Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell

Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell (@FussellChris) joined Tim Ferriss to talk about how to create your own Army Ranger school, what a Red Team is and why you can’t be on one, and obstacles through life. It’s a great conversation and it epitomizes why I write this blog. We have access to a four star general and Navy Seal. How crazy wonderful is that? We can learn from people who’ve had incredible success in life.

  • Want to know how an NBA billionaire thinks, read the Mark Cuban notes.
  • Want to know how a NYT best-seller thinks, read theA.J. Jacobs notes.

There is so much to learn, let’s get to it.

Ferriss has many other great podcast interviews besides McChrystal, my notes for his interview with Chris Sacca was one of the most popular posts on this site.

Ferriss has also been interviewed by James Altucher twice. You can read those here and here.

Even though McChrystal and Fussell are both ex-military guys, the interview has a lot of good takeaways that overlap with things other high achievers have said. McChrystal for example, says that he’s always exercised. He tells Ferriss that part of the reason for that is because there’s an expectation in military culture that you’ll do it. Even after he went away to Harvard for a year, a comrade said, “if you come back out of shape, we’re going to have a word for you and it ain’t gonna be doctor.”

It’s similar to Carol Leifer’s conversation with Altucher. Leifer is still surprised that people approach her to ask a favor or connect for work, and yet they have almost no idea about who she really is. Altucher only connected with her because he reached out over common ground about something Leifer cared about.

It’s good to know things like this. Know that Brad Feld and Chris Sacca both have done endurance races. If you want to pitch them, that’s a good starting point for what you should know.

The McChrystal, Ferriss, Fussell interview covers a lot of ground and these notes will only touch a fraction of it. These are hopefully the juiciest parts that you can take today and apply to your life. Some will work, some won’t. Neil Strauss suggests this simple test, ask, “does this make my life better?”

Big ideas:

Know thyself. The sooner you figure out how your body and mind are inclined, the sooner you can get to doing your best work.

– Understand the role expectations play in life. McChrystal’s life changed once the expectations were.

– Create your own Army Ranger School. What are the three key things that you can do.

Be there. Why you sometimes have to be there. Technology is great but will never substitute for “boots on the ground.”

How to Red Team. “Red teaming” is a method to figure out what will go wrong before it goes wrong. Here’s how anyone can do it.

Okay, ready?

Know thyself.

The interview begins with, of all things, a question about food. Ferriss asks McChrystal if it’s true that he only eats one meal a day to which he replies – yep. But it’s probably not what you think.

Fussell says that it’s not some show of strength or willpower, it’s just how he’s wired. McChrystal also snacks, and there’s a good story in the episode about how someone tried to match his schedule without snacks and what he did when he found out about them.

In what he eats – and how he exercises, reads books, and lead – McChrystal has settled on a consistent view of himself. It’s something that many other interviewees have talked about.

Scott Adams writes about his diet and daily habits in how they fit him best. Brad Feld said, “my inner self threw a shit fit,” before he changed his daily routines. Gretchen Rubin lists many this or that ideas about self in her book, Better than Before. For example, are you an abstainer or a moderator. I’m an abstainer, it’s better for me to have none of something than a small bit. Rich Roll realized that he had to be addicted to something. Only when he switched it from drugs, alcohol, and work to health and his own business did he become a contented person.

Fussell adds that this self-knowledge is important because it can guide you to opportunities that fit you best. If you wanted to work with Fussell in Joint Special Operations Command you had to apply. Some of the questions asked during the application process were about whether or not you were right for the job. If you know yourself you’ll preempt these weed-out questions and find somewhere else you fit best.

When expectations changed for McChrystal

As the conversation ebbs and flows, Ferris asks about a turning point for McChrystal. He was returning to school for his junior year when he was assigned a new tactical officer (similar to a residential advisor), Major Baratto. This, says McChrystal, changed his his path.

During his freshman and sophomore years, McChrystal was caught and punished for all kinds of things. Not bad things per se, his peers were doing much the same, just not getting caught. McChrystal’s record reflected this. Combine the sketchy record, self-doubt, and challenges of life at West Point and things didn’t look good. But that’s not what Baratto saw.

Baratto said something that changed McChrystal’s life. McChrystal recalls a meeting where Baratto took out his file and said, “I’m looking at your record here and I think you are going to be a great army officer.” What?

“You must have the wrong file,” Mcchrystal joked, but Baratto said no he didn’t. He saw the “slugs” (demerits) that McChrystal had earned, but he also saw the high peer reviews. He expected more from someone with a record like this.

Expectations matter. In one classic study from education, researchers devised a devilishly plan for teachers. They decided to inform the teachers what they should expect from certain students next year. “Jim is a good reader, and Tina is good with math, but Jacob needs help,” the report might say.

The teachers read this and taught the students based on their expectations, and the results reflected the expectations, If a teacher expected a student to do well, they did well. If they didn’t, they didn’t. And here is where things get interesting, it was all fabricated.

The researchers randomized what student got what label. It could be a delayed reader or struggling math student that was labeled as high achieving. Guess what, the students became the things they had been labeled. Expectations matter.

What else helped McChrystal was a stable home life. He began to date the women who would become his wife and other parts of his life settled down. Brian Koppelman said that marrying the right person made a big difference in his life. Tyler Cowen said to not underestimate the effect that a stable home has on your life.

Create your own Ranger School

Ferriss is clearly – clearly(!) – fascinated with the military as a young padawan might have been around Steve Jobs. He wants to parallel what works for them in his own life and business. He asks McChrystal, if you had people with the right physical attributes, how would you train them for Ranger School?

There have been three things, says McChrystal, soldiers report as being the most helpful.

  1. Learning to push themselves.
  2. Live fire training. (which we’ll get to under Red Teams)
  3. Dealing with uncertainty.  Let’s figure this one out now.

Uncertainty is something that everyone deals with in their lives and something that McChrystal and Fussell advise on now. They lay out a process we can tease out:

First, get comfortable with discomfort.

In an interview with GQ Stephen Colbert says that you have to learn to fail:

“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”

Colbert is an alum of Second City, the comedy troupe from Chicago. There they are told to bomb. Free comic nights at Second City are notorious for the crickets. This is where people like Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, and Steve Carell (among many others) learned.

The point at Second City isn’t to learn to tell funny jokes. The point is to learn how to get on stage and be uncomfortable. Once you get to that point you can start to be funny. It’s why comedian Carol Leifer said, ““you should be failing in your career because everybody fails and if you’re not failing then you’re not doing something right. Because it’s through these failures that you really get better.”

Gary Vaynerchuk says, “I’m very driven by the climb, I don’t like winning, I like losing, I like the struggle. I don’t give a shit about the stuff that comes along but the game, the game is my drug.”

Do yourself a favor and watch the whole talk (~6 minutes).

Second, learn to wiggle within constraints.

McChrystal gives the example of a simulated fire fight. Like most simulations, conditions rapidly changed. Whereas the team entered the simulation thinking there would be ten bad guys, there were quickly one hundred.

Most of the Rangers tried to remove the constraint, McChrystal says. They’ll try to call in reinforcements or air support or change the mission. None of these options work. The point of constraints is to begin to think in new ways.


Not-so-clever haiku’s aside, many successful problem solvers have said that constraints work and work well.

  • David Levien said the clipped train ride to work help him to write a better novel.
  • Amanda Palmer wrote, “limitations can expand rather than shrink the creative flow.”
  • Austin Kleon said, “people overestimate what they can get done with huge chunks of time.”
  • Kevin Kelly said, “lack of money is often an asset because if forces you to be innovative.”

Constraints, limits, and “not enough” of something are fulcrums for leverage.

Third, review what you learned.

“We’d have long after hour reviews after these simulations,” McChrystal said. Michael  Lombardi said the same thing about how he evaluates football games. It takes time to do these things, but these things matter. Fussell said that he got out of the military in part because there isn’t enough time to dive deeply into them. Unlike the NFL, “you can’t take time out study these things in the military,” Fussell said.

But not every situation is good for review. If you published a book that bombed is it because the book or something else? This is what Neil Strauss had to deal with. His book, The Game, came out when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Not a good time for a media blitz. This was a clear example of luck rather than something to learn from.

We can create a system that better operates in our review mode – and we should have seen the source of this after the Richard Thaler post – it’s Daniel Kahneman.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains that situations have to be regular enough with repeating patterns and have opportunities for immediate and accurate feedback. Lombardi can do this with football, McChrystal can do this with simulations, we can do this with our lives. Start by reading this post by Shane Parrish at Farnam Street.

Even though we may not be Army Rangers, we can cull from their decision making toolkit to make better choices in our own lives.

Be there

“Sir, I don’t think you understand the situation,” McChrystal read in a report while he was in Afghanistan. A situation had to be seen for itself, so McChrystal went to see it.

It was at a vineyard, but not what you might imagine. In Afghanistan they don’t have wood and metal to trelles the grapes so they use mud. This creates a labyrinth of six foot mud walls three and a half feet apart and forty feet long. It’s a bad place to be when people want to shoot at you.

It wasn’t until he walked though that McChrystal understood the situation. Being there and seeing things make the nuances more apparent.

Half a century before Samuel Zemurray saw the same thing. As he grew his company from a single cart that sold “ripes” to one that would conquer the industry, he had to be on the ground. In the book, The Fish that Ate the Whale, there’s this passage:

“Zemurray worked in the field beside his engineers, planters, and machete men. He was deep in the muck, sweat covered, swinging a blade. He helped map the plantations, plant the rhizomes, clear the weeds, lay the track. He was a proficient snake killer.”

Later on the page it continues.

“He ate outside – shark’s fin soup, plantains, crab gumbo, sour wine. His years in the jungle gave him experience rare in the trade. Unlike most of his competitors, he understood every part of the business, from the executive suite where the stock was manipulated to the ripening room where the green fruit turned yellow. He was contemptuous of banana men who spent their lives in the North, far from the plantations. Those schmucks, what do they know? They’re there, we’re here!”

Being someplace matters. Even for something as small – in relative terms – like education. Forget books, says Tyler Cowen, read one book and then go someplace. You’ll learn a lot more.

Red Teaming

One of my favorite ideas from the interview was that of red teaming. You should figure out where the holes in your plan are, says McChrystal, because “as you fall in love with a plan you dismiss the shortcomings with it.”

This has been a big idea on this site as of late. We all have biases and those biases hide key answers or solutions. One way to figure out what you don’t know is to think about things from a different perspective.

McChrystal calls this “red teaming” a situation and Fussell adds that a two day off site each quarter or year will go a long way to create branch plans for what to do.  One way you can I can do this is have a funeral for the project.

This “pre-mortem” is shared in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and goes like this, “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.”

Lombardi said they do this with the football teams after they figure out what went wrong last week (see above, third point).

The reason we need to do these things is because we get what Stephen Dubner calls “go fever.” Once we get deeper and deeper into a project we want to see it completed more and more. The trouble is, says McChrystal, “it’s hard to red team your own plan.” If we create plans from a pre-mortem, film summary, or red teaming, then we can avoid the emotions that build us up to fast and lift us up too slowly.

In his book, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, John Coates hypothesizes that it’s the steroids in our body that tilt us too far one way or another. Coates, with experience on Wall Street and a Ph.D. in neurology thinks he’s found something. When we win a game, make money on a trade, or defeat an enemy, we produce testosterone in larger quantities and that boost may contribute to risk more to win more. This positive feedback may lead us someplace too risky.

On the other hand, if we lose a game, money, or a battle we get an influx of cortisol which makes us more risk-averse and may cause us to “huddle the troops,” more than we need. Anecdotally McChrystal saw this when a coalition partner suffered a helicopter crash and suspended their combat operations for 72 hours. They had to find their footing, maybe in part, because of the increased cortisol.

If we remove the emotional aspect because we have plans in place for certain conditions, we can remove some of the emotional pitfalls.

Books from the episode

There was lots of bibliophilia in this interview. “Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield is “highly read in the special operations community,” said Fussell who also likes anything by Walter Isaacson and The Innovators. “Isaacson’s biography of Franklin is also outstanding,” said Ferriss.

McChrystal often recommends Once an Eagle to others. “It’s a little simplistic, but complex as well with the nuances of Army life.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano. If this interview leaned more on what General McChrystal said more than Chris Fussell that’s my fault. Both had many great things to say to Ferriss and I – had to – cherry pick some. If you liked the notes do give the entire interview a listen.

15 thoughts on “Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell”

  1. […] Stanley McChrystal recalled being in a red team meeting where a commander who was role playing the bad guy used all his forces to attack at once. That won’t happen, someone said. But that’s the whole point, added another. Good red teams – much like the good culture we looked at in the Shane Parrish post strive for an objective understanding of the issue. […]


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