Ask Stew: How to Make Quitting a Learning Experience

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U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training.
U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, Jan. 23, 2018. (Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/U.S. Navy photo)

Attempting a challenging selection course like Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training takes everything you have to make it. You will be challenged physically and mentally when the days turn dark, cold, wet and sandy with near constant negative feedback being hurled at you by instructors. What do you do? Is your why big enough? Did you prepare your body well enough? You need more than just being able to meet the physical standards. You need a very strong why.

Here is an email from a young petty officer whose Navy career did not go as planned.

Hey Stew, I know you like to use the #neverquit and sign your books with “Never Quit” on them, but I did quit. I feel like I failed and have no motivation to train anymore. Any advice? I would really like to get out of this funk and get motivated to do something again. Signed BUD/S Dud.

First of all, you have to get over it and realize it happens. Seventy-five percent to 80% of people do not make it through Navy SEAL training, because they either quit, failed to meet the standards, were injured or did something stupid and were kicked out. But you cannot think of this as a failure. In my opinion, there are only successes and learning experiences. No failures.

So what did you learn?

Did you learn what your strengths and weaknesses are?

Did you learn you were not physically prepared? Too many weaknesses?

Did you learn you want to go back again and try harder with your preparation?

Did you learn that this Special Warfare job is not for you?

Did you learn you need to work on your mental toughness?

Did you learn the Pacific Ocean is much colder than anything you have ever felt?

Did you learn that being uncomfortable all day long is something you have to get used to? 

Did you learn that running in soft sand is a butt kicker?

Did you learn that load-bearing training is real? Did boats and logs crush you?

Did you learn you did not prepare yourself to get through the training?

My advice is to look deep and discover why you quit. What was the moment, or was it a culmination of events that snowballed? Most of the time, when people quit, they hit that moment of being physically exhausted with very little optimistic foresight to suck it up -- and fail to see that this moment will end. This requires a strong why. Why do you want to do this? You need to find that out. Then come to terms with it and say, “I quit because I was not prepared.” “I quit because I could not handle the cold.” “I quit because I realized being a SEAL was not for me.”

The world would rather hear you say what you did and not make excuses of why things did not go your way.

The fact that you even attempted something so challenging says a lot about you. Don’t let that drive to succeed at a goal die with this “learning experience.” We all have something in our life that we quit, failed or regret. You cannot live in the past, and you have to drive on today and tomorrow with a new goal and work even harder this next time to achieve it. Man up -- recognize you made a decision, live with it and grow stronger from it.

I have BUD/S classmates who did not make it through training as well, and many stayed in the Navy longer than I did and made master chief and admiral even. Some became pilots after getting their college degree. Some joined the Army and became Army Special Forces. You can let this one event rule your life and forever be a quitter, or you can say, “I am never going to feel like this again and I will succeed and never quit [again]."

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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