The Engine of Performance

It’s an amazing sight to watch new graduates of SEAL training and the reaction their parents and loved ones have when they see them for the first time in months. They look at and interact with their sons with awe and amazement—not because they’re visibly fitter and stronger but because they sense a difference, a cerebral difference. They can tell that he has transformed in ways they don’t completely understand, but they know it in their hearts and can feel it.

Likewise, the new SEAL realizes that he has transformed when he interacts with his family and friends for the first time since he started training. He sees the world differently. He can clearly hear for the first time how he’s changed, how his conscious and subconscious mind react to the world and those in it. He is more aware, more confident, more perceptive, and more decisive. He moves like an alpha. What has happened? How has the SEAL training and experience evolved his mindset and state of mind in new ways?


The brain is an incredibly complex organ. At any given moment, it receives billions of bits of information, most of which we are unaware of. The conscious mind is like an iceberg: just as most of the ice is underwater, most of the data that the brain receives is in our subconscious, stored for later use. On the other hand, our conscious minds, which contain our thoughts and feelings, are on the surface of our awareness, exposed like the tip of the iceberg.

Our bodies tell us what goes into our mouths; what comes out of our mouths tells us what goes on in our minds.

In our brain stem, there’s a bundle of nerves called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is like a bouncer who decides what information is allowed from the subconscious mind into the conscious mind. Our conscious mind is the cool place to be in our everyday lives; every bit of information wants to be there. In my previous book, First, Fast, Fearless, I talk about “leader’s intent”—how in the world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity), leaders can give guidance without knowing all the issues that may be involved. One critical factor that gives leaders intent is a good understanding of what the “end state” looks like. It’s not enough to understand what needs to be done, the means. The desired outcome, the end, must also be understood so they know when they have succeeded. Here, the RAS is like a middle manager who must interpret the leader’s intent and filter through all the data subconsciously to make decisions on what’s important to the “boss”—the conscious mind—and then let that data in. The RAS tends to allow entry to data that validates our beliefs, so it’s vital to provide this cognitive “bouncer” with the proper training and inform it of the leader’s intent.

Intentions Matter

Intentions have a way of frequently coming true. In 2002 I was taking a course for my master’s degree in executive leadership. One of the assignments given by Margie Blanchard, wife of legendary leadership expert and bestselling author Ken Blanchard (The One Minute Manager and others), was to write a story about a perfect day 10 years in the future. I wrote about the year I would retire from the SEAL Teams, when I would take my son or daughter with my wife and travel across America for a summer. I dreamed of showing my child this country, the country that I served and for which I fought and am most grateful. At the time, I wasn’t married and I didn’t have children. Ten years later, in 2012, I did precisely what I’d written: I retired and traveled across the country for the summer with my wife and five-year-old son. A few years later, I was cleaning out some old file drawers and came across the story I had written in class—I had forgotten about it. Intentions matter, even if we are not conscious of the power they have.

Programming the RAS

If we use defensive language repeatedly, like “I’m terrible at x,” then our RAS bouncer “hears” it and starts to allow those pieces of data and proof into our conscious mind. When we stop making excuses, and switch our language to “yes,” “no,” and “I f***ed up,” the bouncer will stop allowing excuses into our conscious mind.

Why does traveling transform us? When we immerse ourselves in another culture, we feed the RAS different information, so it starts to change our beliefs or cements them even further, depending on our reaction to our new environment. The conscious mind, as the boss, has to be very deliberate and intentional about its desire to bring the proper clientele into the club. Our thoughts and feelings about people, events, or life in general are our choice, and we can decide what our conscious mind receives, thinks, and feels.

Subconscious in Plain Sight

When I was living in the woods, learning to track like an Apache, I spent days with my face in the dirt, studying tracks. My RAS bouncer knew how important it was to me, so when I left the woods, I could see tracks everywhere, tracks that no one around me could see. This “secret” world was mine alone. Shortly after, I went to Japan to conduct a training mission of Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) in which I played the bad guy. A pilot was dropped off in the wilderness with a SEAL as his guide and survival expert; that SEAL had lived in the woods, tracking with me, so he knew what I knew about the subject. Pilots plan on the possibility of getting shot down and have to learn to escape enemy hands and evade capture. The world is very different on the ground than it is at 16,000 feet, so even though these pilots are great navigators, they have to practice navigating on the ground to a predetermined spot to get rescued.

Hours after the pilot inserted into the forest, I inserted into the same spot with another SEAL to track him down. Even though the pilot had a considerable head start on me, seven hours later, just before darkness, I caught him. I noticed that the SEAL with me couldn’t see the tracks that I could see. I had spent so much time with my face in the dirt that my mind could see subtle disturbances of the earth; my bouncer was doing his job! Since the pilot was carrying his survival gear, the task of seeing the disturbances was like tracking in mud; it just seemed too easy, but not for my partner who couldn’t see the tracks. To him, the tracks were like a subliminal message in a movie. His brain hadn’t learned to see them yet, but they were there.

Seeing Is Believing—Maybe It Shouldn’t Be

Your mind is influenced by what you focus on. Focus commands your time and attention and channels your experiences. These experiences offer proof for your beliefs and strengthen them. Your words become thoughts, thoughts become feelings, feelings become actions, actions become habits, and habits support values and beliefs. They become who you are. In life, we don’t always believe what we see; we often see what we already believe.

We don’t always believe what we see; we often see what we already believe.

People are attracted to like-minded people, and nothing has magnified this phenomenon more than social media. Although it has connected people all around the globe, social media has also been one of the most divisive forms of technology created. It’s the perfect platform to validate and cement beliefs—right or wrong—that we already have. Just as social media can blind us to reality and crush objectivity, “groupthink” kills organizational creativity.

When Positives and Negatives Don’t Attract

I avoid fear-based, toxic, and negative people—complainers, naysayers, and those who see the world as awful and focus on failure. If you know or have ever worked with someone like this, you understand what I mean, and if you don’t understand, you might even be that person and not know it—yet! But that’s OK, we can all change; it just takes choice and a little deliberate effort.

When I was regaining my GUTS after retiring from the SEAL Teams, I was angry and saw the world differently than I do now. I saw the world with a fear-based state of mind, and my RAS was sending me proof that the world was dangerous, just like in combat, and that I had to be on alert and look out for threats. This lens was not the one I wanted, so I had to give myself different intentions and proof. I had to set up different filters on my RAS.

One of the first things I did was stop watching the news. I went on the offensive and focused my time and attention on what I wanted. The mind, unlike the body, doesn’t come with a liver and kidneys to get rid of toxins, so we have to do it ourselves, intentionally. When you place your focus, time, and attention on your goals and how you want to live, you are practicing self-leadership.


Our state of mind is powerful and determines how we process information and act on it. Our focus, our language, and our chassis all have a direct, two-way cause-and-effect relationship with our state of mind. If we sit on the couch eating junk food and watching cable news all night, using self-defeating language, what is our most likely state of mind? If you exercise regularly, work hard, and just got a big promotion, what is your state of mind? Our state of mind is worth monitoring at all times, it drives us to success or failure.

After multiple deployments to combat, I went to see the doctor for a routine checkup. It struck me as odd that—before even examining me for possible injuries—one of the first things he asked was, “Are you in pain?” At the time, I didn’t know that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is very likely to cause physical pain, especially in the back. The mental pain can actually manifest itself in the body when the anxiety is intense. He was right to ask; my back had seized up and had been awful for a while.

A stressed state of mind can cause hypertension, gut problems, obesity, diabetes, and depression. It can also weaken your immune system, making you more prone to sickness. Too much stress is exceptionally toxic, so we must go on the offensive to mitigate it. But as many retirees know, getting rid of all stress isn’t good either. A modest amount of stress is stimulating, exciting, and fulfilling. We need a balance.

Dealing with Toxicity

Stress can come in small doses from a wide variety of sources, or it can come in large waves from a few or even a single source. The style employed by your manager or leader can cause enormous stress. Think of the typical insecure manager who is incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive, and uncommunicative, among other things. Got one in mind? I knew you would. An Inc. magazine article cites a recent study that found that employees are as much as 60 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack if their bosses have these traits.1 We know everyone despises toxic leaders, but they actually can kill you!

When I started consulting and teaching leadership, I worked with a rather large company, which may have had the worst environment I’ve ever experienced. In a room filled with a couple dozen senior leaders, it became very apparent that everyone in the room was terrified of the boss. Their language exposed his toxicity; it was thick in the air and I could feel it. At one point, he made an appearance, and as he approached, the tension in the room could be cut with a knife. His posture was aggressive, he didn’t smile, and he completely failed to engage with his senior leaders. If he did talk to them, it was about what he expected them to get from the leadership training. Indeed, the looks on their faces were similar to those of high-level generals in the North Korean Army when addressed by their Supreme Leader.

This toxic behavior and suffocating fear had woven itself throughout the organization, resulting in self-preservation, backstabbing, and other forms of detrimental behavior. At one point, one senior leader looked across the room and apologized to one of the other leaders, with tears in his eyes, because he had thrown him under the bus to keep from suffering the boss’s wrath, and he felt guilty. These people were in a tough position: do they quit, try and get him fired, sabotage him—what? It was clear that they had become the effect that was caused; they were in an awfulizing state of mind. The downward spiral in negativity and toxicity undermined this organization’s ability to perform as a can-do, positive team. The road forward would be difficult without a major change in leadership and/or a major change in mindset.

If you are in a similar situation, you may not be able to control the former, but you can certainly control the latter. Think positive as much as you possibly can and realize that it’s not about you. Don’t let the toxicity and fear penetrate your psyche and change you and your state of mind. Look for opportunities to gently suggest better ways of communicating to the boss that will result in better outcomes. Do not frame this as criticism, but as a way to be a better leader. If you have direct reports, protect them from this toxicity; be the shield that prevents this from cascading down to them. Every situation is different, but know that hardship and adversity always present opportunities for growth, so focus on how this can make you a better leader and a better human being.

Don’t let toxicity change your state of mind. Instead, use it as an opportunity to do something positive and grow.

Perception, Response, and Self-Control

It’s easy to allow our circumstances to control our state of mind and ultimately steal our happiness. Happiness is not determined by success in life, rather, success is determined by happiness. Dr. Viktor Frankl, bestselling author of Man’s Search for Meaning, lived through the Holocaust in a concentration camp and reportedly said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” How we respond is our choice; only we can make it. We must be deliberate and intentional.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.


Realize that everyone has something in their lives driving their state of mind at any given moment. No time in the recent past provides as good an example as the Covid-19 pandemic. The severe ramifications of the virus triggered twin fears, for our health and for our financial well-being, plunging most people in a state of mind they had never had before—defensive, tentative, afraid to do anything or interact with anyone. People who were typically confident and very much in charge of their lives felt powerless and helpless. Normal patterns of human and business interactions were widely disrupted. Particularly during this episode, but more generally, if more subtly, in “normal” times, we get a sense of how others are feeling based on how they are behaving. When negative behavior is observed, empathy will help you control your emotional response. Focusing on others and their state of mind will help prevent your ego from being triggered and your state of mind from being changed. It’s all about perception, response, and self-control.

When emotional, restraint is strength. Controlling your emotions is mastery of self.

When State of Mind Controls You

Our experiences help our RAS filter information to create an intuition or “sixth sense” in combat. When I would deploy to a hazardous city, I’d go out with the soldiers who had long been there patrolling the streets and had lived through it. Several times these soldiers would slam on the brakes or cross the median seemingly out of nowhere. They could “feel” something and knew to react to it. Their sixth sense was sending them a signal. Their subconscious minds had collected all of that data and sent them a feeling—not a conscious report—and they reacted. Those who survive patrolling those streets have extreme focus, and they develop and listen to their intuition.

There is one problem: when you come home from active duty, all of this “hazard” information filling your mind becomes useless—it (fortunately) isn’t needed in ordinary life—but the mind doesn’t stop doing what you needed it to do for so long. Driving down the street, every roadside object can look like a threat because, in combat, a pile of rocks might be a marking device to set off an IED when your vehicle approaches. Traffic going at a high rate of speed can be perceived as an immediate threat as well. Your state of mind is hypervigilant, and it is possible to overreact. What is most important is to understand how the past has altered your state of mind. Recognizing that is the first step toward healing.

Over time, in combat, fear turns into paranoia, anger, and hatred. Those feelings create a state of mind, which then shapes how we see the world, our day-to-day life, and our future. We become the effect being caused, and we aren’t likely to be happy or successful.

You don’t need to be in combat to develop a fear- or negativity-based state of mind. This belief system causes you to continuously ruminate and awfulize, which in turn anchors any negative “proof” in your subconscious mind. This is not a good place to be.

There is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.


Taking Control of State of Mind

How do we control our state of mind? As a good self-leader, one of the best methods is to take care of our chassis because how we feel overall affects our state of mind. If our bodies feel awful, are in pain, or are not working well, it negatively affects our state of mind. If we don’t sleep and are in a state of physical and mental exhaustion, which breeds cowardice, it becomes easy to give up on our goals and what we want out of life. However, if we are being physical, eating well, taking care of our gut, and DOSEing ourselves regularly, then we feel better. Emotions drive motion, and conversely, motion drives emotion.

It’s also critical to recognize when past events—prior conflicts with others, terrible mistakes, unfortunate experiences—may have altered your state of mind. If that is the case, the next step is to pick a particular event and reframe your internal language around it. With almost any experience in your past, there is a glass half empty and a glass half full—negative and positive—aspect to it. Go on the offense, and focus on the glass half full.

Emotions drive motion; conversely, motion drives emotion.

Although Hollywood is full of fantasy and make-believe, some of the most convincing actors of all time practice a technique called “method acting,” by which they transform into the characters that they want to be. They don’t fake it until they make it; they do it until they become it. They lose themselves in the character’s life, and they study everything about the character. They learn to move, talk, and, ultimately, think and feel like the character. They gain or lose weight to get a better understanding of how the person must have felt in his or her body. The portrayals of Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis and Mary Todd Lincoln by Sally Field in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln serve as fine examples.

So does Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in the movie American Sniper. To prepare for the role, Cooper gained as much as 40 pounds of muscle, perfected a Texas accent, and learned how to shoot sniper rifles from former Navy SEAL sniper Kevin Lacz. Interestingly, Cooper said in an interview he had to change his complete body chemistry to play Chris. Cooper knew that by transforming into Chris, he would develop the state of mind of the most successful sniper in American history. In a Los Angeles Times article, Cooper recalled that “he didn’t really leave me.” The reporter noticed him scanning the room just as he would have if he were actually Chris Kyle or another person used to being in dangerous places.2

The point: We can change our state of mind; it’s our choice. We can work both ways, using our minds and bodies to drive each other like a balanced machine.

Image EXERCISE Image

Pay close attention and focus on your state of mind. If you’re in a negative or fearful state of mind, practice changing it to the state you desire to be in. Change your external and internal language to stop awfulizing. Before critical events or interactions, take charge of your state of mind. Do not allow it to take charge of you. Be the cause of the effect, not the effect that was caused.


•   The reticular activating system (RAS) acts as a gateway between the subconscious and conscious mind. It works as a cognitive “bouncer,” filtering data from the subconscious and controlling what enters the conscious mind. It is the source of our intuition.

•   RAS inputs can be quite obvious or quite subtle, like animal tracks in a forest.

•   Your words become thoughts, thoughts become feelings, feelings become actions, actions become habits, and habits support values and beliefs; they become who you are.

•   Fear spreads easily, and sometimes is just a matter of seeing what we already believe instead of seeing things objectively.

•   Our focus, our language, and our chassis all have a direct, two-way cause-and-effect relationship with our state of mind.

•   Our state of mind is powerful and determines how we process information and act on it.

•   Negativity often breeds negativity and can lead to a toxic environment, which feeds on itself and suppresses creativity, initiative, productivity, teamwork, and action.

•   Dealing with toxic environments means (1) realizing it’s not about you; (2) focusing on the positive; (3) gently suggesting to the boss better ways of communicating that will result in better outcomes; and (4) not letting it change your state of mind.

•   The mind, unlike the body, doesn’t come with a liver and kidneys to get rid of toxins, so we have to do it ourselves, intentionally.

•   According to Dr. Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

•   Success does not lead to happiness; happiness leads to success.

•   To improve your state of mind, take care of the chassis. Get physical, eat right, sleep right, and DOSE yourself regularly. Recognize the experiences that might have harmed your state of mind, and deal with them objectively.

•   Emotions drive our motion; our motion drives our emotions.

..................Content has been hidden....................

You can't read the all page of ebook, please click here login for view all page.