Four Habits of Discipline My SEAL Dad Taught Me

Apply these to help you in life

Sean Kernan
May 8 · 7 min read
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Source: Wikipemedia commons

I grew up with a SEAL dad. He graduated from Class 117 in 1983.

From there he was an active duty SEAL for 35 years. He was deployed for 50% of my life to war zones.

Now, my dad can be cool and laid back. I don’t want to convey the image that he’s this hard stomping jerk that made me do pushups at the front door before school every day. Not the case. But he could certainly be tough.

He commanded SEAL Team 6 and later rose to the rank of Vice-Admiral. He’s the current Undersecretary of Intelligence. He didn’t get there by coasting. The dude has work ethic. I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned from him over the years.

Enduring Work Ethic Stems From The Moment

I had an interesting conversation with him about Hell Week a few years back.

For those who don’t know — Hell Week is ridiculous. You wake up on a Sunday to gunfire. You then work out until Friday with no sleep. Hell Week is the bottleneck that breaks a lot of talented people. It’s where the top 20% are whittled down to the top 5%.

I remember him saying, “Tuesday morning was the worst.”

It was a bizarre response. Tuesday? Wouldn’t Thursday be the worst? Or Friday morning? Then he explained and it made total sense.

You wake up on a Sunday morning at ~2 AM to gunfire. You run around getting yelled at. You are doing pushups, carrying logs, rolling in the sand. This continues all day, then into the night.

As people are sleeping in their warm beds, you continue exercising, shivering, and getting shouted at.

Monday morning comes. The drills repeat from sun up to sun down with non-stop exercise and physical torture. Then, all through the night, you do it again.

Then, Tuesday morning rolls around. You’ve gone more than two full nights without sleep. You’ve endured intense stress, cold water, and difficult exertion the whole time. By Tuesday morning, you’re more tired than you’ve ever been in your entire life.

That’s when you start to feel sorry for yourself.

“Oh man, it’s only Tuesday. How am I going to get through all of this?”

“If I’m this tired already…and I’m not even halfway through…”

The people that start thinking like this are the ones that quit.

The people who succeed — only look a few minutes in front of them. They don’t worry about Thursday or Friday. They are only focused on each individual exercise. They get through it one thing at a time.

You can apply this to many aspects of your life.

If you are studying for a massive test, take it one page at a time. Working on a huge presentation, one slide at a time.

For example, I swam in college. Our training was very grueling, 5 to 6 miles of swimming a day. Sometimes the coach would put a set on the board that made me think, “You’ve got to be f#$king kidding me. I’m going to die.” I just took it one lap at a time and got through it.

Lower your vision and piecemeal those big hurdles. It reduces the perceived mental weight of the tasks. Take it one thing at a time.

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Source: Flickr (Royalty Free)

The Importance of Detail

In SEAL training, there’s a seemingly mundane test that trainees go through.

They’ll stand outside of their room, at attention, and say, “Ready for inspection, sir!”

The supervisor will then go into the dual-inhabited bedroom and begin inspecting every corner. No sand. No dirt. No blemishes of any kind. The furniture needs to be positioned perfectly.

The bed is where most trainees get dinged.

There’s a very specific and regimented way of making a bed. It has to be wrinkle-free and tucked at exact angles with the pillow and blanket positioned perfectly.

If even the smallest detail is missed by either person in that room, they both have to go run into the waves (a few hundred meters away). Coronado has very cold water most of the year. If the supervisor is in a bad mood, he’ll have the candidates roll in sand afterward, turning them into a “sugar cookies”.

This drill gets old — fast.

It might seem stupid to torture candidates over how they make their bed but it serves an all-important task. They are instilling the trainees' minds with an ultra-focus on detail.

The big idea is that, “If I can’t trust you to make a bed right, why should I trust you to hold this rifle during a mission?”

This mentality was passed along during my upbringing. Yes, with making beds, but also with homework and other tasks. His eloquent phrase was, “Don’t do a half-assed job on this.” Which translates to — do it right, or don’t do it at all. Be exacting.

If you went to a job board right now, seemingly every job description includes, “Great attention to detail.” It isn’t a coincidence. You can’t have high performance without it.

If people know you care a lot about the little things, it can be assumed you care a lot about the big things.

He typically showed me this in practice by saying, “This could always use one more look over.” It’s a good phrase to keep with you.

Detail requires extra work. But the benefits far outweigh the cost of mediocrity.

A Sound Mind Starts With a Sound Body

My dad is 65 now. My parents live up in Leesburg, Virginia.

When I visit, you’ll see my dad and me just about every day at their Leesburg rec center. Staying in shape is definitely part of SEAL culture. A good majority of older SEALs stay fit well into old age.

That aside — growing up around that mentality, always competing in sports, getting my chops busted about getting out of shape — did me a lot of good. I’ve always found ways to exercise. It’s been the anchor of my productivity.

Most people in the military have tough inner voices that speak to them, “Stop being lazy.”, “Stop getting fat.”

I’ve inherited a bit of that blunt, inner honesty. It’s beneficial to be candid with yourself. Soft inner language can make it too easy to get yourself out of doing things.

During my most busy professional times, the most stressful experiences I’ve ever had, I’ve always found a way to work out. The idea that “you don’t have time” is a hard sell to an honest mind. I’ve always said, “If a president has time to work out, so do I.”

Taking care of your body ensures your mind stays optimized. It also signals to outsiders that you have a strong work ethic.

Find time to work out. You have time. It makes everything better. You’ll be more productive.

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Source: Flickr Royalty-Free

Start Early

I never caught more shit from my parents more than when I overslept at home (or when I didn’t make my bed — surprise, surprise).

It’s hard to be a productive human being if you are sleeping in until noon every day. Oversleeping psychologically buries you. It’s hard to bounce back from it.

There’s a feeling of a preemptive strike when you get up before the rest of the world. It sets a great tone for the rest of your day. Getting a workout or project in before most people have woken up feels amazing. You feel like a god.

I’ve never had an unproductive day that started with me getting something done early. It always went well after that.

This military approach mandates you get into the habit of going to bed at a reasonable hour and, ideally, at the exact same time every night. Your body loves a regimen and repetition. It will reward you.

Remember: Each day is a battle in and of itself. Focus on staying in the moment. Don’t let the burden of a huge task intimidate you. Break it up into smaller bits and take it down. Treat attention to detail like a religion. Hold yourself to a standard.

Discipline is the key to so many things in life. Master the art of doing things you don’t feel like doing, and you’ll go quite far.

Lastly, take care of your body. You only get one. Best of luck!

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Us at a fundraiser for The Navy SEAL Warrior Foundation. (Mom/sis/dad/me)

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