Slow is Smooth, and Smooth is Fast
Why this Navy SEAL training mantra applies to entrepreneurship.
When you graduate from high school you can’t help but wonder where your friends will end up. Some paths are obvious in retrospect—the star running back who becomes a star on Wall Street. Others are subtler—the back-up quarterback/swimmer who goes on to make the world safer.
After leaving college following his freshman year and enlisting in the Navy, my high school friend Dave found himself in the first week of BUD/S—the Navy Seal Training program. Having grown up in Newport, R.I., and no stranger to the beach, Dave was comfortable in the water, but BUD/S was an entirely different kind of challenge. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training is the Navy’s 26-week program during which only 20 percent of trainees are selected to go on to the SEAL teams. It is widely considered to be the most brutal military training program in the Western hemisphere.
“I was convinced for the first few days that I should not be there. I was surrounded by Adonis-like specimens—I look like a banker. They would ‘find me out’ at any minute…” —Dave, 2017
In Dave’s eyes, one of the “Adonis gang,” Chuck, was the walking, talking embodiment of precisely what the SEALs were looking for, and everything Dave was not. This 6-foot-2-inch, 220-lb. man-beast could run like a deer, was a shark in the water and had more muscle on one arm than Dave had in his entire body.
However, Chuck was a team player and regularly assured his fellow trainees that “there was plenty of room on his back,” if they started to waiver when the heat was turned up in Hell Week. The sixth week of BUD/S training, Hell Week is five days and five nights of constant running, swimming and general misery with no sleep. Dave and Chuck were in the same boat crew for Hell Week, and Dave knew that the time would likely come that he would be taking Chuck up on his offer.
The most powerful tool the instructors have at BUD/S isn’t the constant arduous physical training, the ice-cold water or any of the dozens of evolutions, each of which is designed for failure. It’s the trainees’ own imaginations. The anticipation of pain and misery is far more powerful than the pain and misery itself. You must learn that the only thing that matters is being in the moment. Anything else is just an idea that will eat away at you until you finally quit.
Another secret of BUD/S is the cold. While the training takes place just outside of San Diego, the ocean there is notoriously frigid and the trainees are kept wet, freezing and exposed to the elements for the entirety of Hell Week. Cold is the great equalizer: No matter how tough, strong or fit someone is, if you keep someone cold enough for long enough, their only priority will be to get warm again.
By the first full day of Hell Week, Dave was frozen. He had trouble getting his arms to move above his shoulders, and the misery of the previous night’s training had eaten away at him enough that his imagination was at full tilt envisioning the torture of the next four unending days.
But he had Chuck. The big fella had pledged to be there when the going got tough, and it was definitely tough as hell right now. He walked over to where Chuck was and began to haltingly ask for some encouragement. It didn’t seem like Chuck had heard Dave. Dave reluctantly raised his voice to reiterate his plea, Chuck rose up right in front of Dave, walked to “the Bell” and hit the clapper against it loudly three times.
Chuck quit. Right in front of Dave. Apparently, all it took was the mere mention of quitting by a friend. Dave quickly returned to where he was sitting and suddenly realized he had a different perspective on things.
He had outlasted Chuck. Maybe he was wrong about what the SEALs were looking for. Maybe he was wrong about how hard this whole thing really was. Maybe he was wrong about himself.
Dave graduated BUD/S class 150 the following spring and was assigned to SEAL Team 2.
June 10, 1994: The phone rings in my office at the National Hockey League where I was VP of Business Development.
“Hey man, it’s Dave.”
“Favor to ask—two tickets for Canucks, Rangers Game 7…possible? I have a fellow Seal, a lifelong Rangers fan, who has never been to a game.”
“Done—may be pricey though…”
“We’ll figure it out.”
The lifelong friend he mentioned was John, a close combat expert who was—and is—a true New York Rangers fanatic. When evaluating people, I like to ask, “Does he/she come out of the corner with the puck? Yes or no?” John always comes out of the corner with the puck and leaves his adversary filled with existential questions like, “Was it worth it?” “Why would I ever do that again?” and “Is there a hospital nearby?” A friend once described engaging mentally or physically with John as “like chewing sandpaper.”
“The most rewarding things in life are just on the other side of fear…”—John, 2017
Dave shared with me the following story of John and his interpreter in Bosnia: In a non-English speaking deployment, your interpreter is literally the difference between living and dying. If they don’t want you to stay alive, you won’t. SEALS ensure that great trust is built between them and their interpreters, but John, as he often does, took things to another level. His interpreter, Amir, was a smart, energetic 21-year-old Muslim woman who had been separated from her family at the beginning of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. She accepted that she would probably never see her family again.
But John and his team learned that a group of Muslims from Amir’s town were still alive and living in a secluded area not far from where their next mission would take them. He asked Amir where they might go for information on the displaced Muslim community, and she replied that there was a multi-ethnic bakery and shop in town that was probably intact and might have information.
As luck will have it, one of the workers knew her uncle and gave her directions on where to go. They drove to the location, and she recognized several people. Word traveled quickly and Amir’s mother and sister appeared. Hugs and kisses prevailed, followed by tears from her mother.
Amir asked if she could stay for a couple of days with her mother and sister, and John reluctantly said yes. She was in his care and on his payroll, and he was supposed to have eyes on her 24/7. This rendezvous had put them in danger of not realizing their original mission, and HQ was starting to question them. John assured his superiors that they were slightly off course, but that the assignment would be accomplished.
In short, ensuring that his teammate’s family needs were met was mission critical to him. They completed their mission and swung back to reunite with Amir and her family after they had time to reconnect and ensure that they would not lose each other again. Her mom and sister thanked him with great emotion, and he has stayed in touch with them for the past two decades.
The phrase “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” is one my SEAL friends use often—the idea is to train for scenarios slowly so that you can get the entire operation running smoothly. Then, when it’s necessary to do that operation quickly, you can. It was, and is, an important way to approach hard problems for my SEAL friends. But it can also apply to entrepreneurs.
“Be measured and prioritize,” my friend John says. “There is already enough drama built into every tough situation while operating or during a negotiation. Don’t add to it.”
In my last funding round, I was happy to have my friends participate in the “friends and family” portion of the raise. At dinner, after I warned them that the chances of making money in startups is small, they thanked me profusely for the chance to participate. I said, “No problem” and that I would do my best to lead the effort to a successful financial outcome. After a pause, John said, “If not, expect a 4 a.m. stealth extraction from your bedroom. But don’t lose any sleep over it—you won’t hear us coming anyway.” I definitely will not lose any sleep over it because slow is smooth, and smooth is fast…