Jocko Willink 2

I have so many notes from Willink. It’s probably the total minutes listened winner of my podcast list. His weekly episodes are often two hours long. These notes are from episode #44. All quotes unless otherwise attributed are from Willink. Times in parenthesis are from the YouTube video.

1/ Lifelong learning (3:10) “The thing that’s cool about answering questions from the interwebs is that it does make me think about that specific situation that someone’s in… when I get forced to answer questions, I am learning. Just like when reading a book you’re learning…when you teach a move in jiu jitsu you get better at it.”

Nearly everyone written about here is in a state of growth. Mostly that’s through reading books – which Willink does a lot of too – but any form of learning counts. Let’s look at the ways to continue learning.

  • Read/listen. The easiest to do, but the lightest for results. I read a lot, but not all of it sinks in. In fact, without this blog, most of what I hear would literally be in one ear and, well, not literally but almost, out the other. Everyone here suggests you read more, so read more.
  • Teach/Speak/Write. This is the next level. Answering questions forces Willink to do this. Writing this blog does this. Michael Mauboussin told Shane Parrish that he learns by teaching.
  • Do. When Elizabeth Gilbert thought about MFA programs she thought, why don’t I just go do cool stuff and write about that.

Combine these ideas as a replacement for school and you have what we call the XMBA, but everyone can and should be a lifelong learner.

2/ Zone of Proximal Development (Goldilocks zone). (6:45) “One of the most critical ways to be careful in jiu jitsu is to pick the right training partner because there are some knuckle head training partners in every gym.”

Growth (in skill, knowledge, relationship) happens in the Goldilocks zone, things should be just right. When I was an adjunct professor we called in the Zone of Proximal Development. I did this because I wanted to impress on undergraduates that I was wise. In using big words I proved I was not.

Dan Coyle‘s research suggests a success rate between 50 and 80 percent. Steven Kotler has thoughts on this too.

Goldilocks fits in the little bear’s bed, but only because she too is little. Goldilocks grows and so will our Goldilocks zone. Willink suggests that strong young men can roll with anyone. Forty-three years olds might want to exercise more caution. Black belts on the other hand, are probably the safest group because they understand things the most. They have the skill to slide the challenge to the appropriate level.

3/ Decentralized command requires trust. (24:15) “What you’re really building with decentralized command is trust.” “The best way to build trust is to give trust.”

I’m glad Willink said this, because even though I think I’ve seen decentralized command in places like NASA, with Outsider CEOs, and at Intel with Andy Grove, I still don’t completely get it. When Willink added the part about trust, DC started to make more sense.

Good decentralized command requires the “do your job” ethos of the New England Patriots football team. Josh McDaniel said about his early time with the team:

“It was simple. If I was given something to do, I was expected to do it absolutely perfect, as best as I could, every time I did it. And if I did those things right, I’d get something else to do.”

Sometimes we need to a word (like ‘trust’) that acts as a key. Adam Savage recalled looking for a specific type of bottle and only after he learned that bottles are named by their lips he found it. Willink clarified DC in the same way with the word trust.

Charlie Munger said, “We’ve decentralized power in our operating business to a point just short of total abdication.” Munger and Buffett trust their employees.

Pete Carroll does it in football by asking his players what they need to succeed. He trusts his players.

The University of Utah let people like Ed Catmull run around and do what they were most interested in because they trusted them.

4/ But it’s always been done this way. (28:45) “Sometimes you need to send a little shock value. Hey, new Sheriff in town.”

This part was great. Willink adds:

“Notice the things I just said there were fairly irrelevant (no parking in the back lot). Those are fairly inconsequential things and those are okay. Occasionally you see someone come in and try to execute a fundamental change and you go ‘wait a second, you’ve been here for a day and a half and you want to execute a fundamental change in what we’re doing here, we have a problem with that.’”

Don’t just go in, “show some tactical patience.”

It sounds like Willink wants you to consider Gordian knots and Chesterton fences.

  • Gordian knot, it makes no sense to figure this out. Let’s blow it up and start from scratch.
  • Chesterton fence, there’s probably a reason things are done this way. Let’s figure it out before we act.

Willink’s suggestion is to treat small, “inconsequential things” as Gordian knots. Drastic change is okay. For the larger things, “show some tactical patience.”

One NBA tradition that proved to be a Gordian knot was the pregame shootaround. Popularized in the 1970’s by Bill Sharman as a way to burn off nervous energy it had been an NBA staple. But not for the Spurs.

“We quit doing that two decades ago,” Spurs coach Greg Popovich said, “they are a waste of time.”

The shootaround began because a coach did them and he was successful, but that might not have been part of his success. The New York Times obituary on Sharman, notes that the shootaround popularity grew after his Lakers won the 1972 championship. That team  included Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. Maybe they won because of great players, not the shoot around.

A short tangent. Writing and reading these ideas is one thing. Application is another. Astronaut Chris Hadfield gives us a strategy for how to move beyond consumption and into application.

“Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value. Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.

Astronauts are the best of the best. But, when test pilots become astronauts, it’s like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Some think they’ve arrived, but they’ve only just begun to fly. Don’t be a know it all, writes Hadfield.

Becoming a plus one takes time. You have to figure out the Gordian knots and Chesterton fences. When Hadfield first went to space he the low man on the totem pole. This was well before his YouTube videos. He wasn’t the mission leader. Instead he decided to be a zero. He would do his job as best as he could and follow whatever orders came down. He was a team player.

5/ Train your weaknesses and race your strengths. (35:30) “Becoming comfortable in the water is very important. Water makes you better. Water makes you a better person.” “Water is a pain in the ass. It stops things from working.” “The reason I said this is a universal question (‘How do I become more comfortable in the water?’) is because it’s the same thing for just about everything else that you’re going to do…Want to get better at pull-ups? Do more pull-ups. Want to get better at public speaking? Get up and do more public speaking.”

Like we saw above, (#2) the Goldilocks zone is great for training. Getting in the water, and doing anything makes things a bit harder. Willink adds that you can push your zone by swimming with clothes, outside, and so on. During training for my triathlon I realized my training mistake. I’d done all my swims in the (near tranquil) YMCA pool. Not only did I never share a lane, I rarely shared the pool. The triathlon water was a bit choppier.

You want to train your weaknesses, do so with help, build redundancy into your life. “Water will kill you so when you swim you gotta have to have a lifeguard,” Willink says. “Don’t train alone and don’t train with someone that’s doing the same thing as you. You can’t endure the same thing together. It’s a real simple rule, it’s one up, one down. If it’s your turn to train, I stay up.”

Redundancy is survival. In other episodes Willink has repeated the military mantra that two is one and one is none. Redundancy can look like many things:

  • It can be people. The lead gambler in the 1919 Chicago Black Sox’s scandal had layers of people between him and the baseball players.
  • It can be space. In Foolproof, Greg Ip writes about the value of space between homes and floodplains, between one airplane and another.
  • It can be money. Know anyone that carries a folded fifty?
  • It can be body parts. Nassim Taleb writes, “Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains- and each has more capacity than needed in ordinary circumstances.”

Part of the reason the Titanic sank was a lack of redundancy. It was engineered for any two compartments to flood. The builders thought it might be poked but not sheared. Then there weren’t enough lifeboats, other ships lacked radio men, and so on and so on. People died because of a lack of redundancy.

Willink compares it to an event horizon, “you go over than line and you’re done.” Build redundancy in your life and train your weaknesses to push the event horizon further away.

6/ Finish line fallacy  (51:00). “You can see a lot of times in these 24 hour fitness situations where guys will be lifting weights and then one guy is like ‘hey, he’s kind of lifting a lot’ and then you’ll see someone – all of a sudden – doing that same exercise trying to lift more.” – Echo Charlies

I saw this when I was training for a marathon. I’d get on the treadmill for a two-hour run, see some young kid next to me, and up my speed.  He’d be done after twenty minutes and I was still on it. I never claimed to be smart.

If you end up running someone else’s race, you’ll be committed to their finish line and that may not be where you want to end. Instagram and Gowalla found this out when the “Check-in wars” began. Instagram succeeded and Gowalla failed.

This works at the individual level too. Don’t compare yourself to Jeff Bezos, or Warren Buffett, or anyone. Focus, like Echo Charles says, on your own workout.

7/ Those people. (1:06:15) “It’s important to realize those people (negative people) exist everywhere, and everybody has to deal with them. If you run into one of these people don’t be at all surprised, as if they’re a lone ranger out there being negative.”

We’ll let Marcus Aurelius – who Jocko says will be a subject of the podcast, eventually – comment on this one:


8/ Partnerships (1:10:00) “He was one of my favorite guys in the SEAL teams…when one of us started to get a little off the reservation about something…he’d look at me and be like ‘hey Jocko, come back to the light, it’s gonna be okay.” “When I would start to get negative he would pull me back and I did the same thing for him.”

One unexpected understanding from the book and podcast notes here is how often partnerships come up. Working with the right people has a multiplying effect. Bill Belichick has Ernie Adams. Anson Dorrance has Bill Palladino. Michael Ovitz had Ron Meyer.

A peer that pushes back is good red teaming.

9/ Simple but not easy advice. “If you’re too demanding here’s what you do, real simple, get less demanding. ”

A lot of advice is simple but not easy. Want to do something more, then do it. Want to do something less, don’t do it. That’s really all there is to it, but it’s not easy to implement.

One of Willink’s favorite lines is that “discipline equals freedom.” Discipline works well because it make simple advice easier to follow. Be disciplined about working out or reading books. Be disciplined about checking Twitter or watching television. Discipline works because motivation ebbs and flow, opportunities come and go. Discipline stays. Discipline, Willink says, “is the root quality that will improve every aspect of your life.”

Elizabeth Gilbert said that writing books are first about excitement and then about discipline.

My current reminder of this is a Tom Seaver quote.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

When I say the triathlon water was choppy what I really mean is that I was totally and completely unprepared for the situation, and consequential butt kicking I endured. Of course, Jocko would probably tell me that this was Good. 

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