Great Books Distilled: Books by History's Greatest Innovators, Founders, and Investors

The page is a reading list sharing the best books written by history's greatest innovators, founders, and investors. This is a reading list for people who don’t have time for unimportant books—which should be everyone. I only list the best books I've read and recommend.

All Book Summaries

For the best books that I read, I go through the painstaking effort to put together and publish my personal notes including highlights, excerpts, and takeaways. You get the best 5% of the ideas in these books in a form that takes 20 minutes at most to read.

Great Books by Category

These are the best books to read, listed by category. Along with a few collections of rare and hard-to-find speeches, lectures, talks, interviews, letters, and memos that are a great way to go deeper.

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Special Operations Mental Toughness: The Invincible Mindset of Delta Force Operators, Navy SEALs, & Army Rangers by Lawrence Colebrooke

This is part of my book summary collection which includes The Essays of Warren Buffett, Poor Charlie's Almanack, Special Operations Mental Toughness, and 50+ more. Browse them all to find the best ideas from history's greatest books →

Book Summary

This is my book summary of Special Operations Mental Toughness: The Invincible Mindset of Delta Force Operators, Navy SEALs, & Army Rangers by Lawrence Colebrooke. This book summary includes my favorite quotes, excerpts, stories, notes, and ideas from the book.

The members of America's Special Operations Forces are renowned worldwide for their exceptional military prowess and sheer physical toughness. These extraordinary warriors also possess a unique mindset that enables them to successfully attack and overcome obstacles and challenges that others can't, or for various reasons won't, even try to tackle. Now, you can leverage the insights and advice of members of some of America's elite military units to elevate your level of mental toughness and self-confidence.

This book is designed to help you develop the same mindset, strength of will and winning mentality that is shared by America's most capable and respected warriors. It can help you change your perspective on how you have been approaching various aspects of your personal and professional life and it provides techniques, tools and tips that can help you achieve your dreams and goals.

On this page:


The focus of this book is on the mindset, attitude, traits, and habits that enable special operators—the members of America's elite military units—to consistently perform with high levels of courage, competence, and precision in some of the most daunting and dangerous situations imaginable.

Most experts within the special operations community would likely agree with my assertion that the vast majority of special operators are not born with extraordinary talent and abilities; in fact, most of these men would describe themselves as being "for the most part, an average guy." The truth is that these men are, through continuous and incredibly challenging training, forged into some of the most capable and feared warriors ever to step onto a battlefield.

Much of the success achieved by the members of all of America's special operations units can be attributed to the individual traits and qualities they possess, such as mental toughness, self-confidence, self-control, resilience, and the ability to consistently perform well under pressure.

Most people would agree that these are some of the same qualities necessary to achieve a high-level of success in most aspects of one's personal and professional life; and many ambitious individuals spend much time and effort toward acquiring or enhancing them. The good news is that anyone, regardless of their age or physical capabilities, can develop the same levels of mental toughness and winning mindset possessed by the members of special operations units; and the purpose of this book is to help you do just that!

The Purpose of Special Operation Forces Selection Courses

There are two main goals that SOF selection courses are designed to attain. For obvious reasons, men who serve in SOF units must possess high levels of confidence, focus, discipline, and mental toughness. All selection courses serve the purpose of narrowing down the group of candidates and eliminating those who, in some way, lacked all the requisite attributes to succeed as special operators. By default, this relentless paring down of prospective operators will ensure that time, money, or valuable training resources are not wasted on individuals who would eventually prove not to be compatible with the duties associated with serving in a SOF unit.

In his book Lone Survivor, retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell explains in great detail the unbelievably harsh training young men must complete in order to become a member of the SEAL community. He shared that just before his BUD/S class was about to begin training, one of the instructors told the anxious and nervous young men, "You're going to hurt while you're here. That's our job: to induce pain—not permanent injury of course—but we need to make you hurt. That's a big part of becoming a SEAL. We need proof you can take the punishment. And the way out of that is mental, in your mind."

Each of the various SOF units utilizes slightly different methodologies in their selection courses. They all, however, share the commonality of the intensity with which they design the course in order to present the candidates with inconceivable amounts of physical and mental stress.

Training the candidates is NOT the main purpose of selection courses, but rather the objective is to push them to their physical and psychological limits in order to assess their ability to drive on when their body and brain are telling them to quit. This is the essence of all SOF selection courses—to identify men and women who can be counted on to remain focused and perform well during the most challenging, stressful and often, dangerous situations imaginable.

The Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) is designed to "identify a self-disciplined individual who is physically fit, intelligent, motivated, trainable, and possesses the attributes that will enable him to be a successful Special Forces soldier." This demanding selection course is based on four principles: "physically demanding, sleep deprivation, induced stress, and increasing performance objectives." These four principles, to various degrees, inherent to all Special Forces missions.

The 13 Attributes of Army Special Forces Soldiers

After evaluating the results of several Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) courses and doing very detailed review of the men and women that passed or failed the course, the Special Forces leaders were able to identify and defined thirteen attributes that are deemed essential for a Special Forces soldier.

  1. Physical Fitness: Displays acceptable levels of muscular strength and endurance, stamina, and motor coordination.
  2. Motivation: Persists at accomplishing tasks. Takes the initiative to participate in or complete a task without hesitation or delay.
  3. Teamwork: Capable of working effectively in a small group environment.
  4. Stability: Able to control emotions (e.g. fear, anger, happiness, frustration) in order to remain effective and efficient in attainment of the objective. Composure under stress—does not become unnecessarily excited under pressure.
  5. Trustworthiness: Demonstrates integrity and honesty in all actions and words.
  6. Accountability: Able to follow instructions, keep track of equipment, and be responsible for himself. Shows awareness of and concern for safety rules and restrictions.
  7. Intelligence: Comprehends and applies concepts. Can recognize and analyze the components of a problem and develop courses of action to solve the problem.
  8. Maturity: Recognizes and demonstrates appropriate behavior for any given situation.
  9. Communication: Relays essential information in a clear and logical manner in order to accomplish the mission.
  10. Judgement: Considers all known facts in order to make logical decisions when choosing among alternative solutions.
  11. Influence: Able to persuade team members to accomplish their common goal.
  12. Decisiveness: Capable of implementing a plan and executing a course of action in a firm, prompt, and positive manner.
Will not change his decision without good cause.
  13. Responsibility: Accomplishes leadership task, including the development and implementation of plans and supervision of others. Ensures the health and welfare of all team members. Completes tasks in accordance with established mission constraints.

In his book Always Faithful, Always Forward: The Forging of a Special Operations Marine, retired Navy SEAL Dick Couch had this to say about the rites of passage associated with America's special operations community: "Few processes in our culture, military or otherwise, lay bare the physical, psychological, and emotional worth of an individual as do our SOF selection programs. It is a rendering for the essentials of the human spirit."

A Winning Mentality

Competitiveness is a common characteristic possessed by special operators. A strong desire to win propels candidates to maintain focus and persevere throughout the incredibly difficult training of selection courses, and this competitive nature continues once special operators join their units. Their confidence is such that they believe they can accomplish any assignment better even than their more experienced teammates.

Positive Self-talk
Most successful special operators are able to utilize positive self-talk as a means to eliminate doubt and bolster confidence when they face difficult, stressful situations. We all engage in some form of self-talk almost continuously throughout the day. It is very important to ensure that this self-talk is of a positive nature rather than negative.

Control Doubts
Doubt destroys confidence, and confidence is paramount to success. It is important that you learn to take measures when you notice doubt setting in in order to combat it. Special operators are trained to refocus their attention to positive thoughts and to focus on visualizing the immediate tasks that need to be performed. This leads to a state of mind more conducive to mission accomplishment and success.

Anticipate Success
Visualization is a technique used by most special operators prior to engaging in an event or during the pursuit of a goal. It entails a mental rehearsal of the various tasks or maneuvers that will be carried out during a mission or exercise.

Project Confidence
Most special operators are optimists by nature, and this enables them see opportunities where others might see obstacles and challenges too difficult to overcome. Fueling this optimism is the extensive training and personal development that all special operators undergo, which produces in them an unshakeable confidence in their abilities to overcome any challenge, big or small.

Exercise Patience
Although an accurate description of special operators is that of physically strong, mentally tough men of action, it must be made clear that there are times when the ability to exercise a high degree of patience is critical. Regardless of the activity a special operator is undertaking, he must have the ability to sense when being patient is the best course of action. This will help him avoid situations where he might react too quickly or in a manner that provides the enemy with an advantage or otherwise endangers the successful accomplishment of the mission or assigned tasks.

Why do they subject themselves to such high levels of stress and hardship?

A psychologist working in the special operations community deduced that it is because of their innate desire to excel and achieve objectives deemed almost impossible to attain. Furthermore, this psychologist states that this need to outperform can be linked to a certain level of excitement and the surge of adrenaline that results from executing tasks at the highest levels. These same spikes in adrenaline and other hormones experienced by extreme athletes and other military personnel are also evident in Wall Street stock traders, business executives, surgeons, and even salesmen closing a deal. It seems that high achievers, and special operators alike, thrive in significantly challenging and stressful situations!

Mental Toughness

Possessing an extraordinary level of mental toughness is the foundation upon which a special operator is selected and trained. This mental toughness enables him to achieve success when the odds are stacked against him. It is the trait that causes him to demonstrate a refuse-to-lose mindset, and it is the underpinning of the unswerving loyalty and dedication that he has toward his teammates.

What is mental toughness?

From an athletic perspective, the term is used to describe an athlete that possesses the ability to remain focused and perform well under very stressful circumstances. Military leaders use it to describe the traits necessary to enable a warrior to remain calm in extremely dangerous, life-threatening situations, and to make the appropriate decisions or perform the tasks required to accomplish the mission.

In his book The Art of Mental Training, author and former Marine Corps aviator D.C. Gonzalez said this about the often difficult to quantify trait of mental toughness:

I need you to recall an occasion when you performed at your best—and then remember a time when you were at your worst. Now when you look at those two performances, I want you to be honest with yourself and ask, what made the most difference between the two? Could it have been your mental state that made the most difference?… And that's the important point: no matter what your game is, or what the challenge is, the difference between great performances and average performances is mostly mental. Once you reach a certain level of skill, it's your mental skills that start making all the difference. The better they are, the better you will become—and the better your results will be.

The famous sports psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute defined mental toughness as follows:

Mental toughness is the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances. It is all about improving your mind so that it's always on your side; not sometimes helping you nor working against you as we all know it’s quite capable of doing.

How do special operators talk about mental toughness?

Their quotes and comments always reflect a “refuse to lose” and “never give up” mentality that’s instilled in them from their very first day in training.

“Mental toughness is not letting anyone or anything break you.”
“As a former Pararescueman, I believe that mental toughness is the ability to stay focused and overcome anything that might degrade your ability to achieve the mission. It is the ability to adapt and perform well under the worst possible conditions.”
“No matter what happens, I simply refuse to lose. To me, it’s really that simple. I approach anything thought to be difficult with an attitude of ‘I’ll do this or die trying.’”
“It means that whenever most people would make excuses why something can’t be done, I focus on finding a way to get it done.”
“Mental toughness is the ability to defeat the voice in your mind that is telling you to quit.”

The common trait they possess is that they believe that adversity brings out the best in them and that there’s always a way to win.

Through the development or improvement of certain skills—self-discipline, character, resilience, focus—mental toughness is a quality that you can develop, hone, and master with time, work, and determination. It is what ultimately results of a relentless effort toward improvement in all aspects of a persons' life.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Mental toughness is an abstract quality that is best developed by associating planned actions to specific and measurable goals. In other words, to develop mental toughness, you actually have to do something—you have to willfully and deliberately take action toward accomplishing goals and achieving results.

If you were able to speak with a member of one of America's SOF units on the topic of developing mental toughness, he would undoubtedly agree that a major factor in an individuals ability to become mentally tough is whether or not he or she is able to "get comfortable being uncomfortable."

Why is this so important? It's because whatever it is that you want to achieve in life assuming that you've set challenging goals), ultimately your success will depend upon your ability to persevere and push through situations or periods of time that bring forth various forms of discomfort, stress, anxiety, friction, self-doubt, and in some instances,actual physical pain.

This really is the key to building mental toughness. You cannot simply wake up one morning and declare that because you desire to be mentally tough, you now actually possess this trait. The special operators I know who served as instructors within SOF units all believe that it takes time to develop a high-level of mental toughness and that a person needs to work at it every single day in a variety of ways.

How to Develop Mental Toughness

The following are examples of steps you can take to begin developing or enhancing your level of mental toughness.

Take Action

One of the easiest things you can do in order to start your path toward developing mental toughness is to simply "decide." Once you've made the decision, all you have to do is"something." Even the smallest step is a step closer to your goal. The longer you wait to begin, the longer it will take you to reach your objective. You will find that once you've taken that first step, no matter how small, all the following steps come much easier.

Focus on Small Victories

Developing mental toughness is always associated with establishing effective personal habits. It's literally about doing the things you know you're supposed to do (or avoiding things you know you should not do on a more consistent basis. It's about your willingness to become and remain motivated to establish and follow a daily schedule of actions and tasks that will yield the results you're seeking.

Mental toughness is best developed by achieving "small victories" on a day-by-day basis. "How do you eat an elephant?" The appropriate answer is "One bite at a time!"

So, establish a daily schedule that causes you to take actions at a specific time and in a measurable way. Develop a routine and stick to it so you can begin to achieve small victories throughout each day. Focus on your behavior and the results will follow!

Set Goals

A proven method to establish habits that lead to small victories is setting goals. It is beyond debate that establishing goals and embedding them in the subconscious mind results in a more focused, determined, and persistent individual. In other words, when you consciously reflect upon goals you want to achieve, write them down, and review them on a daily basis, they begin to occupy a prominent position in your subconscious mind.

I would urge you to think about the most successful person you know, one who has risen to great heights in his or her profession or vocation. You will probably find that this person is driven and exceptionally committed; you might even say that he or she "eats, sleeps, and breathes ______!" Many would probably go as far as saying that they epitomize "greatness" in just about everything they do. This is exactly the type of commitment, energy, and relentless drive for excellence that is associated with mentally tough men and women.

Think about some goals you can set that would require you to extend yourself into a higher level of mental toughness in order to successfully achieve them.

Try Something New

Simply stated, you cannot develop mental toughness unless you attempt things that challenge you in a significant way.

This concept is standard among all selection and training courses of special operators. The leaders of SOF units ensure that candidates are continuously exposed to new tasks, procedures, and techniques throughout selection courses. Various "aggravating factors” such as sleep deprivation, hunger, weather (hot and/or cold training environments), increasingly difficult time standards, or other "Go/No-Go" criteria are thrown into the mix to keep candidates off-balance, and in some cases, mentally disoriented while they attempt any number of graded evolutions or tests.

These men learned over time that human beings rarely remain at constant levels of mental and physical capacity; they are either getting better or getting worse, but they rarely, if ever, remain at the same level of capability without being challenged on a frequent basis.

The lesson here is that you should continuously strive to push yourself to learn new things and attempt difficult or uncomfortable challenges.

Learn How to Control Fear and Stress

To operate effectively in combat situations, special operators must be able to remain focused on the assigned mission, often being required to make rapid decisions while simultaneously performing physical tasks that require both fine and gross motor skills. This is made more difficult by the fact that they are often being shot at or otherwise targeted by a determined enemy force. Success in such situations depends on a mind that is conditioned to expect to feel fear and stress, and knows how to neutralize its impact on human performance in the most stressful conditions imaginable.

The Wet Socks Theory

Any veteran of a SOF unit will tell you that it is not always the most physically qualified candidates who pass selection. In fact, it is often quire the opposite. Once physically exhausted or mentally fatigued from nearly continuous training events, tests, and assessments, many perfectly-qualified candidates simply lose the resolve they once had and decide to quit the selection course.

Countless studies have been conducted by SOF units in an attempt to identify critical traits and capabilities required to pass selection and enable a man to go on to perform well in a SOF unit. Despite their efforts, however, no SOF unit has been able to come up with an infallible formula that will render guaranteed results for every single candidate. The reason for this is that those qualities that often enable a candidate to succeed against the odds are unquantifiable and intangible.

I had a conversation with a 30-year SOF veteran who once held a key role in the selection course for his unit. He told me that seeing so many highly-qualified men quit the course made him realize that there was no real way of predicting who would make it and who would not. He told me that when prospective candidates would tell him about their experiences running triathlons, marathons, martial arts, etc, he would politely say to them: "That's very impressive. We'll have to find out if you can do it when your socks are wet."

During one of these conversations, the sergeant reminded him of an event during selection in which the group of candidates had to traverse a long distance, over very hilly terrain, while carrying heavy rucksacks. This event was quite difficult because each man had to complete it within an undisclosed time frame or be removed from the course.

The sergeant asked him, "Do you remember running the same event about 10 days later? But that time the entire class was ordered to run into a nearby stream and get themselves entirely soaked from head to toe?" He then went on to say, "Over the years we noticed that the top finishers in the "dry run" were almost never the same as those of the "wet run." More importantly, we realized that more of the top finishers of the ‘wet run’ successfully completed selection than did their ‘dry run’ counterparts."

The lesson as explained by the sergeant, was that it became obvious that some men were capable of performing quite well under ideal or normal conditions, but were thrown off-balance or otherwise negatively affected by the sudden introduction of unexpected factors or conditions. Having to run the event with soaking wet clothing, boots, and socks meant that the men would almost certainly have problems with them slipping off their feet, bunching up and causing great discomfort and usually painful blisters on their feet.

The moral of the "wet socks story" is that, ultimately, all that matters is your ability to perform well at the critical moment, regardless of environmental conditions or unexpected circumstances. Whether you are an athlete or not, you probably know of some individuals, teammates, or competitors who perform brilliantly in practice or less important events, yet always seem to perform badly when the stakes are the highest.

As you set your sights on your goals or dreams and start on the path to achieving them, you probably already know that there will be times and situations that will force you to "dig deep." You must figure out a way to stay focused and motivated as you follow your plan; and like the men going through the selection course mentioned earlier, it is highly likely that you'll have to do this while pushing through whatever form of "wet socks" situations arise during your journey.

You will require a great amount of determination and resilience in order to surmount the obstacles that will invariably stand in your way.

Fear and Threat Stress

To learn how to control fear and stress, you must first understand your body's natural response to these conditions.

Fear elicits a stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system while a human is under stress, called "threat stress." This stimulation or"arousal" triggers a hormonal response release of adrenaline and cortisol-within the human nervous system; it is a built-in coping and survival mechanism that all humans possess. If a combat soldier isn't properly trained to control the effects of this hormonal reaction, performance and level of execution will be greatly diminished.

The Response Cycle

Dr. Roger Solomon is a highly regarded psychologist and psychotherapist specializing in the areas of trauma and grief. He proposes that there are stages that take place when you are facing a life threatening or otherwise highly stressful situation. The faster a person can recognize and progress through these stages, the greater the chance of overcoming the situation he or she is facing.

Here are the five stages of the response cycle:

  1. Alarm. The initial realization that danger is imminent.
  2. Capability Assessment. The assessment of your ability to cope with the situation. This stage can either propel you into action or paralyze you.
  3. Redirection of Focus. If you have been trained to handle fear and stress, this is the stage during which you will be able to redirect your thoughts and focus toward a plan of action. Practice and rehearsal are a vital part of being able to execute during this stage.
  4. Skill Reactivation. Once you have successfully redirected your focus, your instincts will kick in and the skills you have practiced endlessly will be activated and become more automatic.
  5. Action. You make a decision to commit to a plan of action and go for it.

The key to being able to respond effectively to a threat and ensure survival is to gain an understanding of what is happening in your body, anticipating the normal responses your body will undergo, and learning how to regain control.

It is important to understand that experiencing fear does not signify cowardice. In fact, it is the ability to remain calm and continue to perform—despite the fear—that shows true courage. Studies have shown that it is the belief of eight out of ten combat veterans, that you are better off admitting that you are afraid, discussing your fears, and deciding a plan of action before you enter into battle.

The Navy SEAL Seven Pillars of Mental Toughness

  1. Goal Settings and Segmenting
  2. Arousal Control
  3. Visualization
  4. Positive Self-Talk
  5. Compartmentalization
  6. Contingency Planning
  7. Focus and Concentration

Goal Settings and Segmenting

Studies conducted by Navy psychologists revealed that some of the BUD/S candidates who failed to make it through training admitted that they allowed themselves to become overwhelmed by the fact that there was still a considerable amount of training still remaining in the course.

Some of these candidates became besieged by the knowledge that the vast majority of men did not typically graduate from the course, and that the training events and tests ahead of them would only become more and more difficult as the course progressed. Their negative thoughts resulted in poor performance that led to their dismissal from the course, or they simply quit and gave up on their dream.

In contrast, the researchers showed that almost all the candidates who had successfully completed the course and then went on to serve as SEALs, had used a technique in which they established short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals for themselves throughout BUD/S and the many months of follow-on training. This technique is referred to as "segmenting” or "chunking.” It essentially breaks down larger goals into smaller and more manageable pieces or phases.

Segmenting the course meant that, instead of dwelling on the fact that they were facing many weeks of training ahead of them, most successful trainees would instead focus on that specific training day and further segment the day into several stages. Candidates following this method would first focus on making it through the early morning physical training session. During this session, they'd think of nothing but the specific exercise they were doing at the time. Then, their complete focus would go to the next exercise dictated by the instructor leading the session, and then the next one after that and so forth until the session ended.

Once physical training was over, the next segment of the day would be to get cleaned up and make sure their barracks rooms were ready for inspection. Once the room inspection was completed, the class would run to a classroom for several periods of instruction.

During this period of several hours, the trainees would focus only on the class being taught. After the classes were completed, the trainees would be directed to the obstacle course for a "timed run," which many trainees found quite challenging and stressful due to the rather severe consequences if they failed to meet the time requirements. Because of the serious consequences, some of the BUD/S trainees allow themselves to dwell on this event during earlier portions of the day, and as a result lose focus during the preceding training evolutions, which could cause them to fail an evaluation or otherwise incur the wrath of the instructors. In some instances they would become so anxious and nervous about the timed run of the obstacle course, that their energy and concentration would be greatly diminished by the time they actually ran the course. The consequence of this energy-draining worry was poor performance during the graded evolution.

By focusing solely on each segment of the day at a time, successful BUD/S trainees avoided focusing on the rather dreadful fact that they had many long months of exceptionally difficult training ahead. They segmented the grueling six-month course into months, weeks, days, and then each day into several "chunks" of time and they focused on successfully completing them one at a time.

Goal setting and segmentation are time-tested techniques that you should consider utilizing as you strive to achieve excellence.

Arousal Control

When a person is exposed to stressful situations that trigger the human stress response, his or her brain will automatically initiate a chemical reaction that will produce almost immediate effects on certain bodily functions and a range of emotions.

This arousal response is a perfectly normal and predictable reaction by human beings, but it can also have a negative impact on a person's critical thinking, decision making, and fine motor skills.

For special operators, allowing themselves to become negatively affected by emotions such as anger, fear or anxiety is not conducive to combat effectiveness. One of the methods used by special operators is a controlled breathing technique called the 4x4 breathing. It consists of slowly breathing in to the count of 4 and then exhaling slowly through the mouth, again to the count of 4. If you repeat this cycle for at least four minutes, you'll find that your heart rate will slow down and any nervousness or anxiety that you may be experiencing will begin to lessen.


Visualization is a technique that has been used by high-level athletes for many years, and, to varying degrees, most SOF units have gradually adopted and increased its use over the past decade or so.

The way this technique works is to visualize a scenario that may occur during a combat operation. The special operator tries to predict how they will react to various elements; what tactics or actions they will need to employ given certain changes or unforeseen events. Not only do they visualize what they see, but also what they might feel, hear, or even smell.

Through repetition of this exercise, the operator will be able to develop a plan of action for the various scenarios that may present themselves. In this way, when an operator actually faces the situation, though it may be the first time he is physically engaged in it, in his mind he has already gone over it numerous times. This state of readiness in his mind serves to preempt the stress responses that would arise otherwise.

Positive Self-Talk

The knowledge of the importance of positive self-talk has long been of interest to psychologists. It is widely known that it can have a positive impact on a person as they undergo periods of great stress or anxiety; or when they are engaged in the pursuit of a significant and highly desired personal or professional goal, objective, prize, achievement, or form of recognition. For individuals attempting to develop a strong, confident, and resilient mindset, positive self-talk is a critical technique to engage in.

Reflect upon the "conversations" you've had with yourself prior to some difficult task or challenge and you will probably realize that your performance was directly affected, positively or negatively, by your state of mind and what you were thinking.


The grim reality of warfare means that special operators will inevitably experience various types of emotions. These men are taught to expect casualties within their units once actual combat begins and seeing comrades, some of whom are close personal friends, seriously wounded or killed can produce various reactions such as sadness, anger, and, of course, fear.

The mission must come first, and emotions have to take a back seat until the time is right. During combat operations, special operators must temporarily suspend their natural reactions to fear and the death and destruction that may be going on around them. They learn to suppress normal human responses to extreme stress during the actual fight, knowing that they'll be able to address their emotions, the loss of friends, and other trauma at a later time, when it is safe to do so.

If you experience a setback, you must be able to shake it off and remain focused on your goals.

Contingency Planning

Another technique used to minimize an individual's response to fear or stress is contingency planning. This technique is closely aligned with visualization. In preparation for upcoming missions, special operators will, if they have enough time to do so, dissect the entire operation from start to finish. They will discuss what the plan is, as well as all alternate actions that will be taken if, for various reasons, the plan becomes untenable and rapid adjustments need to be made in order to achieve success.

All special operators know that the likelihood of battle plans going off without a hitch is rare. Admitting this prior to execution in combat has a very specific advantage. This awareness will allow them to individually and collectively prepare for what may happen at various stages of the operation, and prepare a viable plan of action. This enables units and individual operators to adjust the battle plan, with little or no hesitation, during critical phases of an operation when lives are at stake and momentum must be maintained.

Thinking about what can happen during an event, and knowing that you have already thought about what actions you will take is a very powerful confidence builder. This confidence also enables rapid reaction to an obstacle or setback, which in turn enables you to avoid your body's normal response to stressors. Simply put, it's net about what happens during an important event or graded evolution it's what you do in response to what happens that counts. Engaging in contingency planning is a superb way to enhance your chances of success in all aspects of your life!

Focus and Concentration

Because of the dangerous nature and the high-stress, high-risk environments in which special operations take place, a great amount of focus and concentration from each individual involved is required. Operators must therefore train and work very hard to sharpen their concentration and ability to focus during exercises and real-world operations.

Distractions of various types are the main impediment to proper focus and concentration. Over time, you can develop specific and tailored routines to help you avoid being distracted during situations where the need for intense focus and concentration is high.

Rapid Response Technique

The "fog of war" is the chaos that occurs during battles in combat. Regardless of how well developed a battle plan may be, it is inevitable that there will be unforeseen events that can derail it. To deal with the setback and deviations of a plan, special operators revert to a modified version of The Seven Pillar Technique known as the Rapid Response Technique.

When you experience a setback under stressful circumstances, follow this seven-point Rapid Response Technique to control your emotions, orient yourself, decide on the actions to take , and then reassess until the mission is accomplished:

  1. Arousal control.
  2. Self-Talk.
  3. Assess the situation relative to any threat to: Your personal safety and survival, and that of your teammates. Accomplishing the mission.
  4. Consider appropriate courses of action and responses.
  5. Take action.
  6. Assess.
  7. Repeat this cycle until the mission is accomplished or the situation is resolved.

Developing Confidence

Self-confidence is a quality that lies at the very heart of this book, and is definitely one that you will want to strive to increase as you pursue a goal or objective.

Confidence is the cornerstone of the mental toughness that members of special operations units are famous for and exhibit on a daily basis during training and combat operations. It has been proven many times over that a high-level of confidence enables special operators to establish high goals and to persevere while achieving them.

In his book Unbeatable Mind, author and retired Navy SEAL Mark Divine said:

The self-confidence of a SEAL is both a character trait and a skill. The skill is to rack up small, worthy, and achievable victories on the way to mission accomplishment. In addition, it requires being able to reframe failures to find a silver lining. With these two skills, you will have the self-confidence to attack any challenge, and your confidence in your domain of expertise will grow as your success grows.

In my experience, if there's one trait that Navy SEALs and members of other SOF units embody, it is self-confidence and this, of course, is at the core of how these men develop and maintain a high-level of mental toughness.

The way you carry yourself will often be the determining factor on whether you succeed or fail to attain an objective. When you demonstrate control of yourself, your emotions, and the situation, those around you will recognize you as a leader and will be willing to follow you. SOF operators are normally recognizable by an aura of quiet confidence that is undeniable. Their steady, resolute demeanor inspires trust and confidence to anyone around them.

A lack of self-confidence can be evidenced by the need of constant praise or approval. This constant craving for praise will become an obstacle that will stand in the way of anyone seeking to reach a high level of achievement. A candidate won’t make it through a SOF selection course, nor will they last long in a special operations unit if they need any form of approval from their instructors, peers, or superiors.

Setting Goals

A research study conducted by Dr. David Kohl, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, revealed that 80% of Americans don't have goals. Sixteen percent do have goals, but fail to record them in some way so they can be reviewed and their progress assessed. Three percent do have a written list of goals, but they don't review them on a regular basis. Only one percent, the highest achievers, establish clearly defined goals, write them down and review them on an on-going basis.

In the book Mind Gym: An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence, sports psychologist Gary Mack stated that:

Goal setting is a master skill for personal growth and peak performance. I can't stress this too much. Without goals, where will you go in life? If you don't know where you are headed, you're probably going to wind up somewhere other than where you want to be... I encourage athletes to set daily or short-term goals. The way to achieve long-term goals is to break them down into small steps. Effective goal setting is like a staircase. Each step is an action step—an increment of progress. The old saying is “Inch by inch it’s a cinch.”

As you forge ahead on your journey toward self-improvement and enhancing mental toughness, you will see that everything that you wish to accomplish hinges upon your ability to effectively establish and plan out your goals. Every major accomplishment is the product of a carefully charted vision. In order to reach your ultimate objective, you must learn how to structure your plan of attack so that your vision will be realized.

A highly experienced Navy SEAL leader shared his thoughts on goal setting:

During BUD/S, students learn to “chunk” each mission into manageable goals. For instance, your aim could be to survive to lunchtime. Once you do that, you pat yourself on the back, refocus, and set the next goal: Make it to dinner. SEALs also apply the principle of chunking to tactical planning and basically any tasks they are assigned by evaluating if they are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. This approach can apply to any goal, whether it involves fitness, relationships, or work. Eventually, goal setting becomes second-nature. You're constantly seeking ways to improve every aspect of your performance.

Rather than focusing your efforts blindly trekking toward a vague, overly broad goal or objective, you should take the time to clearly and succinctly define your goals. It is important that you write out exactly what it is that you wish to accomplish. Keep in mind that specific goals can be part of a larger plan or objective. In order for a goal to fit into the "specific" category, you can ask the following questions, and if you can answer each of them easily, then you have a good level of specificity:

  • What is it that I want to accomplish?
  • When does it need to happen?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • Where do I need to be physically in order to make it happen?
  • How can I make this happen?
  • Why is it necessary?

Take Action

If you study high-achievers, in any aspect of life, you'll find that their approach to achieving significant and challenging goals typically revolves around a belief that says: "I can do this if I am willing to pay the price." Author Scott Adams says the same thing in his book titled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big:

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard goes something like this: If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it. It sounds trivial and obvious, but if you unpack the idea it has extraordinary power. I know a lot of people who wish they were rich or famous or otherwise fabulous. They wish they had yachts and servants and castles and they wish they could travel the world in their own private jets. But these are mere wishes. Few of these wishful people have decided to have any of the things they wish for. It's a key difference, for once you decide, you take action. Wishing starts in the mind and generally stays there. When you decide to be successful in a big way, it means you acknowledge the price and you're willing to pay it.

Reflect for a moment on what you've just read and how it applies to you.

  • What do YOU want?
  • Do you believe you can have it?
  • What price will you need to pay?
  • And most importantly, are you willing to pay it?

Putting It All Together

All the concepts presented in this book will aid you in increasing your levels of mental toughness and self-confidence. The changes you will experience once you've put them into practice will be noticeable not only to you, but to everyone around you.

This newly gained level of confidence will manifest in various ways: The self-assured way you carry yourself, how eloquently you speak, and your overall positive and enthusiastic demeanor.

One thing is certain. Putting these elements into effect can monumentally enhance your efficiency and catapult you to new heights of achievement!

For more, I highly encourage you to order Special Operations Mental Toughness: The Invincible Mindset of Delta Force Operators, Navy SEALs, & Army Rangers and read the entire book yourself.

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer turned founder and investor. He's led design work at Apple and Square. He is an early investor in Notion,, and Good Eggs. He's also the founder of Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Apr 28, 2024

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