3 (short) notes from Jocko Podcast #55

In this episode Jocko Willink answered “questions from the interwebs” and there were 3 things that stuck out.

  1. Firm goals, flexible means.
  2. Margin of safety in battle and investments.
  3. Feel the real winds (get out of the C-suite).

1/ Firm goals, flexible means.

Jocko calls this “commander’s intent” and it’s the big idea that has to get done.

If you want to be healthy (goal), it doesn’t matter that much if you run, lift gym weights, life home weights, lift body weights or do jiu jitsu (means). If you want to be wise (goal), it doesn’t matter if you listen to podcast, audiobooks, take college course, enroll in MOOCs, or read physical books (means).

In fact, it’s better if you are flexible in the means because they will change.

Jocko, for example, now has his own line of tea. Not what you expect from a former Navy SEAL. He also runs events, wrote a book, has a podcast, created merchandise, and released an album. Those are all means and Jocko has done these things because they lead to the goal — help people.

In Grit, a book about how people successfully achieve things, Angela Duckworth writes;

“Ideally, even if you’re discontinuing one activity and choosing different lower-order goals, you’re still holding fast to your ultimate concern.”

Duckworth’s research suggests many successful people hold firm to a few big goals and less so many smaller ones.

2/ Margin of safety.

A listener writes in that he was driving home with his wife and kid in the car when a drunkard stepped out in front of him. This imbiber commenced to hoot and holler at the car. After a minute of this, the driver went around the disorderly mess. He wanted to know if he did the right thing, if he was teaching his son the wrong lessons in not standing up to the drunk.

Yes, Jocko says, you did the right thing.

Here’s an incomplete list of the things that can have gone wrong if the driver stepped out of his car; the drunk has a knife, or a gun. He’s homeless or sickly and a two hit fight kills him, the driver is charged with manslaughter, he hires a lawyer, he pays for legal fees he borrows money, he’s ultimately cleared, he’s in debt.

To engage in a street fight you need a margin of safety. There should be very clear and high reward before you engage. Defending your family for example. This payoff needs to be clear and high because a lot of crazy shit can happen in a street fight.

The same idea applies to investing. A street fight won’t be clean choreography (like in the movies), and an investment won’t just go up and to the right no matter what you hear on TV.

“A margin of safety is achieved when securities are purchased at prices sufficiently below underlying value to allow for human error, bad luck, or extreme volatility in a complex, unpredictable, and rapidly changing world.” Seth Klarman

This idea applies at the collective level too. In With The Old Breed, author E.B. Sledge writes about battle of Peleliu and — with hindsight — the invasion comes off as a terrible idea. Did McArthur really need this island to secure his flank? Was it worth ten thousand American casualties?

Before you engage whether it’s a street fight, an investment, or a battle ask if 10% goes wrong is this still worth it? What about 50%?

3/ Leaders must feel the winds of the real world.

One of Jocko’s roles during his military career was Admiral’s Aide. It wasn’t his favorite job, but he learned to focus on the people on the ground. In planning meetings the admiral would ask, “how does this affect the guys in the field?”

The best leaders answer this question.

In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove repeated this idea;

  • “Our IT manager said, ‘Well, that guy is always the last to know.’ He, like most CEOs, is in the center of a fortified palace, and news from the outside has to percolate through layers of people from the periphery where the action is.”
  • “We need to expose ourselves to our customers…We need to expose ourselves to lower-level employees..We must invite comments even from people whose job is to constantly evaluate and critique us, such as journalists and members of the financial community.”
  • You have to spend more time with people who spend their time ‘outdoors,’ wrote Grove, “where the winds of the real world blow in their faces.”

Why do you do this? Jocko says it’s because the people in the field are the reason the people are in the meeting. If plumbers don’t plumb, salesmen don’t sell, or soldiers don’t soldier on, nothing else matters.

Being out there also gives information and builds a deep understanding. You can’t enter planning or high level meetings, says Jocko, and demand changes. No. “The way you get ready for it is that you have to have ammunition.” Jocko says, “You gotta have your ducks in a row.”

That means knowing what it’s like where the winds of the real world blow. You have to know your BATNA. You have to bring options to the table. You have to be able to answer the five whys. Being there helps you do these things.


If you liked this post, you’ll probably like my blog, The Waiter’s Pad where I take notes on all kinds of things, like other Jocko podcast episodes.