Cold weather has dominated the news recently, as frigid temperatures have gripped much of the nation. Locally, our newspaper ran a feature on Nebraska’s coldest December on record, the December of 1983. For several consecutive days thirty years ago, the temperature failed to break zero degrees, as the snow piled up. I remember it well, because I lived smack dab in the middle of the state in small town called Loup City, and I had a paper route.
When the weather was nice, the 40-some stops on my paper route took about an hour, despite our inefficient delivery method. Instead of tossing a bagged newspaper from a car window into a driveway, we carried the newspaper to the door, usually carefully placing it between the screen and main doors. In this way, our customers were spared the discomfort of wandering out into the elements to retrieve their news.
There was no discomfort spared on Loup City’s newspaper carriers in 1983. The deep snow kept us off our bicycles, and the barricade-like drifts made it nearly impossible to navigate the streets and sidewalks with our newspaper bags slung over our shoulders. I strapped my bag to a sled that I pulled behind me. Though the sled made my downhill trips much more enjoyable, it was drudgery, and what usually took about an hour now stretched to nearly two and a half hours. It was dark before I got home and started to thaw.
I’ve always felt pretty smug about my toughness, but I’m not even in the same ballpark as Marcus Luttrell and his fellow Navy SEALs. Luttrell’s experiences as an aspiring SEAL and in combat as a SEAL were chronicled in a book he co-authored, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.” That book became a New York Times bestseller, and served as the basis of a movie released just this month, “Lone Survivor.”
SEALs are trained and constantly tested for toughness. The Navy selects only the most elite and dedicated sailors for SEAL training, and few of those have what it takes to pass the rigorous physical and mental training. SEAL trainees are subject to intense discomfort for several consecutive weeks, as their trainers keep them cold, wet and sleep-deprived throughout much of the training. To simulate the psychological challenges of combat, they constantly test the trainees’ mental toughness. After hours of grueling drills in the cold ocean, on very little sleep, the trainees are allowed a warm shower, but then trotted right back into the ocean and told to roll around in the sand. The training is so intense that it is monitored by physicians to ensure that the trainees’ bodies don’t shut down under the extreme temperatures and fatigue. Only the most physically fit can withstand such punishment.
A bell is present throughout the most intense physical training, and trainees are reminded that a warm shower, food and sleep are immediately available to them if they want to ring the bell, signifying their decision to quit. Even after the careful selection process, 75-80% of SEAL trainees quit or fail each year. In Luttrell’s class, only 32 of the nearly 180 who started completed the full year of training.
After fulfilling his dream of becoming a SEAL, Luttrell was sent into combat situations where the skills and expertise of a SEAL were needed. One such mission was Operation Red Wings, the mission upon which the book and movie were based. After an intense firefight with the Taliban, Luttrell was the lone survivor of his team of four. Badly wounded with a broken back and other injuries, and fading in and out of consciousness, Luttrell relied on the mental toughness he learned through SEAL training to survive for four more days, until special forces teams were able to recover him. During that time, because his body was so badly wounded, he had to be especially mentally strong to avoid capture by an enemy who was actively hunting him.
Without extreme efforts to develop extreme toughness, he likely wouldn’t have survived, and this is precisely why SEALs are trained in the manner I described. Because he knew how to cope with almost incomprehensible adversity, Luttrell was able to maintain his composure and give himself a chance at survival.
How mentally tough are you? Do you ring the bell and quit when things get tough? I believe that most of us aren’t very tough, and we know it. If you are among that group, don’t despair; toughness can be learned, and you don’t have to go through SEAL training to do it.
Start by identifying situations in which you are tempted to quit. Your New Year’s resolution might be a place to look. Identify the discomfort that you are trying to avoid, and remind yourself why it is important to persevere in the face of that discomfort. Then, devise a strategy for overcoming the urge to quit when faced with discomfort. Once you train your brain to treat discomfort and adversity as temporary obstacles that must be overcome, instead of avoided, you’ll start to develop the mental toughness necessary to reach your goals.