Jocko Willink is recognized as among the toughest men on the planet. You see, he was once a Navy SEAL but in retirement turned to leadership training. What’s more, with his best-selling books, he’s on a mission to share the secrets of his success. And now this 230-pound martial arts expert has revealed what you need to do to make your days as productive as possible during hard times.
In today’s world it can be easy to get distracted and lose focus. Indeed, there are so many ways to effortlessly stay connected to friends, family and social media circles, as well as world events and current affairs. Of course, some of this connectivity is beneficial, but too much can end up disrupting our daily routines.
And such connectivity can sometimes have negative effects on wellbeing too, both mental and physical. For instance, regarding the news, it may be natural for the human brain to tune in to unsettling or scary situations. But too much exposure is detrimental. In fact, it can be a hard habit to break when there’s little else going on.
Enter ex-Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink. As a former military man, he knows a thing or two about self-discipline. And since retiring from service, he has built a career out of training strong leaders. What’s more, he has shared his secrets about what you can do to cultivate a state of mind primed for success.
In 2015 entrepreneur and podcaster Tim Ferriss described Willink’s steely gaze as “[looking] through you more than at you.” Indeed, the former Navy SEAL appears fearless: he’s made of pure muscle, and his Brazilian jiu-jitsu has taken down many opponents. Furthermore, he coached pro-MMA fighters for fun, and his reputation in the world of special operations is legendary.
Willink was born John Gretton Willink Jr. on September 8, 1971 in Torrington, Connecticut. Today, the retired Navy officer describes the young Willink as “a pretty significantly rebellious kid.” He told Ferriss, “When you grow up in New England, one of the most rebellious things that a human being can do is join the military. [It’s] almost the ultra rebellious thing you can do.”
And so, when Willink graduated from high school, he immediately enrolled in the Navy, where he served for two decades as a member of the SEAL teams. In fact, he started off as an operator before being promoted to officer. And he garnered quite a reputation as a key member of the fiercest of SEAL units.
You see, Willink served two tours in Iraq. And during the second he was commander of the SEAL’s Task Unit Bruiser during a 2006 conflict in Ramadi. The battle was described as having some of the most brutal and relentless combat the SEALs had experienced since the Vietnam War. Moreover, it was Willink’s leadership that played a major role in the mission’s success.
That’s apparently true – Willink and his team were responsible for initiating the area’s stability. In doing so, his unit received many medals and accolades. In fact, they were recognized as the Special Operations Unit with the most distinguished honors throughout the whole of the Iraq War. And Willink himself was awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars.
During that time, Willink served alongside numerous SEAL luminaries, including sniper Chris Kyle and Kevin Lacz, who Willink referenced in one of his books. Also among his team was Jonny Kim, now a NASA astronaut, along with Marc Alan Lee and Michael Monsoor, who were both killed in the Iraq conflict.
When he returned from Iraq, Willink was appointed Officer in Charge of Training for all SEAL Teams, based on the West Coast. Styling his training techniques around his own experiences, the commander devised among the most demanding and lifelike battle coaching the world had ever seen. Furthermore, he implemented a mentor program for upcoming SEAL leaders.
Eventually, Willink retired from the military in 2010. These days, the former SEAL is still a big guy. It would perhaps be easy to picture him as a personal trainer, or even a pro-fighter given his love of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Indeed, in the podcast with Ferriss, the ex-unit commander described what life is like as a SEAL.
“I remember being on a deployment on a ship,” Willink explained. “The food on a ship is not good. I was on a six month deployment on a ship… and when you’re on a ship as a SEAL you don’t have a job other than just to work out.” It was an opportunity, then, for some serious exercise.
You see, Willink began his Navy training at around 175 pounds. He completed all the physical training – consisting of pushups, pull-ups, dips, obstacle courses, running and swimming – asked of him. And he also devoured all the food on offer, which he said was a lot. When his training was complete and he graduated, Willink had gained around ten pounds.
Moreover, when Willink was assigned to a platoon, his SEAL colleagues all had the same goal. You see, they were all into lifting weights and wanting to build muscle. As Willink described, “I lifted heavy and ate a lot. I was up to 200 [pounds] in my first platoon and then after that I got up to about 225.”
In his Navy days, however, Willink found eating for weight gain as tough as the training. He told Ferriss, “The 1990s [were] a totally different world; ‘the dry years,’ because there was no war going on. I remember we were all just trying to get huge. I remember getting plates full of chicken McNuggets of whatever brand they’d serve in the Navy.”
As it happened, Willink wasn’t fond of chicken nuggets. Nevertheless, he found the self-discipline and dedication to do what was necessary to reach his weight and strength goal. Then, in around 1992 or 1993, the SEAL and his comrades discovered jiu-jitsu. When a senior officer asked if any of them were interested in fighting, it was perhaps inevitable that a handful of them jumped at the opportunity.
Now, SEAL Master Chief Steve Bailey had reached a high level in jiu-jitsu and was incredibly adept at the martial art. He taught Willink and a few colleagues some basic moves, and the young SEAL operator was able to handle himself in scraps between comrades. You see, that was a fairly typical part of Navy life when stuck on a ship in close quarters.
However, Willink became more interested in jiu-jitsu around the mid-1990s. You see, he was visited by a former SEAL comrade, Jeff Higgs, who’d left the Navy to dedicate his life to the martial art. And it was then that Willink realized there was more to learn from the discipline than he ever envisioned. What’s more, he was hooked.
“[Higgs] was just completely beyond anything I knew,” Willink recalled. “He tapped me out a thousand times. And I said, ‘Hey, where are you training? Give me the place.’ And that was it. I went down the next day and signed up for unlimited classes. I took three classes a day until the present time.”
Eventually, Willink opened his own gym with his training partner, Dean Lister. Now, the jiu-jitsu aficionado was still in the Navy at the time and therefore couldn’t commit fully to the business. Nonetheless, the arrangement appeared to work. As Willink explained to Ferriss, “We did a good job and opened up a big space.”
Mind you, Willink has fostered a set of habits and techniques for a successful Navy retirement. Moreover, he attributes his SEAL triumphs as a matter of mind over body. And he is now a successful businessman and author who shares the secrets of his success through his books, podcasts and consulting firm, Echelon Front.
Interestingly, though, a large part of Willink’s successes can be put down to discipline. You see, he believes that by building a strict routine and sticking to it, you have all the tools you need to achieve anything in life. What’s more, it’s the same structure he utilizes himself to get the most out of his day.
Firstly, Willink advocates writing a list before going to bed. It should include everything that needs to be done the next day. Then the former SEAL suggests setting an alarm for 30 or 60 minutes before you’d usually wake up. Then, after a solid night’s sleep, it’s time for the first challenge in self-discipline.
Now, it can be tempting to hit snooze when the alarm sounds in the morning. Not in Willink’s world. That’s your cue to get up and get going. Indeed, the former commander straight away brushes his teeth and goes for a work out. This is followed by a shower, by which time he’s ready to charge through his to-do list.
By repeating these steps day after day, Willink maintains that you can create freedom. In fact, the former SEAL observed in his Navy days that the highest achievers were those who started their days while everyone else was still asleep. So he soon got into a routine of waking up at 4:30 a.m. every day.
But what Willink doesn’t support is trying to function on only a few hours’ sleep. He recognizes that some people perform better the more sleep they get. In which case, he suggests simply going to bed earlier. Also, the ex-SEAL commander recommends maintaining the routine on weekends to avoid tearing up any development you’ve made.
Furthermore, Willink champions small but mighty power naps. Indeed, he acknowledges that it can be exhausting waking up early to work out. We are, after all, human. But he learned an effective technique during SEAL training. Yes, setting his alarm for just six to eight minutes, and catching some Zs laying down with his feet elevated, was a good way to get extra rest.
However, Willink doesn’t expect everybody to work out like a marine. “Just do some kind of workout,” he stressed in his 2015 book, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual. “[It] doesn’t matter if it’s going for a walk around the block, going for a jog, doing some calisthenics… do something that gets your blood flowing and gets your mind in the game.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Willink never excelled at anything when he joined the military. “I was not good at anything. I wasn’t great at anything. I couldn’t run fast, I couldn’t swim fast,” he explained to Ferriss. “But I was OK at everything, which is actually better.” You see, rather than excelling in one area, Willink was a solid all-rounder.
“I didn’t have these areas of huge weakness,” Willink further explained to Ferriss. In contrast, several of his fellow SEAL trainees were athletes who excelled in particular disciplines, but other aspects of their drilling was their undoing. “I’m not saying I was great at anything, because I really wasn’t,” Willink continued. “I finished middle of the pack on a run, in the middle of the pack of a swim.”
What’s more, Willink believes everyone already possesses the mental “toughness” to tackle any situation. “Human beings can survive the most insane adversity you can imagine,” he stressed. People who survive prison camps aren’t superheroes – they’re ordinary people! They have mental toughness and resilience, and so do you.”
Following retirement from the Navy, Willink divided his time between consultancy work, podcasting, working out and fatherhood. And yet his approach to each day provided the discipline needed to juggle all of his commitments. The secret, he says, is to find an equilibrium and not focus heavily on one thing at the sacrifice of the others.
For Willink, it takes balance to fulfil your commitments. He told the Ferriss podcast, “If you focus too much on work, you won’t have a family. If you focus too much on family, you won’t have work. I don’t always do a great job of this. I’ve missed some critical events with my kids because of work, and it’s a sad reality.”
You see, Willink is a father to four kids – a boy and three girls. In fact, he has written several books covering the values he instilled in them to create sound self-discipline. High on the list is an early rise and healthy lifestyle, while elsewhere he stresses the importance of humility and being respectful, just as he would teach business leaders.
What’s more, the former SEAL prescribes tidiness, being organized and ready to tackle tasks. But it’s his attention to detail, leaned in the military, that he believes is a vital trait. “If you’re in the navy, you’re working on an aircraft and if you make a mistake working on the aircraft, people die,” he told the Ferriss podcast.
In many situations, Willink recommends keeping a check on emotions. When it comes to leadership, for instance, it’s important to be assertive but not aggressive, and ambitious but not merciless. And while it’s better to be pragmatic in business, being too steely can alienate you from the people under your charge.
However, pragmatism can also be helpful in relationships. You see, Willink has been married for around 20 years and recognizes that perfection doesn’t exist in a partner. He said, “Getting married is probably the most important decision you’re going to make in your life. You really want to make a good decision.” His advice? Find someone whose quirks you can live with.
“If you can find someone that’s emotionally independent, that doesn’t rely on you to prop them up every day, that’s a big benefit,” Willink explained to Ferriss. And that’s exactly how he described his wife. What’s more, he said, “If you’re blaming your spouse when things go wrong, that’s not going to work out very well.” So tackle issues by being a problem solver.
Strikingly, Willink has made a success of his passions. As well as an exemplary military career, he now owns a gym, a consulting business, and has most recently founded a tea company, as well as venturing into the fitness supplement industry. But most of all his success comes from self-discipline. He stressed, “I follow my own leadership principles. The principles that I teach, I utilize them myself.”