I was slouched over a stack of pancakes in the BUD/S chow hall, quietly experiencing the thousands of microabrasions that come with 48 hours of being wet and sandy. It was Tuesday night of Hell Week, and it was the first time the pain of it all had really settled in. It was the burning that was getting to me, as if the tiny nerve endings in my skin had started an orchestra to which my internal organs had decided to join.
“Hey, what are you doing?” asked another student, whom I can only remember as a dream-like figure.
“Oh, I was just thinking about wearing my T-shirt this weekend when I’m with my kids. I think I’m going to get a tank top.”
“Nice. Well, you better stand up before you drown in your plate,” the shadowy student said as I came back to, jumped up, headed out to the boats that we carried everywhere on our heads, and got myself ready for the next evolution.
When you complete Hell Week, there are two significant events that take place having to do with T-shirts:
- You become a “brown shirt,” which means that you no longer wear a white T-shirt under your uniform and, instead, wear a brown one. In SEAL training, that’s how you can distinguish those who’ve made it through Hell Week.
- You have an unofficial permission of sorts to wear a “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday/SEAL Training” T-shirt that you can pick up at a place called Bullshirt in Coronado, California.
It was the latter shirt that I had thought about for over five years. It meant that you could officially be recognized as a SEAL trainee. When I got home after Hell Week, I’d no longer just be Eric rolling around with my kids, but something that began to resemble a full-on Navy SEAL. And part of the reason I got through the remainder of Hell Week was not because I wanted to wear that shirt, but because I already envisioned myself in it.
In over 15 years of training people at both the top and bottom of their game, I’ve found that there are two ways to experience any challenge in life:
- Feel the pain, and use self-regulation and discipline to muscle through it—the most common method.
- Use what I call “paradise from the pain,” which means that instead of living in the moment of pain and discomfort, you choose to live in the moment that comes after the pain—the moment when the payoff comes.
Visualizing what life will look and feel like after you do something is a powerful experience. It allows you to be the person you want to be, who is able to do the things you need to do. As Lanny Bassham, Olympic gold medalist, had every sniper instructor saying by the time he was done teaching us about mental management and visualization techniques, “It’s like me to hit my target.” In other words, you need to see it to be it.
Whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach, student, or just some dude who wants to ask out the waitress at the local pizzeria, visualization makes it so the first time you physically do something isn’t really the first time. That’s because our brains experience the visualization (if we do it right—more on that in part two) and the physical act itself as one and the same.
It was no wonder that when I put on my “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday” shirt, it was like slipping into familiar clothing. As far as my brain was concerned, I had already worn it many times before.
- When have you enjoyed something challenging or painful by living in its future?
- How would you coach someone else to experience “paradise from the pain?”
Eric’s new book, “Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALs Learned From their Training and Taught to their Sons (St. Martin’s Press),” will be available on May 3, 2016. To pre-order a copy, visit: