‘If you know the way broadly,’ 17th century samurai Miyamoto Musashi once wrote, ‘you will see it in everything.’ Learn the discipline to become history’s greatest swordfighter, for instance – which Musashi did – and you’ll also be able to apply that mastery to calligraphy, or the Japanese tea ceremony. Cultivate the mindset of a master strategist, and you’ll be a natural at everything from startups to flower arranging.
This, of course, isn’t news to anyone who’s made it into the ranks of the world’s special forces – and it’s the reason so many of them succeed in civilian life. It’s also why so many veterans are setting up courses aimed at business clients and CEOs, teaching them the lessons that military life imparts by force. But there’s more to the modern business bootcamp than a load of yelling and some team-building homilies – the best classes draw on a mixture of military lessons and up-to-the-minute neuroscience to make sure their lessons stick. In the US, ex-SEAL Jocko Willink’s brand of ‘Extreme Ownership’ has flash-banged the business world with its insistence that every manager, at every level, accepts responsibility for his department’s failures, however far-reaching.
On the other side of the pond, the field leaders are Break-Point, a company run by veterans of the British army’s infamous selection process. Founded by former SBS soldier Matt ‘Ollie’ Ollerton, Break-Point takes everyone from hedge fund managers to HR reps and aims to give them at least a glimpse of the mindset it takes to succeed as a soldier. Courses on offer include public speaking and operational planning, alongside more full-on experiences designed to mimic the experience of training with professionals or operating behind enemy lines. But if a crash-course in military tactics isn’t an option, Ollerton says, it’s still possible to embrace the Break-Point principles in your day-to-day. So, listen up! Here’s how it’s done...
‘People have an overactive short-term survival setting, so they spend their lives in their comfort zone’
1. Realise You Have The Power To Change
Wait a second: don’t you have to be in rare air to make it as a special forces soldier in the first place? Not exactly. 'A lot of people say, “This attitude can’t be taught, you have it or you don’t,”’ says Ollerton. 'But I don’t agree with that. You’re expected to already be at a certain level to apply for selection, but that’s because you have to take so much in, over a short timescale, to be successful. Anyone, whatever level they start at, can build a better attitude.’ Recent research bears this out: Angela Duckworth, psychologist and researcher, notes that ‘grit’, AKA the perseverance to chase long-term goals, is the key to success among enrollees at the famously tough West Point military academy, but she also notes that it’s a quality you can build, by regularly tackling challenges and sticking to your plans once they’re set.
2. Get Out Of Survival Mode
‘Doing things the hard way makes life easy,’ says Ollerton. ‘Trying to take the easy route gives you a hard life. When you look at how we’ve evolved, up until about 15,000 years ago we were hunting and being hunted for our whole lives. A lot of our evolution has been spent in survival mode. Our default setting is fear. People have an overactive short-term survival setting, and so they sit in their comfort zone because they’re mapped to that over anything else. The mind goes “You’ve survived doing what you’re doing, so let’s keep doing that.” But that isn’t productive in modern society. When I don’t want to do something, I go towards it.' This can start in the simplest of ways – Ollerton gets up at 5am every morning, both for productivity and discipline – but, he argues, it’ll transfer across to everything else.
‘I was in a vehicle doing about 140kph when four militiamen in a car decided to attack us’
3. Focus On Getting Through The Next Five Seconds
'Once you’re able to acknowledge emotions without getting overwhelmed, it’s about breaking things down logically,' says Ollerton. ‘It’s the only way to deal with situations that seem completely out of control – you slow the situation down and deal with it. What’s real, what demands to be dealt with, and what can be put to the side for now? This happened to me during an operation: I was in a vehicle, going at about 140kph an hour with one person in the back, when four militiamen in a car decided to attack us. Everything in your body’s saying “You can’t get out of this,” but you just have to slow the situation down and understand it. We fix it by asking people to talk about what’s in the metre square around them: what do you need to deal with to move forward? It’s similar to how you deal with interrogation: when things get really bad, think about getting through the next five seconds; getting through the next one second.’
4. Make The Mission Personal
‘You’ve got to understand that sometimes you are going to get it wrong, and that the consequences might be devastating,’ says Ollerton. 'That’s why you need a clear, defined objective. You can’t predict what the competition are going to do.’ So, rather than be reactive you have to stay on target. 'I’ve got a lot of missions. We’re creative beings, so it’s important to paint a picture of what we want to achieve. Saying I want a million pounds in the bank is so clinical and cold: for me, what gets me motivated is saying, “I want the top training company in the world.”’
5. Make Like A Samurai And Channel Kaizen
Ultimately, the most important thing for Ollerton and his team is to get better every day – the process known in Japan as ‘Kaizen’, or making tiny, constant improvements. ‘You should be looking at a continuous improvement model. You should always be looking to better yourself,” says Ollerton. ‘Whether it’s losing weight or sending that extra email that might make the difference between getting the deal or not. Little things add up… but you’ve got to form your habits, you can’t just rely on motivation alone: it comes and goes, it’s not consistent. Motivation will get you so far, but you need habits and a mission and a plan.’ You heard the man – get to it!
WHAT NEXT? Decide to do one ‘hard’ thing a day: it could be getting up at 6am without hitting snooze, setting your shower to cold, or doing a max set of press-ups first thing in the morning. By doing it, you’ll build comfort being uncomfortable, and prepare yourself for bigger challenges.