The Three Pillars of Never Enough

  • On an individual level, we must look to be Never Excellent Enough and build our own capabilities in terms of knowledge and capacity, strength and control, and accountability and orientation.
  • On a team and organizational level, we must aim to be Never Agile Enough and understand how to shift between roles to best serve our missions, how to put systems in place that lead to superior decision-making, and how to keep our teams as flexible and responsive as possible.
  • On an impact level, we must act to be Never Meaningful Enough, knowing what will make the biggest difference for the people in our lives and in our communities, and potentially on an even larger scale.

We can push ourselves to our limits across many different dimensions but it’s those three pillars of excellence, agility, and meaning that best cover the scope of this book.

 

Never Excellent Enough

Taking The Hard Path

The hardest choices we make are often the ones that involve going out on a limb, bucking conventional wisdom, or standing up to people in positions of authority when they’re telling you something you simply don’t believe. People generally don’t get in trouble for following the rules—but when the rules conflict with what you know is right, whether in a moral sense or a practical sense, sometimes the hard choice you need to make is to follow your instincts and accept whatever consequences might result.

SEALs are taught that if they think their mission has been compromised, they get out. That may mean canceling an entire mission, setting weeks of work—and ego—aside and saying they just can’t take the risk involved with trying to accomplish what they’ve set out to do. In that case they need to go back to safety, come up with a new plan, and start again.

SEALs do the hard things. SEALs never stop learning. SEALs are objective and reflective so that they can apply their lessons in the future and never make the same mistake twice.

 

We Are Who We Are at Our Worst

It’s easy to show the best sides of ourselves in situations we are confident we can handle. It’s far harder when we’re pushed beyond our perceived limits. Seeing how someone acts when they’re truly stressed in some way is a far better indicator of character. Some people think that those hard moments give them a good excuse to deviate from the highest moral and ethical standards, to mistreat others, to speak poorly about colleagues or friends, or to otherwise act illogically. Nothing could be further from the truth. When things are genuinely difficult, that’s when you have the greatest opportunity to prove what you are made of.

That’s what SEAL training teaches, and what anyone looking to thrive in life absolutely has to aim for. Most of the time, especially in our modern existence, we’re in climate-controlled conditions, with temperatures between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit, wearing dry and appropriate clothing, well-rested and well-fed, not in extreme physical pain or undergoing significant mental duress. In those settings, what excuse do we have to not be kind, thoughtful, rational, and decent? In the most stressful situations, SEALs need to be able to behave with the same calm rationality as we do when things are easy.

 

Living with Confidence and Humility

Confidence and humility are not different points on the same line. You can be confident that you have something to contribute, and at the same time recognize that you’re not the only one who has value to add. It takes confidence to give credit to others, to let your teammates shine, to give more than you take, to admit when you’ve made a mistake, to change a plan, and to be fully honest and transparent about everything you are doing.

As a special operations force—as a human being—that success means you pull back when it makes sense to pull back, and you reverse course if that’s what will lead to greater victory going forward. SEALs don’t assume risk that isn’t worth assuming. This kind of thinking requires humility—to admit, freely, that you may have been wrong when planning the mission—and the utmost confidence to trust your instincts even when it means adjusting on the fly.

 

Never Agile Enough

Be a Leader and a Follower

Sometimes you’re the leader. Sometimes you’re the follower. Sometimes, in the span of just a minute or two, you’re both. Seniority shouldn’t be dictating decisions. What matters is if the decision is right, not who makes the decision. The higher up you are in an organization, the more you need to understand that it’s not your job to make the best decision—your job is to ensure the best decision gets made. You need to be able to identify the best people to make the decision, and be open to listening to everyone up and down the hierarchy, because you never know how the best answer will emerge.

The SEAL mindset is fundamentally one where you see yourself with the power and ability to control things that most people believe are uncontrollable, while at the same time having the humility not to force your own way on the world. Everyone can work for you, but you also have to be willing and eager to work for everyone.

 

Learn How to Think, Not What to Think

The decision-making process you have in place is far more important for advance planning than the decisions themselves. You never know in advance what the precise situation is going to be, or how it’s going to change while you’re in it.

The secret to the success of the SEALs is their agility, their ability to adjust on the fly, their deeply embedded process of reacting and replanning in the moment as conditions shift. On any given operation, SEALs plan for multiple contingencies. For example, they make it a point to establish helicopter landing zones on all sides of any target so they can decide at the very last second which is the safest and best place to get picked back up.

 

Look for Diversity, Not Conformity

We are inclined to have favorable feelings towards people who are similar to us, to bond with them, and to want to be around them. Artists like spending time with artists. Engineers like spending time with engineers.

But if you want what’s best for a decision-making system, you need the artist paired up with the engineer, because each is going to see a situation differently. There are people who are great at generating ideas. There are people who are great at building things. There are people who are great at execution. You need all those people, every time you make a decision. Biodiversity ensures the survival of a species. Same thing for a company or organization: none of us, no matter how talented, can do everything.

 

Gain Authority by Giving It Away

Competent people in any organization are inevitably given more to do than they can handle, because there are things that need to get done, and it’s easy to go to the person who can handle it. When you want something done, the old saying goes, ask a busy person. At the same time, it can be very tempting—whether you’re running an organization or aspiring to move up the ranks—to think that you are the only person who can or should be doing a particular task. That’s exactly the opposite of the right way to think.

Mike says, “When I walk into any organization to give a talk, I often ask, “Who here is in charge of what your organization isn’t doing?” Being able to see the negative space—to know where the gaps are, what tasks are unnecessary, who is wasting their time—is critical to finding opportunities and seeing risks.” If no one ever raises a hand that means no one is given the job of taking work off people’s plates, of moving it either down the chain or moving it off the list of tasks completely, because it doesn’t actually need to get done.

Whether you’re a SEAL team leader or a corporate executive, leadership involves pushing as much work down to lower levels as possible. This creates awesome opportunities for more junior employees, and it also creates space for higher-level staff to think strategically instead of being wall-to-wall packed with urgent tasks that must get done.

 

Pushing to the Point of Safe and Sensible Failure

As leaders, we should be pushing people to the point of (safe and sensible) failure, because that’s how they will learn and improve. When it’s okay to make a mistake, you put in the team that might still need more training. When everything is on the line, you need to realize that you may not have the luxury to do that.

The only reasons not to hire someone better than you center around discomfort and fear. But if you own the outcomes of your team—if you recognize that credit is shared all around—you have nothing to worry about. Team success is your success. Individual success is your success. You become able to finally see not just what motivates you but what motivates everyone around you—and you can dedicate yourself to helping others achieve their goals.

 

Getting Things Done and Changing Things On The Fly

The strongest leaders ask everyone in their organization to think on two levels: run, and renovate. We need everyone to think short-term and long-term at the same time. You need to get the job done in the moment (“run”) but you also need to figure out what ought to change to enable the greatest amount of long-term success (“renovate”). You can run the system you’re in, but at the same time work to fix the system and change the rules of the game.

By nature, SEALs are rule breakers. They’re the kind of people who think they know best, and only want to follow rules that they agree with. This isn’t a bad thing if it’s harnessed properly. SEAL leaders want their teams to be aggressive and make things happen. They don’t follow rules if the rules are wrong and get in the way of mission success. But they also need people with impeccable judgment, to know when it’s okay to bend or break a rule, and when doing so will have unintended consequences that ultimately hurt the team.

Mike sums it up perfectly by saying, “When I think about agility, a big part is about rule following and rule breaking, and when to do which. Organizations make leaps when people recognize that some expectations are wrong, and there are better ways to do things. We need to follow rules, of course. But we also need to be laser-focused on advocating for change when rules are wrong.”

 

Never Meaningful Enough

Pushing Your Values Out into the World

Rescuing hostages, running toward suicide bombers, diving for active grenades, risking their lives to provide medical aid to their teammates—and the chance to share those stories with the broader public are meaningful to SEALs and get them excited.

If you’re ever having trouble figuring out what is most meaningful to you or what kinds of goals you ought to be chasing, think about what you would do if you could spend your time doing anything you wanted. The activities and causes to which you naturally gravitate are the best places to start searching for opportunities to contribute.

 

Make Differences Where They Will Count the Most

In those moments, you want nothing more than hiding in bed, hoping and praying that someone else will hear the call first, get up, and go. You tell yourself that sleep is critical and that SEALs need their sleep to maintain operational readiness. But deep down you know you’re just making excuses. You tell yourself that others will go. You’re probably right. But what if no one goes? It’s a collective action problem. What if everyone decides to hide under the blankets in the hopes that someone else will step up?

There are always more people whose lives we can touch and inspire to reach greater heights. It’s easy to be complacent. It’s harder to keep on figuring out the work we need to do. But that hard work is what drives us to make a real contribution to the world.

We can all serve, whether that service is as a SEAL, in politics, in the business world, for our families, or, inevitably, in a combination of all the spheres in which we work and live. We can all do our part, and understand that we are never finished. There is always more we can do for others, for ourselves, and for the world. Excellence. Agility. Meaning. There is Never Enough.


 


Kyaw Wai Yan Tun

Hi, I'm Wai Yan. I love designing visuals and writing insightful articles online. I see it as my way of making the world a more beautiful and insightful place.