How Navy SEALs Grow During Times of Adversity

SEAL candidates perform physical training on the beach during BUD/S training.
SEAL candidates perform physical training on the beach during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training at Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Center in Coronado, California, May 4, 2020. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anthony Walker/U.S. Navy photo)

Teammates, with all this talk about tough times, I want to discuss the benefits of adversity with you. Huh? Adversity and benefits -- since when do those two words coexist?

Hear me out ... When I use the word adversity, I define it as an overwhelming challenge or a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. It's a wall so thick that you have no idea how you're going to get through it, over it, under it or around it. For most, adversity is not a welcome word, and why should it be? After all, humans are wired to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, and adversity is directly associated with pain.

It's no wonder when folks hear about adversity that their first instinct is to avoid it. It's a totally natural and completely understandable reaction, but here's the rub. There's a silver lining to adversity that is critical to know. It's the confidence you gain from overcoming it that can't be earned any other way.

This confidence is the cornerstone of your attitude, it's the engine of your persistence and it stokes your ability to dream bigger dreams, which, in turn -- and paradoxically -- puts you on a path to encounter greater adversity.

In the world of SEAL team training, candidates are tested daily with all types of physical and mental adversity, such as enduring a four-mile timed run, only to find out (as you're puking at the finish line) that it's actually a 10-mile run. Perhaps the most well-known military training adversity is SEAL training's Hell Week, where three shifts of SEAL instructors dish out around-the-clock mental and physical punishment while depriving you of all but three hours of sleep (total) over five days.

It should come as no surprise that a dramatic number of candidates quit during Hell Week. However, those making it through Hell Week, which is actually early in SEAL training (week six of 35 weeks when I went through), are different. They have a swagger about them, a "bring it on" attitude.

That is exactly the attitude the SEAL instructors want to develop. It becomes the foundation for creating a special breed of warrior, and it only can come from experiencing and overcoming an adversity as intense as Hell Week. My point is that you can't learn the confidence adversity teaches you in a classroom or from a book. You can't fake it. You learn it from experience. There's no shortcut, period.

Six weeks before I started Hell Week I was getting to know my classmates. One classmate -- let's call him Schmuckatelli -- was boasting about how he was going to "smoke" Hell Week, because for the last two years, he had been taking cold showers (I'm not kidding). Hell Week is about being cold; therefore, he proclaimed he was more than ready for it. Well, Schmuckatelli didn't even make it to Hell Week. He quit three weeks into training.

You are only as strong (mentally and physically) as the adversity you have overcome. In the SEALs, we live by this correlation. It's our secret weapon to success, which is why we used to lose more SEALs in training than in war. Recent events unfortunately have reversed this statistic -- and it's not that we're proud to admit we lose teammates in training - but rather it's our willingness to embrace adversity with the knowledge that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has so succinctly summed up: "that which does not kill us makes us stronger."

Nietzsche's statement is a window into SEAL confidence that has been built through their personal experience of overcoming the adversity of Hell Week. And it only gets stronger as the candidates are tested with more challenging adversities, and by the way, it's what makes SEALs so exceptional at what they do.

So what's this all mean to you? Simply this: Adversity and the struggles and hardships that come with it make you stronger. They will empower you to get what you want out of life. If it were easy, everyone would do it, but you're not just anyone. You're on a mission;  a mission after your dreams, your goals; a mission to maximize your life.

So the next time adversity comes knocking, welcome it and then knock it back with a vengeance of persistent action so overwhelming that any future adversities that come along no longer are considered adversities. They're treated as opportunities to excel. This, my teammates, is the advantage of adversity.

Go challenge yourself.


Alden Mills, creator of the Perfect Pushup, is CEO of Perfect Fitness. Mills went to the Navy Academy, where he went on to become a Navy SEAL. After retiring in 2000, he earned his MBA at Carnegie Mellon. His ultimate mission is to inspire everyone to pursue their own dreams. For more from Mills, check out

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