4 Lessons in Discipline From My SEAL Father

Sean Kernan


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My family, in Fayetteville, NC. Circa 1998.Photo byAuthor

I grew up in the SEAL community.

My father was a SEAL for 37 years (Class 117). He was deployed for 50% of my life and was at war during both my sister’s and my birth.

I don’t want to make it seem like dad was a fanatical drill Seargent. He had his moments. But he’s mostly cool and laid back.

He commanded SEAL Team 6 and later rose to become a Vice Admiral and Undersecretary of Intelligence. He didn’t get there by loafing. Here are a few lessons he taught me.

Harnessing the power of the moment

One of our most memorable conversations happened a full decade ago. It was about Hell Week.

For those who don’t know — Hell Week is an unreal test of endurance. You wake up on a Sunday to gunfire. You exercise until Friday without sleep.

Photo byWikipedia commons

Hell Week is the bottleneck that breaks a lot of talented people. It’s where the top 20% is whittled down to the top 5%.

We were driving somewhere and I remember him casually saying, “Man, Tuesday morning — that was the worst.”

I thought, “What an unusual day.” Tuesday? Why wouldn’t Thursday be the worst? Or Friday morning?

He explained it and it made total sense.

You wake up on a Sunday morning at ~1 AM to gunfire and chaos. You run around getting yelled at. You are carrying logs, rolling in sand, jogging face-first into freezing cold waves.

This continues all day long and then into the night. As people sleep in their warm and cozy beds, you continue jogging, shivering, and being shouted at.

Monday morning rolls around. The drills repeat from dawn until dusk with no rest from the physical torture. Then, all through the night, you do it again.

Tuesday morning arrives.

You’ve gone more than two entire nights without sleep. You’ve absorbed immense physical and psychological stress for the entirety. You are freezing and demoralized. By Tuesday morning, you are more tired than you’ve ever been.

That’s when you start to feel sorry for yourself.

“Oh wow. It’s only Tuesday. How am I going to get through this?”

“If I’m this tired already — and I’m not even halfway through…”

People that think like this end up quitting.

The ones who succeed and become SEALs — only look a few minutes ahead. They don’t worry about Thursday or Friday. They stay focused on each individual exercise. They take it one drill at a time.

You can apply this to many parts of your life.

Studying for a massive test? Take it one page at a time. Working on a huge presentation? One slide at a time.

For example, I swam in college. Our training was incredibly grueling. We swam 5 to 6 miles a day.

Sometimes the coach put a set on the whiteboard that made me think, “You’ve got to be f#$king kidding me. I’m going to die.”

I just took it one lap at a time and got through it.

Lower your vision. Break up big challenges. It reduces the perceived mental weight of the tasks.


The Importance of Detail

In SEAL training, there’s a seemingly stupid test that trainees endure. They stand outside of their room, at attention, and say, “Ready for inspection sir!”

The supervisor then goes into the dual-inhabited bedroom and begins looking at every corner. No sand. No dirt. No blemishes of any kind. The furniture must be positioned perfectly.

The bed is where most trainees get dinged.

There’s a highly specific way of making a bed. It must be wrinkle-free and tucked in at exact angles with the pillow and blanket positioned perfectly.

If even the smallest detail is missed by either person in the room, they both have to go run into the waves (a few hundred meters away).

Coronado has frigid water most of the year. If the supervisor is in a bad mood, he’ll make the candidates roll in sand afterward, turning them into “sugar cookies”.

It gets old — fast.

It might seem stupid to torture candidates over how they make their bed but it serves an all-important task. They are instilling the trainees’ minds with an ultra-focus on detail.

The big idea is, “If I can’t trust you to make this bed correctly, why should I trust you to have my back on a mission?”

This mentality was passed along during my upbringing.

Yes, it applied to making beds, but also with homework and other tasks. His eloquent phrase was, “Don’t do a half-assed job.”

It means — do it right, or don’t do it at all. Be exacting.

If you went to a job board right now — seemingly every job description says, “Must have great attention to detail.”

It isn’t a coincidence. You can’t have high performance without it.

If people know you care a lot about the little things, they will safely assume you care a lot about the big things.

He typically showed me this by saying, “This could always use one more look-over.” Keep that phrase with you.

Detail requires extra work. But the benefits far surpass the price of mediocrity.

A sound mind requires a sound body

My dad is 68 now and my parents live up in Leesburg, Virginia.

When I visit, you’ll see my dad and me just about every day at their Leesburg rec center. Staying in shape is 100% a big part of SEAL culture. Most older SEALs stay fit well into their twilight years.

I grew up around that mentality, always competing in sports, and getting my chops busted for being out of shape. It did me a lot of good. I’ve always found ways to exercise and it’s been the anchor of my productivity.

Most people in the military have tough inner voices that speak to them, “You are being lazy. Stop”

“You are getting fat. Enough.”

I’ve inherited a bit of that blunt, inner honesty. It helps to be candid with yourself. Soft inner language can make it too easy to get yourself out of doing things.

During my most busy professional times, and the most stressful experiences I’ve ever had, I’ve always found a way to work out.

The idea that “you don’t have time” is a hard sell to an honest mind. I’ve always said, “If a president has time to work out — so do I.”

Taking care of your body keeps your mind optimized. It signals to outsiders that you value work ethic.

Find a way to exercise. You have time. It makes everything better and you’ll get more done.

Start early or at least do this

I never caught more crap from my parents than when I overslept at home (or when I didn’t make my bed — big shocker).

It’s hard to be a productive human being if you stay up until 6 AM and sleep in until noon. Oversleeping psychologically buries you.

There’s a feeling of a preemptive strike when you wake up before the rest of the world. It sets a powerful tone for your day.

Everyone is waking up and you’ve already gotten three things done from your list. You feel like a god.

I’ve never had an unproductive day that started with me getting something done early.

This military approach mandates you get into the habit of going to bed at a reasonable hour and, ideally, at the exact same time every night.

Your body relishes a regimen and repetition. It will reward you.

If waking up early is a non-starter, the best alternative is that whenever you get up — make yourself productive within your first hour or two of the day. Build early momentum.

The takeaway to remember

Every day is a battle. Focus on staying in the moment. When you have a huge task to tackle, break it up into small bits and take it down.

Make attention to detail your religion. Hold yourself to a high standard.

Discipline is the key to so many things. Perfect the art of doing things you don’t feel like doing, and you’ll go far in life.

Finally, take care of your body. You only get one. Best of luck.


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