The 50 foot high plank: a chat with a Navy Seal about focus

There was a time I wouldn’t give a Navy Seal the time of day1.

There was also a time I couldn’t have an open and meaningful conversation with a semi-stranger that made me question my own beliefs.2

This could be three different blogs. Instead, I’ll focus on what I learned.

I’m chatting up a fellow parent at the kid’s gym yesterday. We’ve had a few little small talk chats, so I know he’s a Seal and he lives nearby. That’s about it. But the topic of service comes up and how much longer he has until retirement. So, in a friendly voice, I ask, “what does a Seal do when they get out and no one needs anyone killed?”

The great thing about people is if you let them talk, you might find something neat. This fella is pretty interested in leadership, so he spends a lot of time discussing how start ups have hired a few of his friends. They do very well financially because of it. And they have a skill that most of the super-competitive types want. “Being highly motivated?” No, not really. He says it’s more that Navy Seals learn how to learn quickly.

Hmmm. They learn how to learn quickly. That phrase has my interest so I press him on that a bit.

Seal relays to me that there’s three keys to learning anything:

  • Expectations

  • Coaching

  • Consequences

This sounds pretty standard, but in my managerial experience easier said than done. So I pushed a little more and got the real story. Here’s his deep dive.

The consequences are the most important part. Let’s say I balance a 20 foot plank a few feet in the air and I tell you to walk across it. The consequences of your failure are minor. So now I raise the plank and balance it 50 feet in the air. I tell you that no matter what, you have to walk across it. The change in consequences completely changes your focus. You have to be laser focused for every inch of that 20 foot plank.

If you really want to learn something and get it right fast, treat it like the 50 foot high plank. Most people approach new challenges more like the first example. If they fail, it’s no big deal. Because of that, they don’t have the focus needed to meet their own expectations. What we teach people is how to treat the things that are important to them with the laser focus you would expect from a life or death situation. That’s why tech start ups seek out Navy Seals.

I think that’s tremendous.

This little conversation certainly made me reflect on my life. When I’ve been dedicated and willing to grind, I’ve had that kind of focus. But I’m definitely one who can be inconsistent in applying it. And I know that a lot of people struggle to do it even once in their life.

The 50 foot high plank is a powerful mental image. I’m going to put that into my mental tool set. Every time I embark on a new challenge, before I begin I am going ask myself if I’m willing to walk the 50 foot high plank for it. If I’m not, then I should rethink it. And if I am, I better be prepared for how terrifying that walk is going to be.

1

I was pretty militantly anti-military for a time roughly fifteen to ten years ago. Disgust with the way our military went along with their un-Constitutional use made me lose respect for their “service.” I went through the same thing with the police. Over time, while I maintain that serving in the military is not a wise decision, and America’s empire is the enemy of freedom, I get that different points of view could conclude the service is meaningful and valuable. And I also maintain that libertarians should learn to separate the profession (soldier) from the way it is used by the State. The profession might have a value in life regardless (and I think a private property society would have a role for soldiers and police forces, though the service might look radically different.)

2

I’ve been socially awkward for most of my life. This is a problem shared by many. I mostly treated strangers with disdain. Occasionally I’d find myself trying to make a friend but, since my focus was always on my own ego, coming off as self centered. Which I was… My efforts to learn about my ego, to meditate, to breathe, to fight through fear.. all of these things have proven to enhance my ability to have meaningful social interactions. I have far more friends today - good friends - than I have ever had in my life.