Special Operations requires a certain mental attitude as highlighted by this article on NEWSREP. The article described the character traits which are often found in candidates who successfully complete Special Operations selection. The article points out how the character traits of Integrity, Teamwork, Persistence, and Love of Learning ranked high among the study participants who successfully completed the selection process.

These are character traits which I would agree play heavily in operating at the Special Operations level. My experience serving as a Reconnaissance Marine, completing the Basic Reconnaissance Course (BRC) and other follow-on schools, has highlighted an additional mental characteristic which can be learned that ensures success. To perform at the edge of physical and mental capabilities in dangerous situations, you must be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I have always enjoyed pushing the limits of my abilities growing up, joining the Marine Corps, and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is pride as well as important self-understanding taking your capabilities to your known edge. When I decided to make a lateral move into the Reconnaissance Community however, I was quickly overwhelmed by the unknown. I was pushed far beyond what I had ever pushed myself to do.

I first learned to become comfortable being uncomfortable during the dreaded pool work of BRC. Treading water with weights as a class in close proximity to each other and being instructed to touch the bottom of the 16-foot-deep pool at irregular intervals pushes you to a physical and mental limit. I began to realize when we all reached exhaustion and began to “fight the water,” we would struggle to breathe regularly and stay on the surface, only to receive the instruction to conduct a bottom sample and descend under the water. Descending under the water is the last thing that you want to do when you are struggling to breathe, but once you go under the water, you realize it is not as chaotic there as it is on the top — with limbs thrashing every which way and the whole class struggling to stay afloat. It is calm and almost serene. The brief moment while you descend and then resurface provides mental tranquility — as long as you are comfortable being uncomfortable — because you are holding your breath.

After several of these pool sessions, the class size had dwindled due to many of our classmates quitting. I understood those who were left in the course had realized, just as I had, that if we became comfortable with the idea of our own physical and mental discomfort, we were calmer and could more easily work together to accomplish the tasks we were assigned. The pool sessions still sucked horribly but we accepted that and we “embraced the suck.”

The idea of being comfortably uncomfortable continued to be relevant throughout the rest of BRC. I would be seven miles into a ruck run and my arms would be numb from the shoulder straps of my ruck. I had a choice. I could either focus on the discomfort and let it dictate my mood and maybe even convince myself to stop and make unnecessary adjustments, or I could be comfortable with the discomfort. Being comfortable with the discomfort meant not stopping to readjust because that would only slow my time and provide just a few minutes of comfort only to have the numbness return quickly. Instead, I focused on the task at hand, acknowledged the discomfort, and moved past it, choosing instead to focus on completing the goal.

Jumping out of an airplane for the first time (and every time since) is a very uncomfortable event. If you focus on that discomfort though, you may make a mistake which can impact your safety or that of your team. You must choose to acknowledge the discomfort and move past it, focusing instead on the training you have received which will keep you safe. Doing this, you will then find yourself being suspended by your parachute canopy high above the ground — which is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. If you do not become comfortable with your discomfort though, you will never take the kind of calculated risks which give you that experience.

Becoming comfortably uncomfortable can be practiced and learned. It requires pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone whenever possible in your own training. You must ensure you are doing so in a safe way to avoid injury and to really hone the skill. Safety will give you the confidence to step outside of your comfort zone. Regular application of this process will improve your ability. Once you are comfortably uncomfortable, you can set your mind on a goal and ignore all distractions, committing yourself to its accomplishment.