Can’t Hurt Me ~ What I learned from a Navy SEAL

Can’t Hurt Me is a book that has challenged me to be stronger mentally, to push myself further, and to not give up. David Goggins’ story is so inspiring you will have a hard time putting this book down. This is not a book that will make you “feel good.” This may sound negative, but trust me, as Goggins steps on your toes in this book it will cause you to make positive changes in your life. This book is not for everyone. There is a lot of cursing and Goggins tells it like it is as he shares his story with very raw details. However, if you read this book, I can guarantee you will learn something from this incredible man. He is the only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller. He had to lose 100 pounds in 3 months to get accepted into Navy SEAL Training. Goggins has run many ultramarathons and pushed is body to extreme limits. Here are some of my big takeaways.

The Accountability Mirror

Goggins came up with what he calls The Accountability Mirror to motivate himself and hold himself accountable to achieve his goals. This is how he described it: “I set goals, wrote them on Post-It notes, and tagged them to what I now call the Accountability Mirror, because each day I’d hold myself accountable to the goals I’d set.” When I am comfortable and inspired by something, it is easy for me to set goals for myself in my head. As soon as I write a goal down and have to look at it every day, it changes from a vague desire to something that convicts me daily. I have to ask myself: what is limiting my success? Am I in my own way? In answering these questions I need to take ownership, responsibility, and overcome obstacles. Setting goals and being reminded of them daily is a habit that many successful people use.

Seek Resistance

Goggins has a very unconventional approach to dealing with resistance in life. Rather than the typical advice (and probably human nature) to seek the path of least resistance, Goggins lives a lifestyle of seeking out resistance. He sees obstacles, setbacks, and challenges as training. Rather than shy away from challenges, he focuses on how overcoming them will make him better. His challenge is that we should all figure out what we don’t want to do but know will make a positive impact in our life and then do it. Goggins also shows through his lifestyle how pushing yourself to the limit physically can help you overcome mental challenges. I found this approach very convicting. I have started to see how challenging projects at work which have many difficult components are not something I should complain about but rather I should welcome them. These difficulties train me to be a better engineer. As my life and schedule have been changing lately, it has been harder to run or workout in the evening. I hate waking up early to run, however, reading about Goggins lifestyle has helped motivate me to see it as a challenge to overcome each day. I heard somewhere that taking cold showers is good for your nervous system, especially in the morning, so I started taking cold showers even though I hate them. This might be a little excessive and inconsequential, but it helps prove to myself that I am not weak mentally.

The Cookie Jar

Everyone has faced challenges and obstacles and overcome them at some point in their life. This is where Goggins’ Cookie Jar concept comes in. In his own words, “…the Cookie Jar became a concept I’ve employed whenever I need a reminder of who I am and what I’m capable of. We all have a cookie jar inside us, because life, being what it is, has always tested us. Even if you’re feeling low and beat down by life right now, I guarantee you can think of a time or two when you overcame odds and tasted success.” When facing current challenges you reach into the cookie jar and use previous accomplishments to overcome new challenges. These don’t have to be huge accomplishments. All you need to ignite change in life is a spark. I have been using this strategy at work when facing difficult situations to remember a time in the past when I faced something similar and overcame it. This gives me the assurance that this new challenge will not destroy me either.

The 40% Rule

The 40% rule is easy enough to understand but definitely hard to put into practice. This is how Goggins describes it, “Sadly, most of us give up when we’ve only given around 40 percent of our maximum effort. Even when we feel like we’ve reached our absolute limit, we still have 60 percent more to give! I call this The 40% Rule…” I have heard other variations of this with different percentages but the underlying concept is the same. We have the ability to stretch past where our mind tells us that we have nothing more to give. For myself, I’ve realized I don’t need to overcome the entire 60% right now. Each time I am faced with the temptation to quit I can choose to push myself 5% further. These small increments will add up and eventually I will raise my ceiling further than I ever imagined.

When your effort seems meaningless

Sometimes when you are working harder than others by setting goals, stretching yourself, and pushing yourself to the limit it can feel like your effort is not making a difference. Maybe you were expecting a promotion, a raise, or some recognition and it doesn’t come. Goggins wrote about how he was always pushing himself because he was training for opportunities that didn’t exist yet. He wanted to be an uncommon man among uncommon men. He wanted the drive, the mental callousing, and the overcomer mentality to be a habit and a lifestyle. He wanted to live there constantly, not just go there sometimes. I found this perspective encouraging and I strive to emulate it. I want my growth to be sustainable and I feel like Goggins approach is a good way to make this lifestyle stick.

Setbacks

A theme in Goggins’ life is how he experienced setbacks and failure and how he dealt with them. He views challenges and setbacks as a training ground for life. Rather than see failure as a definition of who you are, see it as information that must be reviewed and learned from. We cannot let setbacks shatter our focus, take over our brain, and sabotage our progress. Recalculate, adjust, and work on your weaknesses. As an engineer and leader on my team at work, I often feel criticism and negativity directed toward me. Every time this happens, I cannot internalize that negativity. If I do I will eventually be an emotional wreck and will be no good for my team or company. By no means have I mastered this area of my life but I am working on it. The reality is any time you stand for something, you will experience opposition and criticism. This isn’t evidence that you should quit but evidence that you are saying something important.

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

How often have you read a book that you can apply the principles immediately, even while reading the book? I am talking about Inception style “dream within a dream.” That is exactly what happened to me while I read make it stick. The book is about how we learn and retain information effectively and I found myself applying the techniques to solidify the learning strategies in the book. When this happens, you know you found a real gem. You haven’t even put the book down and you are already finding ways to apply it.

One of the biggest takeaways was how important retrieval practice is for durable learning. Retrieval practice means self-quizzing on material you have previously learned. Rather than rereading a textbook or notes, you ask yourself questions which require you to retrieve the information from memory. This habit requires more effort but leads to deeper learning. The illustration given in the book is that learning anything new is like adding beads to a string for a necklace. You can add many beads to the string but unless you tie a knot at the end, the beads will slip off. The beads are compared to all the new things you learn. Retrieval practice is compared to tying the knot on the end of the string. The more you recall learned information, the better your knot and the more snug your beads will remain.

A real world application of retrieval practice is reflection. Since reading this book I have been trying to apply this by reflecting on my day at work. I think about the conversations I had, about the meetings I was a part of, the deliverables my team sent out, presentations I gave, and communication I had with my clients. I ask myself questions like:

  • What went right?
  • What went wrong?
  • What might I do differently next time?

I have a journal which I used to write down my thoughts. This practice helps me recall what works and what doesn’t so that I will be better prepared next time.

Another takeaway from the book was the authors perspective on failure. In the west we relate error to failure and achievement to ability. This is a fixed mindset (for more on this read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset). A fixed mindset means you see yourself as having a fixed intelligence that cannot really be changed. With this mindset if you fail or make an error it means you are not intelligent. The opposite of this mindset is the growth mindset. With the growth mindset you do not see your intelligence as fixed. Failure does not mean you are unintelligent, it just means you have work to do. We should see failure as a badge of effort. In order to learn new things we must focus on what is difficult not what is easy but this means we may fail. Mistakes can be good teachers as long as we are open to the feedback. We should look at mistakes and problems as good information not failure.

The two different mindsets also lead to different goals. When you have a fixed mindset you tend to set performance goals which will help validate your ability. This can cause you to shy away from challenges because you may worry you won’t succeed which will prove you aren’t as smart as you thought. On the other hand, a growth mindset tends to lead you to learning goals. With learning goals you are attempting to learn more and increase your skill. You pick challenges and see setbacks as useful information on where you should focus more effort to get better. I have been trying to apply this at work in the way I perceive difficult projects or tasks. When I get assigned a difficult project with many challenging aspects, rather than seeing it as a problem and complain, I want to train myself to see it as a learning opportunity. The challenges will help me become a better engineer as long as I learn from them.

The principles in this book have helped me understand how to obtain deeper learning through retrieval practice. A real world application of this is reflection. I reflect on my day, the challenges I faced, what I can learn from them, and how I can be better. I also learned that it is far more satisfying to have a growth mindset coupled with setting learning goals. With this mindset my intelligence is not fixed, I have room to reach my potential, and I can see failure and setbacks as useful information rather than a lid.

The Talent Code

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The information in this book by Daniel Coyle was tremendously helpful to me. I anticipate this book will be on my list for the top books I read in 2018. Coyle writes a lot about talent, where it comes from, how a membrane called myelin plays a role, and how anyone can build talent if they understand how it works. As I read the book I discovered multiple ways for me to apply the concepts immediately. Something I have learned is that we do not change by thinking about change but by action, and so I always appreciate books that have ideas that are easily applicable.

Here are some of the main thoughts I found helpful:

  • To build talent you have to enter into what is called deep practice. Deep practice happens when you struggle at the edge of your abilities, make mistakes, and correct them. It requires you to slow down and address your mistakes rather than glossing over them.
  • Our memory is less like a tape recorder and more like an infinite scaffold. The more our brain fires certain circuits, the more obstacles and difficulties we face and overcome, the more scaffold we build. The more scaffold we build, the faster and easier we learn.
  • The sweet spot is where you find the “…optimal gap between what you know and what you’re trying to do.”
  • The myelin revolution:
    • Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers.
    • Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
    • The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

      “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.”

  • Myelin is a phospholipid membrane that wraps around nerve fibers.
  • Myelin fundamental principles:
    • The firing of circuits is paramount – myelin does not respond to ideas or feelings about doing something, it responds to action. Myelin responds to action that is repeated.
    • Myelin is universal – “one size fits all skill.” Myelin does not care what circuits are being fired. You could be firing your circuits for ball control in soccer practice or for holding your hands correctly to play the violin, myelin does not care. Myelin does not care who you are but what you do.
    • Myelin wraps – it doesn’t unwrap – once you insulate a skill with myelin, you cannot un-insulate. Habits are hard to break because you cannot really break a habit but have to change them by repeating different behaviors.
    • Age matters – your ability to build myelin around skill decreases the older you get. This is why many world-class experts started so young.

      The theory of skill: deep practice x 10,000 hours = world-class skill

  • Although talent appears to be predestined, we have a lot more control than we imagine over what skills we develop. We have a lot more potential than we imagine but it can only be unlocked through deep practice.
  • The three rules of deep practice: Chunk it up, repeat it, and learn to feel it.

One of the things I came to realize while reading this book is the amount of passion you have to have to engage in the deep practice. This passion is necessary to become world-class. The reality is that you cannot just spend lots of time doing something but you have to spend effortful time on the edge of your abilities, which is uncomfortable. I have started to ask myself some questions. What are the things that I am passionate about? What are the circuits that I want to strengthen and myelinate? Are there any changes that I need to make in how I use my time? Are there things I need to stop, start, or continue doing? I often struggle believing that I have enough time to devote to the things that excite me but the truth is I have time for what I schedule. World-class athletes, musicians, actors, and writers have the same amount of time in their day as me. The difference between us is what we choose to do with that time. Am I using my time to pursue what I am passionate about and will help those around me in some way or am I wasting my time? I would love to answer that I always use my time wisely but the truth is I sometimes waste it. This book has helped remind me how important it is to be wise with my time.

This book has also helped me in regards to my profession. As an engineer I often have to learn steps to a process or calculation. One of the joys and an area to grow as I advance in my career is getting to train and teach newer engineers the same steps and processes. Like most jobs, we always have deadlines and clients who are waiting for our recommendations, so time is always a factor. When it comes to training a newer engineer in this setting there is a potential for frustration. When I teach a new engineer a calculation but the first or second time they try it and they make a mistake, it is easy to gloss over it and correct it myself without spending time with that engineer to make sure they understand the concept they are missing. I am learning to apply what Coyle wrote about in regards to deep practice which is to slow down and address the mistakes to ensure that the correct circuits are being reinforced. I try to think of the time spent as an investment into the engineer to help them be better in the long-run. There is more to life than meeting deadlines and I want to have a positive impact on those around me. I am constantly fighting against the curse of knowledge. The more I know about a subject the harder it is to imagine what it is like to not know. I have to remember that there was a time in the past that I did not know or understand how to perform this particular calculation and need to be gracious. Also, I heard someone say that teaching something enables you to learn something twice. You learn it once on your own and a second time when you teach it. I need to see this as beneficial because the act of teaching and coaching is reinforcing the circuits in my brain and helping me insulate them with myelin.

While reading this book I found it easier to focus on how to myelinate interests and passions I already have such as reading, engineering, and writing this blog. However, just as important is thinking about what habits and thought patterns have been firing the wrong circuits too often, giving them too much power. One that I landed on is worry and anxiety. The list of things to be anxious about is long and probably varies from person to person, however, there are probably some common items on the list like finances, social issues, and health. I have been trying to implement a particular routine in the morning that helps start my day and get my thoughts going in the right direction, however, I have found that worry often derails me. I have the habit, like most people in this day and age, of looking at my text messages and emails as soon as I receive them. Many times this habit has removed my mind from my peaceful morning routine of reading and meditation to worry and anxiety. I am coming to realize just like practicing chess or repeating a golf swing, by letting myself get caught up in worry at the same time and with the same triggers every day, I am insulating the circuits for worry and anxiety. I cannot blame this on anyone and need to take responsibility and begin to build new habits. One of the simple steps I have taken to avoid this habit during my morning routine is to place my phone in a place where I cannot see it or hear it. If I am going to be using my computer to write or play music, I make sure not to open my email. I know I do not have enough discipline to see an email enter my inbox or see a text message alert on my phone and not check it out. It can wait. I am still in the process of changing this habit but I am grateful for this book to reveal this to me.

In this book Coyle writes a lot about skill & talent, how to develop it, what role myelin plays, and much more than a blog post can do justice. I enjoyed this book so much it will likely be on my list for the top books I read in 2018. A big reason I enjoyed it so much is because of how much I could apply to my own life. I would recommend this book to anyone.

Outliers

I just finished Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and I have to say the book was not what I expected, but not in a negative way. I was expecting a book that would describe how and why successful people have become successful, which Gladwell did, however, he came at it from a completely new perspective than I was expecting. I suppose if I had taken the time to read the first sentence of the synopsis on the back a little more carefully I would have had a clue, “In understanding successful people, we have come to focus far too much on their intelligence and ambition and personality traits. Instead, Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers, we should look at the world that surrounds the successful…” I think this is true. I was expecting Gladwell to discuss intelligence, ambition, and personality as it relates to success but the stories and data he shared were very new and refreshing. I highly recommend reading this book. In fact, I have already begun to add some of Gladwell’s other books to my reading list.

Here are some of the main points & quotes that I took away:

  • Success can be attributed to “accumulative advantage.” Any slight edge that someone has may lead to an opportunity which helps them get a little better than others. That additional edge leads to another opportunity, and the cycle continues.
  • “Achievement is talent plus preparation.”
  • It takes about 10 years which equates to 10,000 hours of hard practice to reach greatness at something. “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”
  • “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
  • It is easy to believe success results from a person’s talent or skill alone; however, when you look at stories like those of the Beatles, Bill Joy, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, you see that their success had a lot to do with the world they grew up in. There were opportunities that were put in front of them and that they seized.
  • Beyond a certain IQ, around 120, a higher IQ does not really equate to a legitimate advantage in the world.
  • Satisfying work has to have 3 qualities: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward.
  • Behavioral & emotional patterns are passed down through social inheritance.
  • “Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard…” Success comes to those who do not give up so quickly but try to make sense of things.
  • “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
  • “We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth.”

One of the stories that Gladwell discusses in the book is how Joe Flom, who is the only living “named” partner of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom law firm, became so successful. At the time Flom graduated university in the 1940’s and 1950’s the law firms acted like private clubs. Due to this if a lawyer had the right family connections, the right experience, or the right personality he could get a good job. Since Joe Flom had a Jewish heritage and was “short and ungainly” he was not able to land a job at a major law firm. Instead he and some friends started their own law firm and took in the least desirable work at the time which was doing litigations and take overs. However, between the 1970s to the 1980s, lots of money was spent on mergers and acquisitions. Now suddenly the type of work Flom and his colleagues had been specializing in for around 20 years was very lucrative. Flom’s law firm had a head start, a competitive advantage, and was able to become very successful. Flom is an outlier because he was born at the right time and had the right ethnicity; he had the opportunity to begin practicing very early on the type of law which became very lucrative.

Another very interesting discussion in the book is about the “culture of honor” and family feuds that occurred in the south from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century. Gladwell specifically recounts the Howard-Turner feud in Harlan, Kentucky. What I found particularly interesting is why this “culture of honor” exists. Gladwell reports that the consensus seems to be that cultures of honor occur in places where farming cannot be easily done. Instead the people turn to herding sheep or goats. Farmers need to cooperate with each other in the community to succeed. On the other hand, herdsmen spend most of their time alone. Herdsmen learn to be aggressive and willing to fight in order to protect their animals, whereas it is a lot harder for a farmer’s crop to be stolen. Due to these factors this type of culture has been cultivated in the south. The experiments that were of great interest to me were the ones that showed how, in general, the southerners in the experiments conducted tended to be much more volatile and likely to explode in anger than the northerners. This propensity seems to be passed down through the generations through social inheritance the same way accents are passed down.

The application of Gladwell’s content in my life has come in the form of being grateful for the opportunities I have had so far in my life. It is often easy for me to fall into the trap of believing that I am a self-made man. It is easy to believe the things I have accomplished are solely due to my own aptitude. I forget about all the sacrifices that have been made by my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents to allow me to be where I am today. I am standing in someone else’s sacrifice. I do not need to apologize for this but I need to recognize it. My parents have often told me growing up that they just wanted me to go further than they have. The sacrifices they have made for me and the training they have given to me has all been to help me go further. Isaac Newton is attributed with saying “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” I recognize that I have been given great opportunities in my life and I am determined to continue seeking success and being a positive influence on those around me by standing on sacrifices and principles that my parents have passed on to me.