Jocko Willink's Commentaries on the Martial Way
My obsession with Miyamoto Musashi began when I was 13 years old, right after my sensei gave me a copy of Go Rin No Sho, The Book of Five Rings. It was while researching Musashi that I first ran across the name Jocko Willink — I discovered an episode of his Jocko Podcast dedicated to the samurai and his writings.
For the first time, I got to listen to an analysis of Musashi by someone who had faced enemies in war and seen death up close. You see, Willink is a former Navy SEAL lieutenant commander who led his team in the battle for Ramadi during the Iraq War. He's the recipient of the Silver Star and the Bronze Star. He's also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
Listening to that podcast, it was as if Willink was channeling Musashi. The message of both men is so powerful because each describes a warrior's experiences. It's not a message gleaned from a book, not one learned from a teacher. Musashi himself said, "I have no teacher in anything," and when you listen to Willink speak, you hear the same truth. That's why I jumped at the opportunity to interview him for Black Belt. It's my hope that you gain as much from our conversation as I did.
How did you become interested in Miyamoto Musashi? Was it before, during or after your military service?
It was during my service. You get interested in Musashi when you hear about a guy who fought 60-plus sword fights — most of them to the death — and won them all and wrote about it. So when you spend your life like I did in the combat arena, you try to listen to people who have knowledge to pass on to you.
You both give a first-person perspective on combat. That brings a completely different value to the teachings. In your experience, what one lesson really stood out?
Being able to step back and detach and not get caught up in emotions. To me, this is the underlying thing that led to the rest of the discoveries I made about leadership and life. They are all founded on the fact that I am not going to get caught up in emotions. I am going to step back and see what is happening.
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Most of us cannot begin to understand some of the observations that you made during war. In that place of chaos, how do people get ahold of their emotions and direct themselves with focus?
It starts off with something you have to be conscious of. I tell people to physically step back. Before you can do it mentally, you have to train your mind by doing it physically. If there is some problem going on, physically step back. If you are in an argument with a co-worker or your spouse, physically step back and take a breath.
Put your hands to your side, open your chest and take a breath. This is the opposite of a fighting stance. When you put your hands down and lift up your chin, you open up and are exposing yourself. The opposite is getting in combat mode by lifting your hands and tucking your chin. You don't want to do that. You want to see more, not less. When you go into combat mode, you see less.
What you want to do is see everything that is happening. You want to look around. By physically taking a step back, physically turning your head to take a look around and physically taking a breath, you detach from the situation. When you speak, make sure you are speaking in a calm voice. In the SEAL Teams, it is sort of a sin to sound panicked on the radio, so I would always make sure when I got on the radio, I was talking in a calm voice and not in a complete and utter panic.
Musashi said, "Understand the harm and benefit in everything, learn to see everything accurately, become aware of what is not obvious." Do you regard this as stepping back and detaching?
That is 100 percent. How accurately do you see things when you are super emotional? How accurately do you see things when you are right in them? It is like watching a football game: Anyone sitting in the stands can tell the quarterback what he should have done because they can see the big opening and the open player. The quarterback didn't see it. Why? Because he is on the field, in the game. That is life. If you spend your whole time caught up with what's going on on the field, you won't see the bigger picture. So take a step back, detach, breathe and look around. When you see more, you'll perform better. You'll make better decisions.
When we detach and get into the flow, time feels like it slows down. There is no thinking. You are 100 percent the observer. What has your experience in this state been?
For me, that has been the goal all of the time, especially going into combat. I have to be in that mode where I am watching from the outside and I am seeing the big picture. Even if I get sucked into a tactical problem like a gunfight, I'm still the leader. I'm not supposed to be engaging targets. I'm supposed to be leading. I might have to crack off some rounds, provide cover for someone, engage a target, but once I have done that, my immediate goal is take a step back and survey the scene.
In my experience, you do have to really watch out for it because you can easily get sucked into things. But if you train yourself properly, when these pressure situations arise, you will be able to get in, handle the problem, and immediately step back out and detach from the situation so you can see the bigger picture.
For martial artists who don't have combat experience, how do you teach them to adapt and overcome?
You want to train as realistically as possible. That means putting yourself in tough situations and bad situations. The more you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, the more you realize that panicking and getting emotional is not helpful. You have to relax. You have to do this repeatedly so you learn cognitively what you need to do when these situations are unfolding. I think martial arts, especially martial arts where you can spar with other humans, is a great way to put yourself in situations where you need to control your emotions.
Another similarity you share with Musashi is discipline. You say that discipline is equal to freedom. How does one find freedom in discipline?
Well, I wrote Discipline Equals Freedom because they are contrary. People would think that freedom is the opposite of discipline, but that is not true. If you want to have freedom, you have to have discipline. I am not the first person to say this; I might be the first person to use those specific words. It's written throughout history — people have said the same thing. If you want financial freedom, you need financial discipline. If you want more free time, you need more disciplined time management. If you want physical freedom, you have to have the discipline to work out, train and eat healthy. So if you have discipline in your life, you will end up with more freedom.
Another one of your books is Extreme Ownership. How did that title come about?
The title came from me explaining to someone that you cannot pass blame to anyone else. You have to take ownership when things go wrong. An extreme version of that is extreme ownership. That means that everything that goes wrong when you are in a leadership position is your fault.
What makes a good leader?
Good leaders are humble, and bad leaders are not humble. Bad leaders think that they know everything, that their way of doing things is the best. They don't take any input from anybody else. A good leader has an open mind and listens to what others have to say. They don't think they know everything and are always open to new solutions to problems. The difference between a good leader and a bad leader is a matter of humility.
Can this be cultivated, or do you have to already possess it?
It can definitely be cultivated. Jiu-jitsu is really good at humbling people. You may think you are a big tough guy, and then you get on the mat and get choked out by somebody that is 50 pounds lighter than you. You realize you didn't know everything you thought you knew. That is one of the reasons I really like jiu-jitsu: It is a very humbling thing to be engaged in.
Why do some people quit when they get humbled or when they feel uncomfortable?
Unfortunately, people's egos get involved. Nobody likes to get tapped out. No one likes to get beat. So they try to go through the rest of their lives avoiding difficult situations. That is unfortunately a bad idea, and it's pretty sad.It's not just in jiu- jitsu. If you have ever boxed with a good boxer or a good muay Thai fighter, you are going to feel the exact same way. If you let your ego run your life and say to yourself, "I got beat, I don't like getting beat, I'm never going to do that again!" — that's why people end up going one or two times to jiu-jitsu or to muay Thai and never go back.
Rickson Gracie said, "Make yourself comfortable in uncomfortable situations." When you are training students, how do you get them to overcome discomfort?
I trained with Rickson Gracie in the mid-'90s. One day when we got done, when he got done smashing and annihilating me like a child, his compliment to me was, "You are very comfortable in uncomfortable positions." Even though I was getting smashed, I tried to relax and utilize the techniques that I knew at the time. It is definitely a good attitude to have: If there are things that make you uncomfortable, move toward those things and do them as much as you can until you get comfortable with them.
In your book The Dichotomy of Leadership, you talk a lot about balance. How would you describe balance for martial artists?
To me, that means you don't have extreme opinions or make extreme moves. If you go to an extreme in one direction or another, that is going to throw you off-balance, and you are very seldom going to be correct. You must maintain your balance in jiu-jitsu, wrestling or any martial art. If you throw a punch too hard, you will lose your balance and your opponent will capitalize on that. If you overcommit to something, you will telegraph it and your opponent will capitalize on it. It is the same with leadership: If you overdo something, it's going to be out of balance, and it is going to cause problems. So don't hang out in the extremes; keep it in the middle.
Is balance a 50-50 thing, or is it more of a shifting-and-adapting thing?
You have to modulate your actions. If someone is pushing against you, you have to push back somewhat. Otherwise, you will fall over. But if you push back with everything you've got and they step away, you are going to fall over. So you have to modulate according to the situation you are in.
What keeps you growing and evolving as a martial artist?
My training partners. It's a constant war. Every time I go in, am I going to catch them or are they going to catch me? If I work harder, maybe I can catch them. If they work harder, maybe I am going to get caught. It's the joy of training.
It's very fun [and] very consequential because when you lose, you know what that really means. When you tap out, if you actually think about what that really means, you don't want that to happen. When that does happen, that is your opportunity to learn and try to prevent that particular thing from happening again.
My main training partner has been multiple-world-champion Dean Lister. He is better than I am, so that means I get tapped out all of the time. That is fine; it doesn't bother me. I like it and will keep training and keep getting better.
In your opinion, what is the X factor that makes a good martial artist?
It's different things for different people. You can have someone that is insanely flexible or insanely strong or has crazy natural cardio, and that can make them good. You can have people that have a natural mind for a particular part of the game. There are people who have a natural mind for grappling but not a natural mind for striking. Some people have a natural mind for striking but not a natural mind for grappling. There are people who have a natural mind for mixing all of these things together in mixed martial arts, and there are some people who have a hard time mixing everything together.
In the effort to become a good martial artist, focus often is placed on techniques. In your opinion, are transitions being neglected?
Yes. When I was a white or blue belt, I watched my first BJJ instructor Fabio Santos training with Jeff Higgs. Fabio got mounted, and as Jeff was mounting, Fabio was already escaping. That was the first time I realized how he was so far ahead. What a normal person does when starting jiu-jitsu is this: Someone mounts you, then you think about what to do and then you start your mount escape. And that is actually what you get taught. You don't get taught to escape during the transition. You have to develop that on your own. These moments of transitions are the keys to success.
When I read Musashi, Marcus Aurelius, Sun Tzu and some of your work, I read about death being a great teacher. For those of us who have not observed death, what can we learn from your experiences? What does death have to teach us about life?
Being in combat, you definitely realize the fragility of life. You have to accept death. I'm not saying you are not going to fight, that you are not going to try to live. I'm not trying to say that your life isn't important. In fact, it's the opposite: Your life is important and you are going to die. It's going to happen, so you better take advantage of the life you have. For me especially, losing my friends in combat, young guys, the best guys in the world — when you live through that, you realize how precious life is. You accept death, but you move forward in life and do everything you can to make it a good life. You understand the finality of it all. You understand that there is no escape.
The worst thing that can happen to me is that I am going to die. I don't know when, but I know I am. So I am not going to worry about it. I am not going to be afraid of it. I am going to be ready for it. And the way you are ready for it is by living a good life.
What happens if we cannot let go of our fear of death?
If you have someone that is really scared of dying, it is going to be hard for them to focus on doing their job. If you have someone who is scared of death, they will not function as well as someone that accepts death as a reality and as a possibility and even as a likelihood. So definitely [it's about] getting your mindset to a point where you understand what can happen, you understand the consequences, you understand the outcomes and you are OK with it. Now you can focus on doing your job.
Fear debilitates a lot of people. There are real fears, like the ones you have faced, and then there are projected fears, like people being afraid of the opinions of others. How do you help people overcome fear?
The way you do it is by exposing yourself to those fears. If, for example, you are afraid of the water, first just come to the river and look at it. The next time, you step in it. The next time, you go in up to your knees. The next time, you go in up to your waste, then up to your head. The next time, you step into the deep water and step right back. Then you start learning the stroke. Expose yourself to the things that are making you afraid, and you will realize there is nothing to be afraid of.
If you could give one message to martial artists, what would it be?
The message I always talk about is staying humble. If that is your mindset — you stay humble, you don't think you know everything, you stay open to change — that is the most positive way to go through life. That is the most positive way to get growth in your life. Think about training in martial arts: If you think you know everything, you stop learning. So let martial arts be a guide for your entire life. Have an open mind and listen to what other people say. If people have good ideas, incorporate those good ideas into what you know. If you do that in your life, you will end up in a good spot.
Listening to you now, I hear the parallels with Musashi again. Musashi said, "The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time and teaching them in such a way that they will be useful in all things." What are your thoughts on that?
If you know the way broadly, you can see it in all things. That is absolutely true. For me, seeing and understanding jiu-jitsu gave me an understanding of combat, it gave me an understanding of human nature and it gave me an understanding of leadership. When I talk about all those things, they are all absolutely connected by a common thread. They are all the same; they all have the same premises. The reason I recognized those similarities, which then allowed me to see them with more clarity, was jiu-jitsu. In jiu-jitsu, I learned that if I want your arm, I will attack your neck, and then when you defend your neck, I will take your arm.
I know that on the battlefield, if I want to take your position, I need to attack you from the front — but then I need to send a flanking element around to your flank, and that is how I will take your position.
I know that as a leader, if you have an ego and are dug into an idea and are sticking to your idea, if I attack your idea, you are not going to relent. But if I massage your ego a little bit and come in from a different angle and plant a seed that you think that my idea is your idea, I can win in that situation. I can influence you in the proper direction.[This is] just one example of the unified connections and principles that link all of these things. The reason I figured these things out was I saw them first through the simple, undeniable methodologies of jiu-jitsu.[When we] find something that works, if our ego is so big that we can't accept it, then we will lose. But if we accept it and see the good in a new technique, a new form or new method, if we open our mind and learn it and incorporate it into our game, not only will it not defeat us anymore [but also] we can use it to defeat others.