What Navy SEALS Hell Week Can Teach Us About Business

Ryan McGrath
May 15, 2021
min read
What Navy SEALS Hell Week Can Teach Us About Business

My appreciation for the United States military runs deep, not just because of the sacrifices servicemen and women have made to ensure my freedoms in this country, but also because of how much I’ve learned from their example of hard work and perseverance.

I am a voracious reader, and some of my favorite books are the memoirs of those who have served—the stories of waking up before dawn and enduring intense training to prepare their bodies and minds for battle. From these accounts, I’ve learned a lot about being a better man and leader. As a result, I jumped at the opportunity to embark on my own military-style training when I was invited to Coronado, California to train with a number of former Navy SEALS.

If you’re at all familiar with the Navy SEALS, you know that Coronado is where prospective SEALS go for Hell Week, a five-day-long component of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training that is designed to physically and mentally push recruits to their breaking point.

In his article, Navy SEAL Hell Week Revisited, former SEAL Stew Smith noted that Hell Week “is one of the most successful tools in Navy SEAL training in determining a student's desire to serve,” that “it shows the SEALS that you want to be there and you will not quit when needed by your team.”

Of course, not all SEAL trainees make it through Hell Week. For some, the pressure and fatigue become too intense, and they do quit. But for those who stick it out, the reward is far greater. For the rest of their lives, those individuals carry the pride and accomplishment that comes from facing a seemingly impossible challenge—and conquering it.

I want to be clear that the training event I attended in Coronado, called Leadership Under Fire, was only a simulated version of Hell Week. It was not at all what real SEAL trainees endure, and I don’t want to minimize their accomplishments by suggesting otherwise. Still the experience was eye-opening, and I want to share a few key takeaways and how they’ve have helped me to continue to develop as the CEO of Asset Living:

Two is one, one is none

SEAL training places a premium on over-preparedness, and the saying “two is one, one is none” simply means that only having one plan is like having no plan at all. This focus on a backup plan (or multiple backup plans) is important in business, too, as there is no substitute for preparation.

As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Embrace the suck

During Leadership Under Fire, I learned that one of the most important things to remember while I was chest-deep in cold water and crawling through the sand was that some of the other trainees weren’t willing to endure the pain that I was. They were going to give up eventually, so if I could embrace the suck and stick it out longer than they would, I was guaranteed victory. I carry this sentiment with me in business, too, especially when things get difficult. I know that I am choosing to live a few years of my life like most people won’t, so that I can spend the rest of my life like most people can’t.

The only easy day was yesterday

There is a freedom that comes from anticipating difficulty. If you know that things are going to get harder with each passing moment—that the only easy day was yesterday—you can mentally prepare for the challenges that lie ahead. This applies to both physical challenges (at Leadership Under Fire, for example, the number of pushups increased each day while the minimum accepted times for our daily run decreased).

I know that as Asset Living continues to grow, so, too, will the number of competitors in our space, the new technologies we have to learn, and the challenges we’ll ultimately have to overcome.
It pays to be a winner

Competitions are a common component of Leadership Under Fire. For instance, a portion of our training involved boat races. We essentially had to carry boats above our heads while racing down the beach. The team that finished first would be able to rest before the next rally. On the other hand, teams that didn’t place first, wouldn’t get any respite. In the end, the winners were more likely to repeat history and come out on top again—compounding on their prior success. This theme also holds true in business. When you experience a business win, press and further opportunities tend to follow. Organizations that play to win can spur long-term success by creating a momentum of growth and a culture that accepts nothing less than excellence.

Teams get through Hell Week, individuals do not

One of the most well-known training exercises during Hell Week is log PT. It is an exercise in which a 200-pound log is hoisted above the heads of the trainees—an impossibility if anyone was expected to do it on their own. Even spreading the load among six to eight team members is still difficult, especially when your muscles are fatigued and you’re operating on 30 minutes of sleep. But working as a team makes the impossible possible.

In the same way, individuals do not build businesses—teams do.

No business is successful because of its CEO. It is successful because all of the individuals in the organization are harnessing their unique skillsets, passions, and drive towards a common goal.

Don’t quit

Perhaps the most important lesson that I was reminded of during Leadership Under Fire is the simplest one, the one that we’ve all been taught since we were children: Don’t quit. If nothing else, Hell Week teaches SEAL trainees that they are capable of far more than they ever thought possible. Again, I did not experience a real Hell Week, and I am not a Navy SEAL. But I enjoyed the accomplishment of pushing my body beyond where my mind thought it could go, of continuing on when I wanted to stop.

What I know is this: The pain that we encounter in life and in business is only temporary. We can push past it, or we can live with the regret of quitting forever.
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