Jocko Willink is recognized as being one of the toughest men on the planet. And after having given it his all as a Navy SEAL, the 230-pound martial arts expert has now turned to leadership training in his retirement. It would seem from his best-selling books that he’s on a mission to share the secrets of his success, too. But Willink has also gone one step further than that – by explaining exactly what you need to do to be the best version of yourself.
So, given that it’s easy to lose focus and get distracted in today’s world, Willink’s advice may just be exactly what you need to hear. Did you know, for instance, that the average time Americans spend on social media per day is between two and four hours? And while this level of connectivity can be beneficial, it’s no secret that too much can disrupt our daily routines and damage productivity.
This time spent online can also sometimes have negative effects on both mental and physical wellbeing. Take the news, for example, which often reports the unsettling or scary situations that humans just can’t help tuning into. You can see, then, how too much exposure to social media can be detrimental. And it’s even harder to break this bad habit when there’s little else going on.
So, you may be thinking, how exactly can Willink help us break this bad habit? Well, as a former military man, he claims to know a thing or two about self-discipline. Since retiring from service, he has also built a career out of training strong leaders. And, thankfully, Willink has explained exactly what you can do to climb out of the rut you may have fallen into – as well as how to cultivate the state of mind that leads to success.
But first, let’s learn more about the ex-Navy SEAL commander and how he came to know his stuff. In 2015 entrepreneur and podcaster Tim Ferriss described Willink’s steely gaze as “[looking] through you more than at you.” Yes, the former military man appears fearless. He’s also made of pure muscle and possesses Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills that have taken down many opponents. Willink even 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. And today, the retired Navy officer regards his younger self 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. Starting off as an operator, he was then promoted to an officer. He built up quite a reputation as a key member in the SEALs’ fiercest units, too.
Willink actually served two tours in Iraq, during which he served as commander of the SEALs’ Task Unit Bruiser in a 2006 conflict in Ramadi. This battle was described as having some of the most brutal and relentless combat that the SEALs had experienced since the Vietnam War. And it was Willink’s leadership that played a major role in the mission’s overall success.
Yes, Willink and his team were apparently responsible for initiating the area’s stability. And in doing so, his unit received many medals and accolades. The SEALs were in fact recognized as the Special Operations Unit with the most distinguished honors throughout the whole of the Iraq War, with Willink himself ultimately being awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars.
During that time, Willink served alongside SEAL luminaries such as snipers Chris Kyle and Kevin Lacz – the latter of whom Willink has referenced in one of his books. Also among his team were Jonny Kim – who is now a NASA astronaut – and Marc Alan Lee and Michael Monsoor, who were both killed in the Iraq conflict.
When he returned from Iraq, then, Willink was appointed Officer in Charge of Training for all SEAL Teams. Styling his instructional techniques around his own experiences, the commander devised some of the most demanding and lifelike battle coaching that the world had ever seen. He also implemented a mentor program for upcoming SEAL leaders.
Yet while Willink eventually retired from the military in 2010, his stature remains just as robust. It would perhaps be easy to picture him as a personal trainer – or even a pro-fighter given his love of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. And in the podcast with Ferris, Willink opened up about how he started training when he was a SEAL.
“I remember being on 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, when Willink began his Navy training, he weighed around 175 pounds. And he completed all the physical exercises – consisting of pushups, pull-ups, dips, obstacle courses, running and swimming – that were asked of him. He also devoured the vast quantities of food on offer to him at the time. You can see, then, how the SEAL managed to gain ten pounds by the time he graduated.
Moreover, when Willink was assigned to a platoon, his SEAL colleagues all had the same goal: to bulk up. They were apparently 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 all that fond of chicken nuggets, but he was dedicated to doing what was necessary to reach his weight and strength goal. Then, in around 1992 or 1993, the SEAL and his comrades discovered jiu-jitsu. And when a senior officer asked if any of the team were interested in fighting, it was perhaps inevitable that a handful of them jumped at the opportunity.
Willink’s teacher, SEAL Master Chief Steve Bailey, had reached a high level in jiu-jitsu and was incredibly adept at the martial art. He showed Willink and a few colleagues some basic moves, and after that the young SEAL operator was able to handle himself in scraps between comrades. Given that the soldiers were usually stuck on a ship in close quarters, this was a fairly typical part of Navy life.
Willink became more interested in jiu-jitsu around the mid-1990s, however. At that time, 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’d 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. And even though the jiu-jitsu aficionado was still in the Navy at the time and therefore couldn’t commit fully to the business, the arrangement appeared to work. As Willink explained to Ferriss, “We did a good job and opened up a big space.”
But given Willink’s experience, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that he has fostered a set of habits and techniques that have helped in his transition to Navy retirement. Willink also claims that his SEAL triumphs have simply been a matter of mind over body. And now, he is 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 self-discipline. You see, he believes that by building a strict routine and sticking to it, you have all the tools that you need to achieve anything you want in life. He even applies this mantra in everyday life, believing that it helps him get the most out of his day. And here are some of his main tips that you may want to take on board, too.
Firstly, Willink advocates writing a list before going to bed. This 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. And after a solid night’s sleep, it’s time for the first challenge in self-discipline.
Now, while it can be tempting to hit snooze when the alarm sounds in the morning, this is a no-go in Willink’s world. That, he seems to believe, is your cue to get up and get going. Indeed, the former commander rises, brushes his teeth straight away and goes for a workout. 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 during his time in the Navy that the highest achievers were those who started their days while everyone else was still asleep. And after that revelation, 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. And he recognizes that some people perform better the more sleep they get – in which case he suggests simply going to bed earlier. The ex-SEAL commander also recommends maintaining the routine on weekends to avoid tearing up any development that you’ve made.
Some of you may be pleased to hear, though, that Willink also champions small but mighty power naps. Yes, while he acknowledges that it can be exhausting waking up early to work out – we are, after all, human – he has nevertheless learned an effective technique during SEAL training. Apparently, catching some Zs for six to eight minutes is a good way to get some extra rest.
Of course, 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.”
And perhaps surprisingly, Willink didn’t excel at anything in particular 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 okay at everything, which is actually better.” You see, rather than being the best 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, while several of his fellow SEAL trainees were athletes who excelled in particular disciplines, other aspects of their drilling were 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 that 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, then, Willink divides his time between consultancy work, podcasting, working out and fatherhood. And yet his approach to each day provides the discipline needed to juggle all of these commitments. The secret, he says, is to find an equilibrium and not to focus heavily on one thing to the detriment of all the others.
For Willink, it takes balance to fulfill your commitments. He revealed to Ferriss in the 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.”
Willink is a father to four kids: a boy and three girls. And, in fact, he has written several books covering the values he instilled in his children 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.
The former SEAL also prescribes tidiness, remaining organized and being ready to tackle tasks. But it’s his attention to detail, learned 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 explained in the Ferriss podcast.
In many situations, Willink also recommends keeping a check on your 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.
Yet Willink notes that pragmatism can also be helpful in relationships. The former SEAL has been married for around 20 years, after all, and so he 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. He added, “If you’re blaming your spouse when things go wrong, that’s not going to work out very well.” Instead, he recommends you tackle issues by being a problem solver.
Strikingly, Willink has made a success of his passions. Along with an exemplary military career under his belt, he now owns a gym, a consulting business and has most recently founded a tea company; he has also ventured into the fitness supplement industry. But if there’s one take away from Willink’s journey, it’s the importance of self-discipline. He has stressed, “I follow my own leadership principles. The principles that I teach, I utilize them myself.”