Losers Focus On Circumstances, Winners Focus On The Process


Navy SEALs during “Hell Week,” which I’m sure is exactly as fun as it sounds. That water is frigid. Photo by slagheap

“The temperature seemed to grow colder as we jogged around in the freezing surf. And finally they called us out and the whistles blew again. We all dived back onto the sand. Crawling, itching, and burning. Five guys quit instantly and were sent up to the truck. I didn’t understand any of that, because we had done this before. It was bad, but not that bad, for chris’sakes. I guess those guys were just thinking ahead, dreading the forthcoming five days of Hell Week, the precise way Captain Maguire had told us not to.”

– Marcus Luttrell, The Lone Survivor of Operation Red Wings

No matter what you try to do in life, something will go wrong. Resistance will come. The difficulty will rise to uncomfortable levels.

For Marcus Luttrell, the hardest military training program in the world (Navy Seal BUD/s training) was actually a cakewalk compared to what he’d experience five years later in Afghanistan. Still, it prepared his mind to focus on the process of surviving in a situation where so many of us would succumb to dire circumstances.

People think of Navy SEALs as being very physically fit. That’s true, but it isn’t the determining factor for becoming a SEAL. A training officer told Marcus that the grueling SEAL training wasn’t a test of physicality, but a test of the mind. The mind is the one to give in first.

I read Marcus’s story, Lone Survivor, in two days. I couldn’t put the book down. Seriously. I stayed up past 6 AM. It was a riveting story of the brutality and horror of war, but also a story of courage with powerful life lessons. One lesson stuck with me. 

Most people read a book like this for the story, and I did too, but I also went into it with a strong personal development curiosity: what is it that separates Navy SEALs from the rest of us? And why is it that most of the men who attempt Navy SEAL BUD/s training quit?

It comes down to whether you think of the circumstances or the process. Navy SEALs are special because they keep their mind on the process even in hell-on-earth situations. They’re also handy with weaponry and stealth. 🙂

Losers Focus On Circumstances

I don’t mean “loser” in a derogatory sense, but as one who is chronically unsuccessful at reaching their goals; people who habitually lose the battle to better themselves.

I guess those guys were just thinking ahead, dreading the forthcoming five days of Hell Week, the precise way Captain Maguire had told us not to.”

– Marcus Luttrell

“Circumstantial thinking” is a little bit vague. We all perceive and react to circumstances in life. But that’s different from focusing on circumstances, which is overanalyzing your situation and environment. It’s a repetitive mindset. 

Instead of understanding “I’m tired” one time and moving on, a circumstantial thinker will loop this thought repeatedly, focusing intently on the tiredness. All of their actions will be driven by this circumstance: not in a proactive way, in a submissive way. 

Another way of saying this is that circumstantial thinkers are drawn to problems more than solutions. They’re drawn to passive living instead of active pursuance of their goals. The great news, however, is that anyone who currently lives life this way can change.

Winners Focus On The Process

If you want to have more success in any area of your life, focus on the process.

Everything has a process: getting a job, getting in shape, and surviving a battle in Afghanistan when you’re outnumbered 35-to-1 (it was that lopsided for Marcus’s team of four).

Imagine this: You’re with three other soldiers, and 100+ enemy troops descend upon you. Not only do they outnumber you, but they have the high ground and are flanking you on both sides. You battle as best you can, but all your comrades are killed around you. You tumble back down the mountain several times, sustain many painful injuries, and a rocket-propelled grenade hits next to you, shredding your leg with shrapnel and sending you further down the mountain.

This was Marcus Luttrell’s situation. What sets him apart as a SEAL is that while you can bet that he noticed everything, he kept going back to “what’s next?” That’s what a SEAL’s brutal training does: it teaches them that no matter how hard it gets and bleak it looks, your best bet is to keep your mind focused on the very next step.

So many men quit BUD/s training because they stop thinking about what they need to do next, and start thinking about how sore and tired they are. Or they’ll do as the quote above says and look ahead to the next few days of misery. Circumstantial thinking isn’t just focusing on present circumstances: it often takes your mind to the future. Imagine if you were a badly-injured Marcus and you thought about what the next few days would be like. You’d want to die.

But Marcus survived because he focused on the process of survival. He prioritized his needs and gave himself missions. His key mission in the aftermath of battle: find water. He was severely dehydrated. This focus on the process of finding water required him to think about the landscape, and where water would most likely be. It took his mind away from his problems, which were being alone and critically injured in an enemy territory with enemy troops still pursuing him.

How The Process Can Overcome Poor Circumstances

The message is that when you focus on a process and commit to see it through, it can take you through lousy circumstances better than anything else. When your alarm goes off, you know you’re supposed to work out this morning, but you’re so tired.

  • The circumstantial thinker: “Oh, why did I agree to work out this morning. I feel exhausted; one more day of rest might be a good idea. My muscles ache. My eyes can barely open, and yet I’m supposed to lift weights today? I don’t see how I can do it. I might stay in bed for a few more minutes.” *sleeps*
  • The procedural thinker: *grunting sounds* “I’ll just roll my body off the side of the bed.” *plop* “Urrrgh, good. Now I need to walk or crawl to my alarm clock (which is not next to the bed in snooze range!).”

See the difference? The procedural thinker isn’t focused on exercise yet because that’s not where the process begins.

It’s not that the procedural thinker doesn’t hear the circumstantial sob story running through his head. It’s saying, “That’s interesting, but I’m still going to start the process and see what happens.” Once you’re at the gym (or wherever your goal is) and get started, you’ll be surprised at the inaccuracy of the circumstantial thinker’s story. It almost always is.

Focus on the process and you’ll be able to change your circumstances.

The subscriber-only message on 6/10/14 expands upon this post! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest. 

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