Would the Navy SEALs approve of your job screening process? Probably not.

Earlier this year I found myself standing in one world and gazing out at another. The Hotel Coronado is a magnificent beach resort and I was there for a business conference, while next door lies the mother of all proving grounds, the Navy SEAL training center.

Lounging on the beach in front of the resort, you’ll catch glimpses of your neighbors, the SEAL candidates, training like animals. SEALs have a reputation for dishing out the world’s toughest job screening process and developing one of the world’s most elite and accomplished Special Forces.

I’ve never known a SEAL personally but while in Coronado, I had the chance to meet a few. We ran into them while out one night, and it was an honor to speak with them and hear their stories. These guys were respectful, well spoken, and – here’s my age showing – young!

First question I asked them:
What are the minimum fitness requirements to qualify for a Navy SEAL tryout?

I braced myself for what was sure to be a deluge of impossible standards. But these guys rattled off a list that wasn’t all that exclusive:
Swim 500 yards in 12:30,
42 push-ups in 2 minutes,
52 sit-ups in 2 minutes,
8 pull-ups,
1.5 mile run in 10:30.

Granted, these are tough challenges but every gym in America has a handful of people who can meet these.

Next question:
During which part of Hell Week do most candidates quit?
(Hell Week, in case you aren’t familiar with it: Imagine a week of extreme physical and mental challenges wherein you’re constantly wet, cold, sleep deprived, covered in sand, screamed at by your superiors, awoken with the sounds of gunfire, forced to do miles-long ocean swims in frigid water, scramble through inhumane feats of strength… All with the ever-present opportunity to quit at any time with no hard feelings. Drop out rates are as high as 90%.)

Again, I imagined these SEALs describing in vivid detail how one torturous event or another was the ultimate obstacle that destroyed candidates’ dreams.
Yet what they told me I’ll never forget:

“You know when guys quit? When we’re just standing there, when we’re taking one of our precious breaks in-between events. During the breaks, the trainers will tell us all about how the next challenge is the worst. How it will hurt. How it will break us…
Letting those words seep into your mind, allowing those words to instill fear about what’s to come… That’s when guys drop out the most.”

The SEALs went on to describe how shocked they are to see who makes it through Hell Week and who doesn’t. In baffling disproportions, the champion college athlete, the big muscle dude, the elite scholar/athlete, and the Cross Fit freak are bailing left and right while the smaller, less fit, soft spoken kid who doesn’t wow you at first but absolutely refuses to give up stands tall and becomes a SEAL.

The lesson these SEALs taught me was becoming a SEAL isn’t about what you portray on the outside; it’s about what you bring on the inside.

I suppose most of us will go our entire lives without matching the intensity and sacrifice of a SEAL, but what are the lessons we can apply in our own lives?

First, how can you radically improve the way you recruit, screen, and hire the people on your team? To what extent are you choosing your team based on who’s got the best pedigree or who’s smoothest in the interview?
Like the SEALs, perhaps you’ll reach a higher level if you lower the bar for candidates, and then screen more closely to find which candidate has – on his own without a parent or powerful friend coming to the rescue – faced and overcome failures.
(That reminds me of a terrific CEO for whom I once worked. His nephew was a young Harvard graduate and wanted to work for his CEO uncle. The wise uncle wisely refused to hire him. Why? In the CEO’s words, “You haven’t failed enough yet.” I love that ☺)

Second, how much confidence do you have in yourself? How often do you compare yourself to the competition and say, “Oh, clearly they’re smarter/faster/more beautiful/better connected/stronger… I’m not cut out for this.”
It’s human nature to eye up others. It’s human nature to have moments of self doubt. But just like those few Navy SEAL candidates who choose to ignore the doomsayers during Hell Week, remind yourself that self doubt will sabotage your success faster than any external obstacle.

A special Thank You to the Navy SEALs who so kindly shared their experiences with me. Keep inspiring all those resort guests at Hotel Coronado!

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