Former Navy SEAL Nick Hays shares practical advice on how to elevate your performance and push yourself to unlock your maximum potential.
- How to conquer large goals by celebrating the tiniest of victories
- How to find gratitude in the most unpleasant circumstances
- How to tune out the “yeah, but…” voice in your head
Nick Hays is former a Navy SEAL. His operating days came to an end when he ruptured a disk while preparing for an operation in Afghanistan. Disillusioned, broken, and without means to provide for his family, Nick was left without a purpose in life. After recovery, his training kicked in, and he remembered the lessons learned from the SEAL teams and put them to the test with professional athletes. He’s helped train the Miami Heat and helped the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl. Nick holds a BA from the University of Maryland, a Masters in Business from the University of San Diego, and a post-graduate degree from Harvard Business School. He now resides in California with his wife, Ivy, and their three children.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored message: Learn a new language anytime, anywhere with Babbel
- Nick’s Book: “Elite: High Performance Lessons and Habits from a Former Navy SEAL”
- Nick’s Website: EliteTeams.com
- Nick’s Twitter: @NickHaysLife
- Nick’s LinkedIn: Nick Hays
- Movie: “300”
- Book: “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck
Nick, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Pete, thanks for having me, man. I’m excited.
Oh, yeah, I’m excited too. Well, could we get started, perhaps, with a thrilling tale of your adventures in the Navy SEALS? And feel free to anonymize anything you need to.
Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that happened, some high points and some low points, I think. One of the most impactful things that happened while I was in the SEAL teams was—and it was in my first platoon—I was one of those guys that needed an extra little bit of love, right? I don’t think that a young frogman is anywhere as cocky as he is right after he’s gotten out of training, and has done nothing yet. It’s the most cocky you’ll ever be, and I was no exception.
It’s a funny story. But I showed up to a morning meeting one time, we’re training for this mission, and everything is pretty locked tight as far as the schedule, and I show up a couple of minutes late. It didn’t sound like a big deal, but when you’re a new guy in the teams, if you’re 15 minutes early, you’re late, that’s kind of the rule, and I had broken that.
So, my platoon chief at the time, now a platoon chief is somebody who has the most experience in the group, he’s the person everybody listens to. Well, he told me, “Hey, stick around after this. It’s not a big deal, but I need to talk to you.” So, we wrapped up the morning meeting, it’s like 9:00 o’clock in the morning, and he tells me, “Hey, man, it’s not a big deal but, obviously, you’ve got to pay the man, a little bit of a punishment.” He goes, “I’m not mad but just make sure that you make up for it by grabbing a rucksack,” which is military speak for backpack, right, “and fill it full at 50 pounds, and run up the paraloft tower,” which is a five-story building. And he says, “Do that one time for every guy in the platoon because you made them late, so I think it’s just a good way to pay it back.”
Now, I’m thinking about this, I’m like, “There’s no way this guy is being real with me. That’s a tremendous amount of work. Punishment doesn’t really fit the crime.” I was angry. But kept my mouth shut, and I went downstairs and grabbed a rucksack, and put 50 pounds in it. And he knew I was doing it, he followed me down, and he was like, “Nick, you can’t do that right now, man, in place of your workout. You’ve got to do it after work. It’s not even a punishment.” And he was like, “Come on, let’s go hit chest.”
So, we actually went to worked out together, never brought it up again. The day goes on. At the time I was working with the SDV, it’s a miniature submarine so it’s incredibly technical work. There’s a lot to do before you ever even do your training mission, so it’s a full day of dive rigs and technical stuff. We, finally splashed in the water, the sun is going down, it’s like 7:00 or 8:00 o’clock at night because we’re training for a night dive. I’m piloting the SDV, cold, wet, miserable, all that stuff, thinking about this punishment that I have in front of me the entire time.
It was similar to like when your child gets in trouble and you tell him, “Hey, go wait in your room.” That was me waiting in the room just thinking about it. So, we recover, it’s probably midnight. Insult to injury, it’s raining. Just miserable. Now, I have to get all my gear ready to go, I have to freshwater rinse the dive rigs. We’re talking about another hour of work. Finally, I go and I grab my rucksack and I’m walking over to the paraloft tower, steaming mad. I could not have been more angry than I was in that moment.
And I saw something that I didn’t know what to take. I saw my chief, Jim, sitting over there by the door of the tower. So, now, I’m thinking, “Okay, does he not trust me? Is this an integrity thing? Is he going to be sitting here with a stopwatch, saying, ‘Hey, go faster’? Is this a beat session? What’s about to happen?” and I was livid, man. But as I got closer, I saw that he actually had a rucksack sitting next to him.
When I walked up to him, he throws the rucksack on his back, and he was like, “All right, man, are you ready to hit this thing?” And I said, “Jim, what are you doing, man?” And he said, “Oh, dude, we’re in this together. I’m your leader. Like, we’re in it together. Your successes are my successes, your failures are my failures, so let’s get this done.” And he takes off up the tower.
Now, I’m sprinting to catch up to him, mind completely blown about what had just happened. He never brought it up again. That was the only thing he said about it, and he ran every single flight of stairs with me that night. It took a very long time. When we were done with it, I gave him a hug, and I just told him how much he meant to me.
And, for me, that was the course correction that I needed. And what he did in that moment was he grabbed a hold of me. It wasn’t about being two minutes late, it wasn’t about some operational military plus or minus a minute, on time every time kind of stuff, that’s not what he was doing. He grabbed a hold of me and he said, “Nick, your mine. I’m going to mentor you.”
For the rest of that platoon, I made my gear look exactly like his gear. I kept my magazines in the same place. I kept my medical equipment in the same place. I emulated everything about him because I figured, “Hey, this guy has like seven deployments. Maybe I can save some time if I just listened to him.” And I had the value of a mentor moving forward.
Now, we went onto get medals together to do some pretty amazing stuff, like even before going up to doing a mission, he and I just kind of stepped aside, said a quick prayer, and we were still in it together that entire time. To me, that was the difference between being a good SEAL or a bad SEAL. Like, I needed a mentor to grab a hold of me, and say, “Hey, we’re running full speed and we’re doing it together.”
Well, that’s amazing because, well, one, just sort of makes a self-sacrifice and like on top of all the stuff to do that and, two, to sort of the intuition. Like, he clearly figured out that’s what you needed, and delivered in a powerful way.
A hundred percent. Yeah, a hundred percent. We’re still close friends to this day. I still run stuff past him. And, you know, what I learned in that moment wasn’t necessarily… it was bigger than needing a mentor then. It was a process that I knew I needed in my life. I knew that I was going to need a mentor moving forward. So, when I separated from the military, I was looking at this new mission, this new thing, I’m looking at business, I’m looking at all this stuff that’s coming my way. And I thought to myself, I was like, “You know what, I need a mentor.”
So, the first thing I did was reach out to as many people as I could. And I had some criteria. I wanted people that didn’t mind having hard conversations, people that would keep me in check. I knew what I liked about a mentor. I like someone that can push back and isn’t going to tell me, “Atta boy,” but instead is going to tell me how to be better. Like, it’s something I get from the special operations mindset, but you don’t want to be right, you want to be better.
It’s not, “Hey, this is the way we’ve always done it.” It’s, “How can we do it better?” So, I needed that in my life as I made that transition. And because of that, man, I have the same story, I saved a lot of learning curve costs, I had support when I needed it, there were multiple times when something that now in hindsight looks like I must’ve done something right, but really it was just my mentor, or somebody who loves me and cares about me, opening doors and making something happen, right?
I think it convicts me. Like, at any given point, you have to have a mentor and you have to be a mentor. You have to be a mentor at the same time, you have to give it back. And a lot of people say, “Hey, no, I’m too young. I don’t know enough,” all these disqualifying statements. But, man, I see my seven-year old daughter mentor my five-year old son all the time. All the time. And he needs it. It helps me out.
So, it might be somebody who’s just behind you. You might be in high school, in college, you might be a project manager on the job, or you might be C-suite. It doesn’t matter. You need to be mentoring people, and you need a mentor in your life. It’s a valuable lesson that I learned early, and I’m so thankful for that, man, because it’s helped me out tremendously.
Well, in your book Elite: High Performance Lessons and Habits from a Former Navy SEAL it sounds like you share a number of these high-performance lessons. And I’d love to hear kind of is there a central theme or thesis that ties them all together?
Right. Like, “What is it to be elite?” I named the book after a reason. We think about the SEAL teams and we think elite. It’s synonymous with it. We think about Harvard Business School, we think elite. We think about some of these professional sports teams, we think elite. So, what are some of the things that I’ve seen at all of those venues that everybody has in common?
And I think the central theme is this, like when you look up and out your window right now, every organism that you’re looking at, in fact, every organism on this planet is either growing or dying. There is no status quo. There is no staying the same. It can’t be done in nature. You’re either growing or dying. And the people who are committed to growing, to being better tomorrow than they are today, are the elite.
It’s not about having arrived, it’s about the process. It’s about the desire to be uncomfortable, to try new things, to push yourself, right? We consider ourselves kind of rock, we’re like the stone, and the only way that we’re going to become a statue, something that we would call elite, is to allow the hammer and chisel to strip away the rough edges, to strip away the stuff that doesn’t matter.
Now, that can come in the form of efficiency. It can come in the form of structure in your life and how you structure your relationships. It can come through being thankful instead of afraid. All these concepts are certainly within the book, but it all ties back to that central theme which is you must be committed to growing. And it’s going to be painful. Growing is always painful but it is better than dying.
That’s an interesting turn of a phrase there – growing is painful, but it’s better than dying. And that’s the only alternative. So, then I’d love to get your take on this. So, our natural inclination is to avoid discomfort, that discomfort is not something we desire, naturally speaking, for the most part. So, how does one make that shift, either globally or in one particular context or project?
Right. That’s a great way to say it. You can’t play guitar without callouses on your fingers, right? If you want to get strong, you go to the gym. If you want to learn how to play a guitar, you need to build the callouses because that’s the only way that your fingers can withstand the pressure of the strings. It always starts with something small, but the small things lead to something big.
Kind of a common buzzword phrase out there is that thoughts become beliefs, beliefs become actions, and then actions become habits. So, we can’t start by looking at the habits. Yes, we want these things to be imprinted in our life, right? We want to be comfortable being uncomfortable, but the only way to get there is to start with a thought. You got to be thinking it. You got be looking for ways to challenge yourself.
Now, I tell you right now, man, if you’re intimidated by something, that is an excellent indicator that it’s exactly what you should be doing. If you’re a little bit scared, if you’re a little bit intimidated, that’s a great indicator that that’s something that’s going to lead to personal growth. That thought is going to become a belief, and that belief will eventually become actions. It’s something that I am constantly trying to push myself with every day. It’s never over. And I’m a young guy. I’ve accomplished a few things at this stage of life but, man, I’m young. I’m just getting started. So, when I look at them, I go, “Okay, what’s intimidating me right now?”
So, here’s me putting my money where my mouth is. The book is obviously an example of this, and I could speak to that as well coming out with the book and what that means, how challenging that is, especially coming from a special operations background, and it definitely makes you uncomfortable. But, now, the book is out, everything is fun, it’s good doing podcasts, I’m like, “I’m comfortable. I’m good. So, I’m like check. What can I do right now? What can I do today that’s going to make me better tomorrow?”
One thing that I started thinking, with the help of a buddy, he was walking me through this, he’s like, “Why do you like doing what you’re doing? What do you enjoy about being a public speaker?” And I said, “Two things. One, getting on stage is a way for me to kind of supplement the feeling I used to have when I was jumping out of airplanes, so I like that. It’s exciting. It gives me purpose and passion and all that. But, man, I always gauge the audience by how much I can make them laugh. It’s like the only feedback that you can get when you’re speaking, right? You can’t see the impact on someone’s face but you can definitely get their laughter.”
Especially if the bright stage light is going.
Yes, exactly, and you can’t see anything and you’re hot. So, I’m looking at this, and he goes, “Dude, why don’t you do a standup comedy set? You like making people laugh.” When he said that, I got so scared, just the mere mention of that, grabbing a microphone, getting up in front of people with the sole purpose of being funny. Because I can fall back to motivation and structure and practices, and the fact that I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know the material, right? But this is something entirely different. And it set me off kilter, I was intimidated. And I said, “You know what, that’s a great indicator that this is exactly what I should do.”
So, I reached out to a buddy of mine who’s connected with a comedy club, and a really prestigious comedy club too, actually The Comedy Store in Beverly Hills. It’s like top notch, right? And this guy is a young comic, he’s just getting started, really great guy, and I hit him up on direct message, and I was like, “Hey, man, I want to do a set. What do I need to do here?” And he goes, “Oh, meet my buddy. He does the booking for the store.” I was like, “Okay. Well, I was expecting Poughkeepsie, not L.A.” But I reached out to the guy, and he was like, “Yeah, we’d love to have you on, this and that,” so I went ahead and booked my first standup comedy special, not special, like I’m going to get up there for 10 minutes.
But I had it booked within like 15 minutes of coming up with the idea, and now I’m on the hook. Now, I have to prepare, now I have to get out there and perform, and now I’m excited again. It just injects passion back into the routine. So, that’s me putting my money where my mouth is right there. And it’s tough, man. I’m nervous. I’m scared of it but, like I said, it’s an indicator that it’s exactly what I need to be doing for personal growth. I’m going to grow as a speaker. I’m going to grow as a person. I could bomb. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because my thoughts are becoming beliefs, and those beliefs are becoming actions.
You know, it’s an interesting point you brought up there with regard to if you’re scared it’s a good indicator that it’s something worth doing because the scariness, the discomfort is associated with that growth territory unfolding. So, I’m wondering, is there any distinction between the type of fear or scary sensation that means, “Oh, yes, let’s do that,” versus, “No, this is wise, prudent, show caution, that you should not do that”?
I love that. Yeah, you have to say it, right, because I always ask people, like, “Is fear good or bad? Is fear a good thing or a bad thing?” And most people will say, “Well, it depends,” and that’s the only appropriate answer. It depends. You consider the cavemen back in the day, and they’re looking around, like if you’re not afraid of the saber-toothed tiger—now, I don’t know if there’s saber-toothed back then—but, you know, the threat. If you’re not afraid of that, then maybe you’re not going to sleep in the cave, maybe you’re not going to roll a rock in front of it, maybe you’re not going to take precautions in your life and contingencies in your plan that are going to keep you from being destroyed.
Fear is good when it leads to positive action. But what if that same caveman was so petrified from the fear of outside that he stays in the cave and refuses to eat? Now, you have 30 days to live. Fear is bad when it leads to you being stagnant, stale, and immobilized. That’s when fear is a bad thing. Fear is a good thing when it causes you to build contingencies into your plan, and to hedge against possible threats. There’s a duality to it. It is both good and bad. And that’s something that you should always weigh when you’re trying to make these decisions, right?
“Am I improving my situation, or is my situation in decline? Am I growing or dying? Is this going to lead to an improvement or not?” And it’s that simple. So, when you’re afraid of something, ask yourself that, “Am I afraid of having this hard conversation with someone at work simply because I don’t like conflict? Or is there another implication here, something I need to be concerned of? Is there more to the story? What is the source of that fear?” And it’s simply because you don’t want conflict. Guess what? You got to do it. You have to have that conversation. The person is going to thank you for it. The relationship is going to grow. The company is going to benefit, right?
I hear you, yes. So, I dig what you had to say with regard to the thoughts become actions, become habits, become character, become destiny, or maybe I’m mixing from other sources. So, you’ve got a couple of little teasers in your book about how we can take control of our thoughts, become and to be tough, guard our mind. So, let’s just focus in on that. So, you’ve shared a couple tips there with regard to just one, recognizing and reinterpreting fear and being scared, so that’s great. What are some of your other best practices that you suggest for professionals who are looking to gain some additional control over their thoughts?
Yeah, that’s really good. Intimidation, I think, can be a bad deal. Sometimes we want something professionally that we’re not quite there. Like, if I want to be a powerlifter and I want to jump under 300 pounds on the bench press, and I haven’t trained for it, I will be crushed by the 300 pounds. That’s the business professional who wants to be CEO, like, dude, you’ve got a long way to go. Don’t focus on the end, right?
One thing that helped me get through some of our training, SEAL training, there’s this portion of it, the selection process, it’s called Hell Week. So, in Hell Week, it’s a tremendous goal. You want to get through this week, it’s by far the biggest crucible on the road to becoming a Navy SEAL. And during that week, you don’t sleep for like five and a half days, you’re putting on somewhere close to 200 miles, you’re lifting logs with your buddies, running with boats on your head, getting like close to hypothermia by sitting in the water until you’re just freezing cold, and people quit all the time. People quit all the time.
And sometimes I’ll ask people, “Hey, what day do you think? If it starts on Sunday and ends on Friday, what day do you think they’re going to quit?” And a lot of people say, “Oh, like Thursday.” But, no, man, I mean, it’s upfront. On Monday, when you’re looking at Friday, that’s too far away. You’re already too miserable. You’re going to start telling yourself that you can’t make it. If you focus on the end, the outcome, instead of the process of how you’re going to get there, it will undermine you.
So, one of the tricks that they actually taught us while we were there, they actually gave us the answers, which was cool, was to make bigger things small, right? So, if I’m looking at the end of the week, it’s not going to work for me, but how can I break that down into smaller more attainable segments that I can actually deal with mentally? One of those tricks was, “Hey, think about your next hot meal.” They feed you really well in that program. They feed you really well because you’re burning so many calories. So, if I can just think, “Hey, I just got to the next meal.” Now, it’s going to be nice and warm in there, I’m with my buddies, we’re telling jokes, get a little bit of reprieve from the action, right?
But there’s times when that next meal is too far away. It’s too far away. I need something better. Like, if I’m sitting there in the water and I’m just feel like I’m dying in the water, I could tell myself, “Hey, I just have to get to the next evolution. If I can just get to back on land when we’re running around and everything else, then I’ll warm up. My body is going to warm up.” And it works.
But sometimes, still, it’s just not enough. Like, log PT is a portion where you’re lifting telephone poles up over your head and stuff and it’s pretty crazy. Well, at times, your shoulders are so full of lactic acid and you’re just dying, and you’re thinking, “Man, I can’t lift this thing one other time.” Well, you can break it down even smaller, and say, “Hey, they can’t work shoulders forever. They’re going to have to work legs soon or we’re going to experience casualties, right? All I have to do is get to legs. Get to legs.”
You could break that all the way down to, if you’ve ever done an intense mountain climb, like one more step, one more step. Break it down to a level that you can actually accomplish than what you’re trying to accomplish, because then, mentally, you get a win, and then you get a win, and then you get a win, and now you’re a winner.
It doesn’t matter how far away this goal is anymore. Man, you’re a winner and you’re crushing this thing, right? I think that’s one of the best things that you can do. So, how do you apply that to your professional life, right? Kind of like, okay, you’re writing a book, “I want to be a published author, so how do I accomplish that?” It’s too much. It’s too much to look at. If you look at the end, at the outcome, instead of the process, it’s going to lead to fear and you’re never going to put pen to paper. You can’t do it. You have to break that down, and say, “Hey, here’s what I can do today that’s going to ultimately get me to my goal.” Break it down in smaller and more attainable goals.
Like, “Hey, all I need today is to write for an hour. That’s all I have to do.” That’s like taking one more step, right? And then you get a win. You made a mental contract with yourself, and you kept it. If I said, “Hey, I’m going to write for eight hours a day,” and then I learn a thing or two, and I’m like, “That’s not how inspiration works,” I can readjust. It’s important. Stay there for eight hours, don’t lie to yourself. But once you check that box, say, “Okay, I’ve got to reassess. I think at three hours I felt pretty good, so I think I can accomplish three hours.” So, you adjust that goal. But now you’re still moving towards…
Like, I didn’t know how painful it would be to go through a developmental editor during the writing process when I started writing, and I’m glad that I didn’t know that because that was, by far, the most painful part of the process. When you develop this baby, and then hand it over to someone, and their entire job is to rip it apart, it’s painful. It hurts your pride. You’re going to try to get the person fired. It’s rough, man, but that’s exactly what the book needs. That’s taking the stone, putting hammer to chisel to the stone and removing the rough edges. That’s exactly what’s going to create the statue that you’re looking for, the elite image that you’re looking for.
But you can’t think about that when you’re freewriting. You just have to free-write. And then once you’re in the developmental editing process, check, I can break that down into smaller and more attainable goals and just chuck up a win after win after win. We could apply that to any scenario in business or in your home life, in your professional development, in your personal development, in your physical development. It just works.
Yeah. Well, that’s really inspiring and transformational, I think, if you can really digest and internalize that. And so, I guess what I’m thinking, in order to make that really count such that, okay, you took one more step, therefore you are a winner, like you have accomplished the goal of one more step. I think that there’s also a mental thing that can occur, it’s like, “Well, yeah, but that wasn’t really much of anything. It was just one more step.” So, how do you like genuinely, I guess, celebrate, or commemorate, or make real and present to yourself on the inside that, “Yeah, that was a real victory and it’s worth something, and I’m more of a winner as a result of that even though it was tiny”?
I’m so glad that you said that, that is the perfect question, especially for me because that’s something I struggle with daily. I don’t have that figured out. I do it to myself all the time and here’s kind of how that thought process works for me. I’ll be like, “Yeah, I made it through SEAL training but I got rolled back. I couldn’t even swim. Yeah, I became a Navy SEAL, but I didn’t really get to do exactly what I wanted to do, so I ended up contracting and doing more of that.”
“Yeah, I contract but then I got hurt pretty quick, ended up busting my back up and had to get a surgery. But, yeah, I went to business school, but at the same time it was kind of a hybrid, didn’t even have to take my GMATH, no big deal. Yeah, I worked with a professional sports team, they went to the Super Bowl, but they didn’t even win. I mean, they didn’t, you know. Yeah, I went to Harvard but, I mean, really, come on, you know. I don’t even know how they let me in there. Yeah, I wrote a book.”
And by the end of it, and you start looking at it, like, “Dude, I did a lot of amazing things. Why am I disqualifying everything that I’ve done mentally? Like, how do I just sit back and resonate in the fact that none of those things came easy between every bullet point on that resume. The resume looks sick, right? But I just know myself so well, and between every single one of those bold bullet points came a thousand failures, a thousand setbacks, me talking trash to myself and listening to that little demon sitting on my shoulder, right? All these things.”
And I can take joy and pride in the fact that I didn’t let that stop me, and I just kept moving forward. See, that’s taking a process that resulted in the success and celebrating the process. And, now, I can apply that process further in my life. I’m pretty much quoting Carol Dweck right now in that book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I know I’m not supposed to talk about other people’s books when I’m talking about mine, but I’m a reader and so I do it all the time.
But, yeah, she’s talking about the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. When you can celebrate a process instead of the outcome, then your identity is built around finding new ways to do things, not having done everything a certain way.
Yeah, I really dig that. And I think what’s so fun for listeners, if they’re hearing the, “Yeah, but…” and just laughing at how absurd it sounds, it’s great because I recognize some of myself in that. I remember I did a triathlon and, first, it was like, “Yeah, but it’s just a sprint, it’s not a triathlon. It’s not a real triathlon.” And then I did a full Olympic distance triathlon, I was like, “Yeah, but my ITB Band was hurting so I was walking during part of the run, so I didn’t really do a triathlon if a part of it was walking.” And it’s just like, “Well, time out, like that’s nuts.”
It is nuts.
I did all that prep, or it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I wrote two books but I self-published them, so that doesn’t really count,” and all these things, “Yeah, my podcast has 7 million downloads, but I just had lucky break randomly getting some iTunes rankings for no discernible reason early on.” And it’s sort of like it’s nuts, and I’m trying to kind of pinpoint the specific absurdity or fallaciousness, if that’s a word, of it. And I think it’s kind of like it sort of discounts all of your efforts and attention and labor and gives 100% of the credit to the opportunity or the exception, like you didn’t have to take the GMATH, whatever. I’m sure that the program that you did assumed that you were super awesome already and, thus, the GMATH was unnecessary, so it still counts. So, I don’t know, I’m just thinking real time here, how’s that rubbing you?
Yeah, I’m thinking about it too, and I think it’s important to recognize that any given moment in time, we kind of have two selves, there’s two selves. There’s your experiencing self and your remembering self. The experiencing self is always reading and reacting and moving forward. That’s the person that’s looking out the windshield, driving the vehicle, “I see red lights in front of me, I break.” It’s constantly reading, reacting, and moving forward. And then you have your remembering self, essentially the rear-view mirror, right?
For some reason, when we’re experiencing something, we’re constantly taking information on board because it’s necessary for survival, and then we put it into action immediately. But then, when that moment gets categorized into the remembering self, we go back and we pull out the information again that’s going to lead to our ultimate survival.
So, for some reason, that can lean us to go negative with some things because we want to learn, we want to grow, we want to challenge ourselves. And I think, one, knowing that that’s what’s happening I think can set you free, and then, two, figuring out how to combat the specific enemy there and that little disqualifier that says, “Yeah, but, yeah, but.” If you know that that’s coming, you can take proactive stance in your mind, like, “No, I refuse that. This was something that worked out well.” And say it to yourself and practice it, right? Practice that and, eventually, that thought will become a habit.
Yeah, I like that, “No, I refuse that.” That’s a good one. And we also had a great tip from this Stanford psychologist, BJ Fogg, who was talking about tiny habits, and how it’s so important when you’re doing little something to celebrate. One way or another, you’d just be like it could be dorky, or cheesy, or corny, give yourself a high five. Sometimes I will say, “Flawless victory” like on a Mortal Kombat video game,” and to just take a moment to feel good about what happened, just reinforces that so you’re all the more likely to do it as opposed to beating yourself up for, “I said I was going to write for an hour, but it’s really only 56 minutes because I had an urgent phone call.” It’s like, I don’t know, to whoever beats himself up, I encourage you to be forgiving. The science is there that you’re better off that way.
Yeah, the world’s mean enough, you don’t have to be mean to yourself. Like, you deserve better. You deserve better. And I think thankfulness is really, really the key. Like, going back to when I was in Hell Week, I remember using that as a tool to where the sun is going down, and you’re sitting there in the cold water, knowing it’s going to be a long night, well, I wanted to be a SEAL my entire life. And I remember smelling the air and feeling the wind and just thinking, “Man, I’m finally here. I’ve been trying to get here for so long, I’m so thankful, man.”
I was so thankful that I didn’t have room for the negativity to creep in. It made me resilient. And I think that’s something that we can practice for the rest of our lives, is when you start feeling those disqualifiers, instead maybe look at it through a different lens, and say, “Man, I’m so thankful that I have that experience. I’m thankful that that person stood up for me when I needed it. I’m thankful that my body didn’t fail me and I was able to get that done. I’m thankful that my ITB Band gave me some trouble because now I can adjust my training and be better. Like, good, I’m glad that happened. Let’s move on.”
Right. Well, I’m particularly struck by your ability to summon the gratitude and thankfulness right there in the moment. That’s pretty cool in terms of you saying, “I’m finally here.” And so, that’s really nifty to hit that, and I wonder how you can sort of systematize that. I’ve heard one person suggest you ask the question, “What’s great about this?” when you’re in a pickle, and that can sort of reorient your attention to things that you can be grateful for like “You’re finally there.”
And I guess you could say that even if, geez, I’m imagining terrible scenarios, like what if my kids were in the hospital like fighting for their lives, right? I guess you could be grateful that you have those children, that you have formed such a loving bond, that this matters a lot to you. And I guess it also speaks to the power of the imagination and visualization right now because I’m kind of tearing up because this is completely fictitious scenario that I am dreaming up. But you can find that gratitude just about anywhere.
Well, I love your level of empathy there to where you put a face on it, and there’s someone out there who’s going through exactly that, and who needs to hear it. So, yeah, it’s good to understand the gravity of a situation, and, “Hey, if this works.” We’re talking about beating ourselves up even when things are going good. But, yeah, what if legitimately life happens to you? What if you’re on your back and you don’t know how to get up? What works then? If it’s this hard when everything is good when you’re in the meadow, how do you handle the mountain top? How do you handle the climb? How do you handle the brutality of the environment?
And I went through a situation that made me really think about some stuff, man. When I was contracting, working overseas, I loved it. I loved it. I was having a great time with it. I was exactly where I wanted to be. My schedule was pretty ridiculous. I was doing my two months on, two months off. So, me and my wife bought a 35-foot RV and we started cruising around, just everything was good, man. And then life happened to me, and I hurt my back. I ended up having to get a L5S1 fusion and I would never work in that capacity again.
I came home, the doctor told me that things were changing, and I had to go into surgery, and it took a solid two years to recover. They advertised six months; they’re lying to you. I lost my physicality. I didn’t want to be addicted to opioids so I got off those within a few weeks. But then I started drinking, so I was masking it with drinking. Now, nothing bad happened, I was able to pull away from that too, but, still, I’m sitting here. I lost my physicality. I looked terrible. I lost my purpose in life. I lost my passion. I had no vision moving forward, and I had to completely redefine myself.
Life gave me a couple of heavies. And there were some other stuff, that I won’t get into, at the time that fortunately didn’t involve my family. That probably would’ve been the kick to the groin that could’ve taken me to the floor, but my wife was there for me, and there with me, and we kind of suffered together. And I didn’t know what to do, and that’s kind of the best thing that ever happened to me.
Like, now when I’m looking back, it’s kind of like when I talk a lot about mountain climbing obviously. But when you’re climbing up a trail and there’s all these switchbacks, sometimes you can talk trash that you won’t make it. Like, “What are you doing? It’s right there. Why don’t we just go right there?” And you’re following these bends and switchbacks, you’re like, “Man, I don’t get it.” And then you get to the top, and you look back, and you see where the trail had made mud, you see that that switchback kept you from that chasm, you’re about to walk off a cliff, and it saved you time and pain.
That’s how it is for me looking back at that scenario specifically because there’s a saying, right, like, “That which I love will destroy me.” I think it applies really well to veterans because it’s a lot of fun belonging to a tribe, having a brotherhood, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose. It goes a long way. And I don’t think that I would’ve seen it. I think I would’ve stayed with it. But because it was taken away from me, I have a better relationship with my wife, around more for my kids, enable to imprint on them. I’ve started going a different direction professionally that is really next level. I’m starting to see, like, “What can I actually accomplish? What can I do even if my identity has changed?” It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
And I was fortunate that I was able to redefine that purpose, and said, “Okay, what was it that kept me going? What was it that I enjoyed about what I was doing?” And it always came back to this, to empathy, the desire to help others be better, the desire to teach. I actually loved being an instructor. When I was an instructor for a little while in the military, I always really enjoyed that stuff, and I said, “Okay, well, that’s something that I can look forward with. How do I develop that?” And then a buddy of mine actually reached out to me and was like, “Hey, do you want to join me on this? Let’s go talk to a company.”
So, I went and talked to a company. Like, four weeks later, I was working with the Miami Heat basketball team. And I was like, “Wow, I can actually do this. This is something.” And it injected me with that passion, with that fire. I was able to redefine my identity but stayed true to the purpose that had been consistent the whole time. Life happened to me, and I said, “You know what, I’m done with that. I’m going to start happening to life. This is my turn now.”
That’s good. That’s good. Nick, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear about your favorite things?
Man, I don’t know, I feel good. This is fun. I like the authenticity. This is great.
How about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Let’s see. Speaking of authenticity, I love John Madden, a great coach, John Madden. He used to say that “If you want longevity in this league, first you have to be authentic.” Now, he was talking about football but I think that works in any context. If you want longevity, if you want to play the long game, you have to be authentic. That’s where you need to start. Man, there’s more to it, right? But that’s where you need to start is that authenticity.
And, for me, I’ve really taken that to heart because now that I’m kind of getting more in public and stuff, keep in mind, my job used to be the silent professional. I used to lie to my neighbors about what I do for a living and now, all of a sudden, I’m in the public eye, doing talks, like writing books, and all the stuff. It’s weird for me. And that’s my commitment is to be authentic and to tell the truth, to be myself, and not try to paint up an image that I should do because it worked for somebody else. I think that’s something that we can all take and put into our lives. Like, “How do I discover my authentic self and then how do I unleash that out in the world?”
That’s great. And how about a favorite book?
I have a lot of favorite books. That’s probably the hardest question you could’ve asked me. I think one of the books that’s had the most impact in my life was Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. He writes about the Spartans at the hot gates of Thermopylae, and how the 300 Spartans and their support were able to stop a Persian army of about two million for long enough for the country to unite. Obviously, spoiler alert here, but we’ve all seen “300.” Leonidas actually, the king, gave his life and that rallied the rest of the city states to join up and go to war together, and they crippled one of the most powerful empires in all of history.
And the way that Steven Pressfield writes it, it really shows what brotherhood looks like. It shows what a team should be. The fact that when you’re sitting there in the failings, which was their alignment when they would meet the enemy, the shield of the person next to you is what’s protecting you. Your shield is protecting the person next to you. Your shield isn’t for you. Your shield is for your brothers and sisters, for your teammates. That’s such an impactful lesson that you see time and time in that book. I highly recommend that read.
And how about a favorite tool, something you use that helps you be awesome at your job?
Yeah, that’s good.
Seriously, I’ve been plagued by wires. I spend a majority of my time, professionally communicating, and so a lot of it is on the phone and having the ability to be somewhat mobile with that. We’re so lucky to live in a time that you and I can connect from other sides of the world. You can keep people close to you regardless of the proximity, and I take full advantage of that. I’m one of those people where you can text me, sure, but I’m probably going to call you back. I like discussing. I like speaking.
That’s good. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your audiences?
You know, going back to the mentorship piece, I think that’s something that everyone can see upfront. The story opens them up and they see it and practice at the highest level, and this is a great opportunity for me to kind of hit that again, and say like mentorship, you’ve got to find one, you’ve got to be one. In addition to that, I’ll take it even one step further, but the way you organize your relationships and your friends really does matter.
And one thing that I highly recommend is, yes, you have your close circle of friends, right? That group needs to be small. It’s a small group. But then, of course, you have your network, your expanding circle, right? But there’s this circle in between, that somewhere in between, or I like to call that as my personal board of advisors.
So, what I’ve done is I’ve looked for people that are as different than me as possible, and then a few people that are very similar to me, different sexes, races, anything that could be a potential silo, international, whatever it is. Like, people that I really trust and connect with that are operating at a really high level, and I ask them, I make it formal, and I’ve built this cabinet. If the president needs one, then maybe I should be doing it, too, right?
And I built this cabinet so when I’m working through something, I can bounce ideas off of people that’s going to give me a 360-degree approach to it, and it always illuminates stuff that I don’t see. Different than mentorship, but having a cabinet, having a personal board of advisors that is as diverse as possible in every sense of the word takes your game to the next level, a hundred percent.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Yes, so on all social media, I’m NickHaysLife, EliteTeams.com that’s my company, I’m available for speaking and all that stuff. So, yeah, feel free to reach out. You can DM me too, I’ll get back to you.
And do you have a call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Right now, in this moment, there’s something that you could do that’s going to make you a little bit more resilient. I don’t know what that looks like, but whatever is intimidating you, whatever you’ve been holding back from, embrace that truth today. Get out there and make that happen so that you can celebrate a win. And then move into tomorrow looking for another win.
Nick, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing the good word and good luck on your adventures.
Pete, thank you so much, man. This is fun.