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Embrace the Suck
The Navy SEAL Way to an Extraordinary Life
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During the brutal crucible of Navy SEAL training, instructors often tell students to "embrace the suck." This phrase conveys the one lesson that is vital for any SEAL hopeful to learn: lean into the suffering and get comfortable being very uncomfortable. In this powerful, no-nonsense guide, Navy SEAL combat veteran turned leadership expert Brent Gleeson teaches you how to transform every area of your life—the Navy SEAL way.
by David Goggins
The pain that you are willing to endure is measured by how bad you want it.
Our minds are the most powerful weapon we have at our disposal. But often, our greatest tools can be exactly what stands in the way of overcoming adversity and achieving extraordinary accomplishments. If you can’t learn to control your mind, you’ll forever be a slave to its evil limitations.
I met Brent in late 2000 at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, when we joined Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL class 235. I’d already been in SEAL training at the command for ten months, having endured two Hell Weeks and multiple injuries, but my journey in developing resilience and mental toughness was only just beginning.
I grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive household and battled learning disabilities, obesity, and racism every day. That environment fueled depression and a mindset consumed by fear and a deep need for acceptance of any kind. I was constantly trudging through the muck so to speak, with no end to the suffering in sight. One day, I realized that I could make the choice to rise from the ashes and take control of my life. In 1994, I joined the United States Air Force and served for five years as a tactical air controller. I found happiness and fulfillment in service to our great nation. Giving to a cause greater than myself filled a void I had struggled with for years. But after leaving the Air Force, depression pulled me back into its lonely lair. Down there in the darkness, what I lost in myself I regained in weight. And at 297 pounds, I became consumed by the fear of permanency; that was simply who I was going to be. At the time, I accepted it. Then one day, I looked in the mirror and said, “Fuck this.” I decided to stop wallowing in misery, get off my ass, and start training. To take back control. Through extreme discipline and resolve, I lost 106 pounds in a very short period of time. In 2000, I joined the Navy with the goal of becoming a Navy SEAL.
I knew I’d have to dive headfirst into hell and battle the devil—even become the devil—to achieve this goal. I immersed myself in this new normal. I transformed my mind to embrace the pain, to enjoy it. I developed the mental calluses necessary to go to war with myself each day. Brent used to joke that I was possibly the only person in the history of the SEAL training program who relished the torture, that this battlefield had become my home. We completed what was my third Hell Week in March 2001. Eight months later, after completing SEAL Qualification Training, Brent and I earned our Tridents and joined SEAL Team Five.
But it wasn’t enough. I had become too comfortable in this new heightened state of performance. I needed to recertify myself as a savage and take my journey to the next level. As part of a cross-service training program after my first deployment, I opted to attend Army Ranger School. In 2004, I graduated from the program with the distinction of enlisted Top Honor Man and returned to Team Five. Soon after returning from Ranger School, I began my career as an elite ultramarathon athlete while on active duty as a SEAL.
I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery and comfort zone crushing ever since. Over the years, I’ve used my pain and suffering as fuel to drive me forward. I’ve become an accomplished endurance athlete, completing more than 60 ultramarathons, triathlons, and ultratriathlons, setting new course records and regularly placing in the top five. I once held the Guinness World Record for pull-ups, completing 4,030 in seventeen hours.
But all of the awards, medals, accolades, and magazine articles mean nothing to me. That’s not why I do what I do. Sure, I have raised significant funds and awareness for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, but I don’t need the recognition. I’m not trying to be number one in the world at anything. It’s not about how many races I run or how many miles I’ve traveled on broken feet. There’s no scoreboard. Rather, it’s about achieving my personal best and pushing well beyond my comfort zone every chance I get. For me, physical and mental suffering are a journey of introspection; no other experience makes me feel more clear, focused, and alive.
We all have the ability to master our minds. But our brains are wired with defense mechanisms for avoiding pain and hardship, for staying well within the confines of our comfort zone. Our minds have a tendency to force us into a sheltered existence. I call this the “forty percent rule.” When our brains start sending signals that we can go no further, endure no more, to retreat to the blissful embrace of denial and mediocrity, we’ve only achieved forty percent of our mental and physical potential.
But when we find ways to harness our minds, we can defy all odds. From overcoming depression, abuse, financial strain, or illness to conquering the most unimaginably lofty goals, when properly vanquished, our minds become the weapon needed for success on any battlefield. We just have to embrace the suck.
About a year ago, Brent asked me to send a few motivational words to one of his mentees who was about to begin SEAL training Hell Week. This young man had lost his mother to a sudden brain aneurysm a week before checking in at the command. This is the message I sent, which was shared with the entire class:
Please tell him that my words will make no difference when his balls are in his stomach from being so cold. Men don’t get many chances to show their grit! You need to pray for bad weather! Pray for the coldest water! Pray for a broken fucking body! You should want the worst-case scenario for everything you do in Hell Week! Pray for it to be so hard that only your fucking boat crew makes it all the way through! They succeed because you lead those motherfuckers through the worst Hell Week ever!
You have to become the devil to get through Hell! This shit is about your fucking mindset! If you are hoping for the fucking best-case scenario in Hell Week, you are not ready! Know that no motherfucker can endure what you can. Not because you believe in yourself. But because you have trained harder than any motherfucker alive!
You might think this is a fucking motivational speech! Well it’s not! This is my mentality before I go into any fucking war. Hell Week is not for the faint of heart. It’s for that motherfucker looking for the beginning of his soul. You want to see where most people end, and you begin. Be that guy; when everyone is in pain and miserable with their heads hanging low, you’re the one smiling! Not a friendly smile, but one that says, “You think this fucking shit can hurt me?!”
This is your time to start creating the person you want to be! You can’t make that man in a soft fucking environment! You must be willing to suffer more than anyone else! Not because you have to, but because you want to!
I leave you with this: many people are looking for hard shit so they can prove themselves, but once the hard shit comes, the reality is too much to bear. Be watching for “the look”! You will know it once you see it. It’s like their soul is leaving their body. It happens during deep suffering, when a person can no longer handle the mental pain and anguish of what they thought they could do. The key word is “thought” they could do! After you see the look, quitting is very near.
So, what the fuck are you going to do when your balls are in your stomach from the cold? What are you going to do when your body is broke as fuck and you have fifty hours left? What are you going to do when your boat crew starts to quit and you feel alone? What are you going to do when it won’t stop raining and you can’t get warm? I don’t know what you’re going to do. But you asked me for my advice, so here’s what the fuck I did: I prayed to God to make it worse! Mindset!
Go to war with yourself!
We all have it in ourselves to step boldly onto our battlefield and take the fight to the enemy, to willingly go to war with ourselves, defy the odds, and live our own version of an extraordinary life. Regardless of all the inevitable obstacles we face from the day we’re born until the day we go over the great divide, if we simply embrace the suck and go all in, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.
Pain unlocks a secret doorway in the mind, one that leads to both peak performance and beautiful silence.
So, don your battle gear and get after it. Good luck.
Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.
This is a book about resilience—a valuable weapon many of us across the globe have needed to arm ourselves with over the past year. While the contents of this book are timeless and the tools it provides apply in any scenario, its release was unfortunately ironic. The unprecedented pandemic that rocked the world to its core in 2020 has reshaped the context of our current perceptions of just about everything, including our priorities, health, families, businesses, finances, faith, and love. Developing resilience largely depends on our ability to change the narrative in our minds around the inevitable challenges we face in life and find new answers to these important questions:
What do I consider to be true adversity?
How long do I wallow in my misery?
Are emotional and physical pain realities to be avoided or embraced?
How often do I dwell on things out of my control?
How quickly do I bounce back?
Am I willing to embrace extreme discomfort to live my extraordinary life?
We are the architects of our own beliefs, the decisions we make, and the results those decisions deliver. We may not always realize it, but we have a relatively significant impact on how our lives unfold. The most mentally and physically tough people I know constantly practice the fine art of building resilience—deliberately pounding away at the boundaries of their comfort zone in pursuit of their passions and causes greater than themselves. Simply put, they choose adversity over mediocrity and continue pushing forward despite the odds stacked against them.
If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
—MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
In early 2000, I made a decision that carried lifelong impact. I left a relatively lucrative job as a financial analyst with a global real estate development company to join the United States Navy. The objective? To successfully navigate what is arguably the most challenging special operations training and selection program in the world and become a Navy SEAL. Little did I know that the following months and years would change my perception of adversity forever.
In the coming pages, I will share some of my experiences from SEAL training, combat, business, and life in general. But the fundamental intention of this book is to uncover what really drives us to thrive in adversity. How do we develop resilience? Do some people have larger sums in their resilience bank accounts than others? How can we make more deposits than withdrawals? Does it happen naturally over time or must we train ourselves in the art of mental toughness? The overarching answer is simple. Resilience is like any muscle. With focus and determination—and some of the tools in this book—you can strengthen your mind to overcome any obstacle, crush goals, dominate your battlefield, and live an extraordinary life.
I attribute much of my success in embracing the unimaginable rigors of the SEAL training course to my mentor. My parents both completed their undergraduate education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where I also attended college many years later. When I finally gained the courage to present my parents with this radical and risky strategy of becoming a warrior (instead of a financial analyst) my dad introduced me to one of his close friends and swim teammates from SMU. He graduated, joined the Navy, and became a SEAL during the Vietnam War. He was living in La Jolla, California, just thirty minutes from where I would hopefully one day begin my transformation from tadpole to frogman at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California. My dad figured that his friend might have some wisdom to share, or more accurately, the ability to talk me out of it! Time would tell.
Now, many years later, in an effort to continue my service and give back to the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community, I mentor young people through the program. When I first began mentoring these eager and determined young men, the questions were the same ones I had when I was in their shoes. What’s the hardest part? How did you get through it? Is it more mental or physical? What’s the best way to train for this program? Keep in mind, when I was in college, I placed Navy SEALs on the highest of pedestals. They were untouchable demigods who breathed fire, ate glass, and easily bench pressed five hundred pounds—all while carrying a machine gun and Viking drinking horn full of ale. Their steely-eyed glare alone could put a man six feet under.
Before investing my limited time in being a mentor and knowing most of these young men might fail in their attempt, I needed a process for selecting candidates. I had to uncover the answers to a few key questions: Which of these guys have the grit to get it done? How do I determine who has the appropriate level of resilience? Why do some spend years preparing only to quit on day one while others crush the training with a smile on their face? So, I asked a high-ranking SEAL commander and fellow board member of the SEAL Family Foundation if NSW had conducted any research to define the mental, emotional, cognitive, and physical attributes of the candidates who are most likely to graduate the course. The pipeline is well over a year of extremely demanding training, and it carries an attrition rate that scares most off before they even sign up. It’s very competitive just to be accepted into the program, much less graduate and be welcomed into “the brotherhood.” And of those highly capable students who begin, only about 15 percent earn their Trident pin and go to a team. Oh, and then the training regime (and lifestyle) becomes even more taxing, but we’ll come back to that.
His response was that NSW had in fact invested significant resources in this research. What he then told me might not be the initial response most would expect—a narrative about star athletes, academic excellence, and brutes who have a penchant for kicking ass and taking names. Obviously, athleticism and intellect play a role, but it’s far deeper than these attributes alone: grit, resilience, and a deep passion to serve as a SEAL rank at the top. Essentially, the consistent data and “recipe” for success is reflected in the opening paragraph of the Navy SEAL Ethos, which ironically wasn’t created until 2005:
In times of war or uncertainty there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our nation’s call. A common man with uncommon desire to succeed. Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America’s finest special operations forces to serve his country, the American people, and protect their way of life. I am that man.
A common man with uncommon desire to succeed. Forged by adversity. Upon further reflection, I boiled what the commander told me down into what I now refer to as The Three Ps: Persistence, Purpose, and Passion.
That’s it. Sure, you won’t even be accepted into the course unless you’re in peak physical condition and meet the academic standards. But none of that matters in the first few weeks of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S), which kick off a long and arduous journey. Achieving any lofty goal or overcoming life’s seemingly insurmountable challenges require persistence, purpose, and passion. The Three Ps aid in the necessary emotional connection for high levels of achievement, be it becoming a Navy SEAL, getting into Harvard, or beating cancer.
I am currently the founder and CEO of TakingPoint Leadership. We partner with our clients on leadership and organizational development initiatives to help them create cultures of high performance. One of the learning modules in our leadership development program is on cultivating resilience in ourselves and others. We break the definition of resilience into three categories:
1. Challenge: Resilient people view difficulty as a challenge, not as a paralyzing event. They look at their failures and mistakes as lessons to be learned from and opportunities for growth. In our words, they embrace the suck better than others because they lean in.
2. Commitment: Resilient people are committed to their lives and goals. They have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning. They are not easily deterred or distracted by “opportunities” that are unrelated to their desired outcomes.
3. Control: Resilient people spend their time and energy focusing on situations and events that they have control over. And because they put their efforts where they can have the most impact, they feel empowered and confident.
We also teach Carol S. Dweck’s philosophies on growth versus fixed mindset. Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, and she is known for her work on the mindset psychological trait. She taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of Illinois before joining the Stanford faculty in 2004. According to Dweck, in a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
Growth and fixed mindsets can be further broken down into five categories: Skills, Challenges, Effort, Feedback, Setbacks.
When we become trapped by a fixed mindset, we believe our skills are essentially defined at birth. Challenges are to be avoided at all costs. Feedback is taken personally as opposed to viewed as useful data to learn from. Setbacks are based on external factors and result in discouragement.
A growth mindset is the bedrock of resilience. With a growth mindset you know that skills and success come from hard work and dedication, and the status quo is never enough. People with this mindset are comfortable being uncomfortable. Transparent feedback is not just accepted but craved, and setbacks are just another bump in the road fueling the fire to push forward.
A growth mindset is essential for embracing the pain and misery of SEAL training and high performance in any endeavor. It’s also critical for embracing the suck life throws at us when we least expect it, and essential for accomplishment and dominating any battlefield. When I was at SMU, I was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. I know what you’re thinking, but just bear with me. We held our weekly meeting every Monday night after dinner in a private room on the third floor of the fraternity house. Each night, without fail, we closed the meeting by reciting a famous quote on the value of persistence from former President Calvin Coolidge.
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
So, many years later, with a few impactful life lessons under my belt, I embarked on my mentorship journey to find only the young men with the most persistence, purpose, and passion. The ones who were not only willing to embrace the suck, but longed for it. This isn’t easy to measure, especially before BUD/S students are truly tested by the infamous and brutal crucible that goes by the appropriate moniker of Hell Week. But by asking the right questions and better understanding their purpose, I have been able to choose mentees who have what it takes. And all of them, so far, have become SEALs. I am in no way taking credit for their success. The grit they needed to see it through came purely from within.
Interestingly, none of them have been college track stars or Olympic swimmers. But they each had a personal connection to the mission and a deep passion around the idea of military service at the most elite level. That connection and passion has continued to drive their resilience in the worst of times. My most recent mentee has had an oddly similar journey to mine, with one exception. He grew up in Rancho Santa Fe, California, five minutes from where I currently live, graduated from college, and began a career in finance only to shift his focus to become a NSW warrior. Sound familiar? Then, the most horrible and unforeseen event occurred. As David mentioned in the foreword, one week before he checked in for BUD/S, his mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Undeterred, and with a new pain to use as fuel for his journey, he dominated the training pipeline and received orders to SEAL Team Three. He became a frogman, well-equipped to take the fight to the enemy.
Nothing great in this world comes without a little bit of adversity. Nothing amazing happens inside our comfort zones. Whether we are talking about getting a promotion, nurturing a challenged marriage, mastering a sport, building or saving a small business, navigating a pandemic, battling disease, dealing with the loss of a loved one, raising children, or hunting terrorists, a little bit of suffering will always be attached. That’s why the things we love and work hard for are deeply rewarding. My hope is that this book will provide you with the ammunition and inspiration necessary to embrace the suck, keep fighting, and live an extraordinary life.
EMBRACE THE SUCK
We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.
PAIN IS A PATHWAY
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
Al Fallujah, Iraq
You never forget the stench of a war zone, a place full of pain and suffering for all involved.
Our small convoy of Humvees rolled slowly through the rural neighborhood. Each operator was intensely alert, scanning for enemy threats around every corner and on every rooftop. We had turned off the headlights and were driving blacked out, using night vision goggles (NVGs). Five minutes earlier, our assault force had met at a predetermined set point about half a mile from where our high value target (HVT) was apparently holed up in a two-story house in an upscale area outside the city. We had four vehicles full of SEAL operators and a black Suburban SUV carrying agency partners, the source who had provided the intelligence, and an Army Ranger unit acting as our blocking force (they would cordon off the area so no one could move in or out).
Each vehicle had two SEALs standing on both port and starboard running boards carrying ladders, with additional assaulters in the back, ready for a quick dismount. I was on the port side of Vehicle 2 holding on to a nylon strap fastened to the roof with my right hand, left hand clutching the side of a wooden ladder. My M4 rifle was strapped tight across my chest. The green haze of my NVGs cast a surreal depiction of the surrounding environment. We were skeptical about the intel because the source seemed nervous and had changed his story several times. We were all on high alert.
The breaks squealed as the convoy rolled to a stop and we quickly dismounted. “The house is fifty meters up the road on the right,” our platoon commander said over the radio. The assault team dismounted while our drivers and gunners trailed behind us ready to act as a quick reaction force if the op went sideways. We silently shuffled down the dirt road, eight of us carrying the ladders so we could scale the wall the source said surrounded the house, while the others covered our approach. We slowed as we came to the corner of the lot and noticed something odd. “What the hell? There’s no wall in front of the house,” one of our point men said in a loud whisper. “Ditch the ladders.”
- "Resilience is key to overcoming all obstacles in life, of which there are many! Embrace the Suck masterfully guides the reader through measurable ways to optimize their personal fortitude and become their best self."—Mark Owen, #1 NYT bestselling author of No Easy Day and No Hero
- "The one constant that connects us all is that every single one of us is going to get knocked down in life. What defines us and our character is not just what we do next, but how we do it. Brent Gleeson recommends you embrace the suck and get after it. I agree. It's time to execute!"—Jack Carr, New York Times bestselling author of Savage Son
- "This riveting step-by-step manual boils it down to the one founding principle we are taught in the SEAL Teams--you have to learn to "embrace the suck." I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to level up with a proven process to overcome the adversity we all face in life and business!"—Jason Redman, US Navy SEAL (Retired), NYT bestselling author of The Trident and Overcome
- "Tough times don't last, but tough people do. Whether in business or in life adversity is often viewed as the enemy. Mindset however, is the antidote and solution. Embrace the Suck is a no-nonsense field manual that will empower anyone to turn adversity into an advantage so that you can overcome any setback and dominate life. Brent Gleeson delivers the goods through his real world, in-the-trenches experience as a Navy SEAL warrior and leadership expert."—Bedros Keuilian, bestselling author of Man Up and founder of Fit Body Boot Camp
- "No matter how you define success, the path to achieving it will require determination and resilience in the darkest of moments. In this no-nonsense self-help guide, you'll learn that in order to fulfill your goals, you have to be willing to embrace the suck."—Todd Hymel, CEO, Volcom
- "Regardless of all the inevitable obstacles we face from the day we're born until the day we go over the great divide, if we simply embrace the suck and go all in, there's no limit to what we can accomplish."—from the foreword by David Goggins, New York Times bestselling author of Can't Hurt Me
- "A book like this deserves its own category. Embrace the Suck is a book about resilience, personal development, and self-mastery. Each chapter is full of engaging stories of Navy SEAL missions complemented with real-life application for readers. This book screams, take action with your life. Indeed a work of art that I won't soon forget."—Alex Sanfilippo
- On Sale
- Dec 22, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Hachette Go