Two hundred young men were gathered and ready to start the journey of a lifetime, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, aka “BUD/S,” in Coronado, California. Six months of training boasting a 70% attrition rate. You read that correctly. Seven out of 10 who attempt the training quit.
Even with the competitive nature of military units in the United States and around the globe, BUD/S is considered the most difficult military training in the world. I quickly learned this was not hype as after four short weeks of training, we were down to 10 men. My BUD/S training group, class 193, lost far more men than the average group.
Did the 190 participants who quit in that short time come in unprepared? No, the physical prowess of everyone who participated was clear immediately. Hundreds of pushups, pullups, sit-ups, and flutter kicks were performed with little effort daily. Miles and miles of running and swimming everyday was the norm.
No, these were among the most physically fit men in the world.
Mentally, everyone was confident in their ability to be among those who would complete the grueling training and achieve their dream of becoming a Navy SEAL. So, what separated one man from the other? This is a question that has still not been fully answered.
At every stage of life people are searching for their edge. That “something” that separates us from the pack. But how do we find it? Exactly how do we separate ourselves and achieve excellence?
The short answer is different for everyone. That “separation” towards the excellence we seek can come in many forms: physical, mental, emotional, professional, personal, social, etc.
What I experienced during BUD/S class 193 was no exception: The first test at BUD/S that concerned me was the 50-meter underwater swim. It is not an impossible task, but one that takes work and concentration. I’ll never forget one of my classmates would vomit on the way to the pool every time we headed there to practice.
I never successfully completed the underwater swim during the practice sessions. When it was time to take the test, I had two options: Pass and continue on with training, or fail and pack my bags.
I can remember my mind racing. Why would today, test day, be different than all the practice sessions I failed? I’ll never forget the feeling of peace and calm that came over me when I made my faithful decision about how I would approach the test.
“I’m not coming up for air no matter what. If I pass out underwater, so be it; I trust the instructors will do their job and save me. So that’s it then. I’m just not going to come up for air until the end of the 50 meters.”
I had found my edge. I easily completed the test and recalled wondering afterwards why I had made such a big deal of it. But then came Hell Week, the hardest week of the hardest military training in the world. Constant motion and limited sleep for five days. (For context, the instructors told my class at the completion of Hell Week that we had about three hours of sleep. Not three hours a night. Three hours total.)
As the remaining men gathered to start the week, I was contemplating alone in my room. My fear was that I would become delirious from sleep deprivation and unknowingly or unconsciously quit. I had visions of myself waking up in a warm bed and not remembering quitting the night before.
I had doubts.
It was well established that self-doubt was the kiss of death at BUD/S, especially going into Hell Week. About 10 minutes before I had to join my classmates, it came to me. I was an officer in the United States Navy. I was the leader of the group of men about to undergo the challenge of their lives.
“Stop thinking about yourself!” I silently screamed to myself. “The second you feel afraid or full of doubt during the training, that means someone else is feeling the same way. Find that person and help them! Lead them! Stop focusing on yourself. Focus on leading the men!”
And that was it for me. Once again, I had found my edge and it led me to become one of the remaining 10 to compete Hell Week.
There is not one specific answer for finding the edge you have been searching for, except for this: You must search. You must search, reflect, search again and reflect some more.
Whatever that edge is you need to take you to your next level of excellence will be personal regardless of the endeavor. And trust me, it will not come easy. The search is what separates special people from everyone else.
Your edge does not have to come from something daunting like completing BUD/S training. This is just an example. Your edge can be something simple like being more patient, showing more kindness, becoming a better listener, whatever is most important to you at this stage of your life.
It is your search for your edge that will separate the next-level you from the current you. Now go find it.
Errol Doebler is a former Navy SEAL platoon commander, FBI terrorism investigator and founder of leadership consulting firm Ice Cold Leader. He can be contacted at Hello@icecoldleader.com.