Every year, about a thousand young men enroll in the Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training program. Most of them, about seventy-five percent in the best years, fail or drop out, and usually during the fifth week. Why then? Because the fifth week is the infamous Hell Week, and it’s called that for good reason.
I know because I went through it in 1996, and then served the next twenty years as an officer in the SEAL Teams. During Hell Week, candidates carry heavy rubber boats on their heads everywhere they go, work out with three-hundred-pound telephone poles, sit in freezing surf for hours on end, and sleep for a total of three hours over the course of five days. The instructors push students to their physical and mental limits—and that’s the point. Hell Week is deliberately disorienting and exhausting because it’s designed to answer one question: Do these candidates have what it takes to be Navy SEALs?
For most of us, 2020 was disorienting and exhausting, too. While it probably wasn’t as physically intense, the year has been wrought with anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and stress. COVID-19 was one of the most obvious culprits; none of us anticipated just how much it would disrupt our way of life. Most of us, within a matter of a day or two, were thrown into a total shut down, ordered to stay at home, with no hint as to how long. Work and school suddenly paused, essential items like toilet paper went maddeningly scarce, and there was a real lack of information about how serious or deadly the virus really was. Some of us lost jobs. Many of us lost loved ones. Almost all of us lost our certainty about the future.
Unlike Hell Week, though, none of us volunteered for the madness that was 2020. None of us had the option of “ringing the bell,” the way candidates who quit Hell Week do. We had to keep going through a year that pushed all of us to our limits in one way or another.
But like the candidates who make it through Hell Week, we all also learned something about the ways we perform under stress, maybe without even realizing that we did.
Those who make it through Hell Week aren’t necessarily the strongest, the smartest, or the most skilled. There is no set of habits or skills one can adopt to carry heavy boats or suffer through surf torture. Instead, Hell Week is designed to tease out those intrinsic, often hidden qualities in each of us that I call our attributes. In times of stress and uncertainty, when things are going sideways and the world seems crazy, when there is no blueprint for success, these attributes often become more important than our learned skills and habits.
Habits and skills are learned. No one is born, for example, with the ability to throw or type or ride a bike. We learn to do those things, either by being taught or by observing someone else. Skills tell us what to do in specific situations and environments that we already know. Wield a hammer, ride a bike, throw a ball—those are deliberate ways to accomplish specific objectives. Because we can see how well someone rides a bike or throws a ball, skills are easy to assess, measure, and test.
Attributes, on the other hand, are built into who we are. Unlike skills, they are qualities that can be seen in very young children. The Montessori Method, for example, recognizes and capitalizes on some of these attributes in preschoolers to enhance learning. Qualities such as adaptability, self-reliance, and courage are teased out and developed through specific styles of education. Think of attributes as the code running in the background of our own personal operating systems: We each have inherent, and individualized, levels of attributes like patience, adaptability, and open-mindedness that continually inform our behavior. Our levels of resilience and perseverance aren’t going to tell us how to ride a bike, but they will definitely affect how we behave when we are lost or fall off the bike a dozen times.
While attributes can be developed over time, they aren’t learned in the same way as skills. You can’t sit someone down and teach them how to be patient or adaptable, for example. Development of attributes must be self-directed. It requires self-assessment and focus, and often a conscious effort to change a natural inclination. Finally, because your attributes are running in the background, they are difficult to assess, measure, and test. But to the trained eye, they show up most viscerally during times of stress, challenge, and uncertainty.
In 2020, a “Hell Year” for many of us, we all had the opportunity to discover our attributes—which ones we have a lot of, which ones we’re a bit short on, and which ones we never even knew we had. I have identified twenty-five attributes for optimal performance that make up your grit, mental acuity, drive, leadership and teamability during stressful and uncertain times. Nearly all of them got a workout this year.
Let’s take Task Switching for example, which is commonly conflated with multitasking. Most people believe they can multitask very well. In a famous study from the University of Utah, a remarkably confident 70 percent of participants thought that they were above average in their ability to do multiple things at once.
However, that same study revealed that when people try and do several things at once, a full 98 percent gets worse at each individual task. This is because when it comes to things that we need to pay attention to; our brains aren’t set up to focus on multiple things at the same time.
Task switching is our ability to effectively and efficiently switch focus between distinct things that we have to pay attention to. Some of us are wired to do this pretty easily, for others it’s quite difficult. With the onset of COVID 19 and quarantines and stay-at-home orders, however, all of us got a hefty workout in task switching. One moment we were conducting a business meeting, and the next we were helping our kids learn math, and then making lunch. 2020’s challenge, uncertainty, and stress brought our task switching to the fore, and whether you were high or low on the scale – we all got the chance to develop it.
How about adaptability? Did you shift immediately and seamlessly into working from home and conducting all of your meetings digitally? Or perhaps the “new normal” of social distancing, masks, and online grocery shopping was tough for you to get used to. Your answer to both speaks to where you fall on the scale as 2020 forced us to continually adapt.
And if throughout the whole ordeal, regardless of how bad it got, you still found yourself with the ability to laugh at the insanity of it all, then you probably have an abundance of humor – which you likely found helped manage anxiety. Why? Because laughing releases a powerful cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones that reward us (dopamine), mask physical pain (endorphins), and create bonds (oxytocin). For those of us who were able to, we developed the ability to consistently “find the funny” and get through tough times.
What this means is that, whether it feels like it or not, you are heading into 2021 in much better shape. You’ve navigated a challenge that hasn’t been thrust on humanity in several decades. Next year might be better for some. It might be worse for others. But using this time to do a self-assessment of which parts were more difficult to get through and which were easier, where you felt the most uncomfortable and the most at ease, will offer clues to how you will handle stress and uncertainty at work, at home, in relationships, and in teams moving forward.
Knowing and understanding these attributes is a critical first step to a better tomorrow. Developing them takes challenge and uncertainty. Which means, thanks to the 2020 Hell Year, you’re already more prepared than you think to master whatever comes your way in 2021.