negative thought. End your statements positively, and for goodness sake, stop defeatism. When you catch yourself awfulizing, you must redirect your language even if you don’t feel it . . . yet! Every sentence, every word, and every thought gives your mind proof of positive outcomes, and the more proof you have, the more likely you are to change your mind and beliefs.
When you catch yourself awfulizing, you must redirect your language even if you don’t feel it . . . yet.
The first strike methodology calls for being on the offensive, setting high expectations, and falling in love with adversity. The Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon in which other people’s expectations affect the target person’s performance, while the Galatea effect refers to how our personal expectations of ourselves affect our own performance. Performance is largely self-driven but can be heavily influenced by others. In any case, achievement starts with disciplined, offensive-minded first strike language.
Achievement starts with disciplined, offensive-minded first strike language.
Above the entrance to our training facility there is an old wooden sign that reads: “The only easy day was yesterday.” It means that when you enter this world, you expect adversity. We also say: “If it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it.” Both these phrases clearly set the expectations of what Navy SEAL life will be like.
I often hear people say that SEALs love pain. That’s not it. Ultimately, we have learned to form a different relationship with discomfort because we volunteered for this life and that is our choice.
You use first strike language to create an environment that changes you. You don’t allow the environment to determine your language (i.e., “This sucks. We shouldn’t have to do this.”). I call this “first strike inverse evolution.” When you change your language about discomfort or pain, you change how you feel about both.
We don’t allow students to complain, whine, moan, sigh, pout, or yell during physical training events because feeling sorry for themselves is a clear path to failure. It reinforces in their minds that straining and discomfort are terrible, and they begin to focus on the pain and forge a lousy relationship with it. We teach them instead to embrace it. We explain to them that civilians describe what they are feeling as pain, but we like to refer to it as weakness leaving the body. This sparks them to yell out “HOOYAH” or “Yeeeaaaaa!” This, in turn, starts to anchor their belief that, as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”1
While uncontrolled language represents your thoughts and feelings, controlled language can shape your thoughts and feelings.
I remember going through my own training as a student. At this point, there were fewer than 20 of us from a class that started with roughly 150 students. We were standing on a berm, freezing. It may sound sadistic, but my instructor spoke in a very nonchalant, matter-of-fact way, not as if he was talking to someone who was freezing to death, but like he was having a coaching session with me. “Hiner, I want you to look around. I want you to imagine how many people out there wish they had the GUTS to stand on this f***ing berm, jackhammering in the middle of the night with the rest of these crazy motherf***ers. But you know what, they don’t have the GUTS that you do. You are one hard motherf***er. Now hit the f***ing surf and get wet and sandy.” Even though hitting the freezing surf and being wet is always the hardest part of the training, my response was loud and proud, “HOOYAH!” I got goosebumps that night, and my association with discomfort was changed forever. It was an emotionally charged moment that I return to in times of adversity. Every time I think about it, I get goosebumps.
Our relationship with straining, discomfort, and fear need to be nurtured. When we change our language around an event, we start to change our relationship with that event. I remember one night during Hell Week—it was Wednesday, the fourth night without any sleep. I was standing on top of a berm, soaking wet, having just gotten out of the 55-degree water of the Pacific Ocean, with a 45-degree breeze blowing hard off the water. As I stood there, shaking so hard it looked like I was having a seizure, one of the instructors walked up to me and started a conversation as if we were at a family gathering. He didn’t at all acknowledge my discomfort. It dawned on me that it wasn’t because he didn’t care. He cared intensely; that is why he didn’t feel sorry for me. He knew I was evolving.
Pay attention to what you say and how you say it. Write down what your default defensive language is. When you hear yourself using defensive language, immediately correct yourself and reframe your language and thoughts toward the desired outcome. Go on the offense. This an important way to train your mind, which I will discuss in detail in a later chapter.
• Language has the power to shape our minds and our outcomes.
• According to Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
• “Be the cause, not the effect” is a central SEAL maxim that applies to communication as well as to action.
• Language is a powerful tool. By controlling your language, you can take the initiative, change your belief and that of others, and define your role in your organization and in your life. Language becomes a vital part of the first strike mindset.
• Organizational language and culture are important. A negative mentality will spread like wildfire and lead to failure.
• Never complete a negative thought. Reframe it to match your desired outcome.
• Disciplined first strike language and the language of gratitude lead to positive focus and achievement.
• Use empathy, not sympathy. Sympathy makes people feel sorry for themselves, clearing a path to failure.
• When everyone in a work environment has a first strike, can-do attitude, this positive mindset becomes contagious, creates its own momentum, and accomplishes great things.