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Best selling author and US Navy SEAL, Thom Shea discusses what life is like when you stop quitting and become the best version of yourself.


Feb 24, 2020

The only differentiating factor of success is failure.  Wait what?  No one wants to fail.  It makes no sense at all to put failure and success in the same sentence.  No winning coach in any sports is willing to lose.  No business owner wants to lose money or go bankrupt or lose people.  No couple wants to get divorced, because that means failure.  Yet all these fears and points of failure happen all the time.  I can honestly tell you the truth, even though you will not want to hear it no matter your age…you will fail more than you will succeed. 

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That is downright depressing to hear and to consider but let me tell you a secret to success.  What you do after you fail makes you successful.  But you will fail none the less and a great many endeavors.  Harden yourself and your mind and your family to that fact of life.  Since that unalterable truth is the real constant of success, prepare to recover, prepare for multiple attempts, prepare for hard times.

Why do I lead off with such a low and depressing opening to the Unbreakable podcast?  Because after 30 years of being a SEAL, or training with the top athletes in endurance sports, and training leaders in many fortune 500 companies the straight up truth is not depressing at all.  The bottom produces more successful people than does avoiding failing altogether. 

I can also say with years of research and clarity to back up the statement that avoiding failure causes enduring stagnation and long term depression and loss.  And everyone knows that is true.  Avoid conflict and avoid authentic conversation at home and that relationship is over in less time than it took to get it going.  Risk averse businesses and leaders create terrible cultures to work within and summarily get less and less business.  Athletes who avoid pushing their particular limits don’t fail or lose like one would think, they just get bored and stop engaging in sport all together.  The bones of the ones who avoid failure are everywhere.

So why is failure a positive statement and not so terribly depressing.  Here is why?  Failure teaches you truth.  Truth is a good thing.  Failure shows you without emotion exactly what is wrong and will show you how to correct it.  Be eager to expose your weaknesses so that they can be solved and you can grow.

I knew that was the truth in the SEAL teams because the training is build on failure and pressure and risk and getting up again and again.  What I didn’t know until I was retired and training professional athletes and leaders in business is that each of them also based their own successes of failures and starting over and getting up one more time.  I find that trait to be the only universal truth to every successful person I have ever met. 

Let me be clear.  Desire and enthusiasm and clarity of vision and purpose last until the first attempt fails.  In the SEAL teams the saying was no plan last past first contact with the enemy or I would always say you can wipe your ass with the mission order because the enemy may have something to say about it.

Point being not to just wing it and forgo planning and practice and details, but instead keep planning keep adapting, keeping stumbling and getting back on track no matter how long or how much energy the loss sucks out of you. 

In the business space two phrases that showcase failure and starting over are “the culture of growth” and “the boss is a glorified janitor”.  The culture of growth means lead by example, specific target markets not generalized markets, always training and growing, and Lean systems.  The boss is a glorified janitor means a good boss is always cleaning up messes.  If the boss isn’t cleaning up failures and messes of employees than no one is pushing the limits.  A bored boss who thinks he or she has a great company because no one ever makes mistakes needs to take a hard look at what is really going on.

In health and sports there are two phrases that stand out:  Embrace the suck, and, pain is the friend to the victor and the enemy of the loser.  In the SEAL teams as you all have heard the phrase is “the only easy day was yesterday”.  It is easy because it is over and today and tomorrow will not be easy.  Embrace the suck means you understand that to win or to make it to the end many experiences will suck and be frustrating and you will be set back.  Embrace it and look forward to the suck is the key.  Pain is the friend to the victor means pain is inevitable therefore suffering is option.  Don’t opt for suffering that means you didn’t want to feel what you felt.  I want you to imagine getting punched in the face in the first round so hard your kids back home felt it, then I want you to imagine getting back up and fighting harder even when you jaw is broken.  Because that is what it takes.  I want you to imagine running 100 mile ultra marathon and feeling the pain in your feet or knees at level 11 on a 10 scale and puking for the last 10 miles because that is often what it takes.  Why fail to succeed?  Because what you want to happen can actually happen if you deal with the failures.

In relationships failure is common not because relationships are meant to be or the one you are with is the wrong one, but more to the point relationships are hard because two people are constantly changing and growing in life and that is the truth.  Every skin cells changes out in 24 hours.  Muscles cells change in about a month and oddly nerve cells change every 7 years.  There is a reality behind the 7 year itch people often speak of in relationships because no one is the same person they were 7 years ago.  Failure in relationship means never adapting and changing and evolving.  Expectations in relationship to be the same lead to divorce or separation or worse staying together on paper but never being new with that person.   I would never have thought that the one aspect in leadership training would be to ensure the leader has a great home life.  But the predominate point in leader development, which leads to business growth is the power and growth of the key relationship at home.  If you want to turn a company around train the leader to grow and secure the home front every week.  Fail at home and business gets so stale that a new leader can come in and turn around the failing business in one year.  Simply because the home life of the old leader was bad.  That bad home life is surrounded by fear of loss and fear of divorce and it happens anyway because people don’t start over at home where it counts.

Success then really isn’t that hard.  It starts with “honor your word” and “never give up”.  You can do that can’t you?  After that fun start you must realize it takes multiple times and countless iterations until you get on first base.  You have to embrace the notion you will fall many times.  You may break bones or go bankrupt or make a terrible mistake in a marriage or as a parent.  Stay with it one more time.  Learn from the failure and never do it again and start over. 

Fail to succeed

Rule number one:

  • It takes 21 days straight to decide if something new has merit. Meaning never make a decision about something new until you have done that thing for 21 days straight.

Rule number two:

  • It takes 10,000 iterations or practice events to ensure that thing is muscle memory or to call yourself good at it.  Meaning don’t expect results until you have checked the box 10,000 times.

Rule number three:

  • I like this rule it is the simplest to understand yet the hardest to do. It is much easier to do 21 days and 10,000 tries.  The rule is:  take one more step or try again no matter what.

Success in everything follows those three rules.  Three simple things. 

Print out those rules put them in your office or on the refrigerator or in your team room.