It takes a lot to become a Navy SEAL. It’s not just the training, it’s a complete life overhaul – a gigantic pivot into a new reality. In this episode, Adam Markel is joined by Commander Rorke Denver, a trainer for the US Navy SEALs and a special forces leader. Commander Rorke acknowledges that becoming a SEAL is a huge undertaking, but also recognizes it as an honor and a testament to our resilience as human beings. Rorke shares his journey to becoming a Navy SEAL and the lessons he learns by training future generations to carry that same honor. Don’t miss his inspiring story and tips on how to “command” resilience in our own lives.
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Sealing The Deal For Life As A SEAL With Commander Rorke Denver
I’m loving life. As I like to say in the morning, “I love my life.” That’s not a guarantee that every day is going to be simple or easy. In fact, most days are not. Most days are challenging. If you asked me in a moment of weakness, I might say I’m not so happy right now. My wife Randi, who is a wonderful mirror for me, she will come up to me and she’ll say, “Are you loving your life right now? Are you loving it, no matter what?” I am absolutely full-on thrilled to be here at this moment. I know part of it is because I’ve got a great guest. I already know that his energy and mine will blend well. He’s a guy with not just energy, but a lot of good energy. He’s done amazing things in his life and we’re going to dig right in and talk about some things that are going on in all of your lives. Commander Rorke T. Denver has run every phase of training for the US Navy SEALs and led Special Forces missions in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and other international hotspots. He started in the hit film Act of Valor, which is based on true SEAL adventures.
His New York Times bestseller, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior takes you inside his personal story in the fascinating, demanding SEAL training program. In his second book, Worth Dying For: A Navy SEALs Call to a Nation, Rorke tackles the questions that have emerged about America’s past decade at war from what makes a hero to why we fight and what it does for us. He was seen on Fox’s American Grit. The series followed sixteen of the country’s toughest men and women as they faced a variety of military-grade and survival theme challenges set in the wilderness. Commander Rorke, it is a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you. I appreciate it.Resilience is something that you create before you actually need it. Click To Tweet
Your CV, your Curriculum Vitae, your bio is incredibly impressive and very diverse. What is not a part of that introduction that you would love for people to know about you?
I’m a big reader. Being a reader has been an unbelievable gift from early in life. I did not like the confines of the four walls of a classroom. It’s not a place I thrive or flourish but my dad might be the most well-read person I’ve ever met. I’m sure I’ve inadvertently met somebody that’s read more than him, but not many. If you have and committed as much of that to memory as he has, you’re an impressive human being. He instilled that to my brother and me. Being a big reader has led to thinking. It led to a framework of the way I looked at every adventure I went into because I could connect it to historical readings and even the fictional characters that would motivate and inspire. Being a big reader is probably not something I highlighted as much in that. That and being a tremendously devoted husband, father, the family is definitely the base of my pyramid. Those things are hugely important as well.
These are back-to-back sessions for me. Right before you and I started, I had finished up an interview with Jack Canfield and the author of The Success Principles and Chicken Soup for the Soul, etc. He was telling me he’s read about 1,000 and the only reason he knows that because somebody had asked him. He had to do the research and figure out somehow how many books he’s read. He and your dad are like neck and neck when it comes to that. We’ve got to get those guys introduced. Why don’t we dig in and let’s start with a bit of your history? I’m here in San Diego. You are based in San Diego. For people that don’t know, the SEALs, there are two sets of TNF. If I botched this, you just correct me right on this. I had met a Navy SEAL instructor. He told me there are two sets of teams. There’s the odd and even, and I forget which is which, but let’s call it 1, 3, 5 and 7. I don’t know if there’s a 9, and then 2, 4, 6, 8. We’ve got one team that’s based here in Coronado in San Diego. You’ve got another team based on the East Coast. I don’t know if it’s Virginia or something.
It’s in Virginia Beach. The teams, each number you quoted, 1, 3, 5, and 7, those are all individual teams. All those teams are on the West Coast, odd numbers. Even are on the East Coast and those are the two primary centers of gravity. San Diego has a lot of extra intensity based on our basic course. BUD/S, the course that you would see if you’re on the beach at Coronado or staying at the Hotel Bell, those crazy Budders running up and down the beach with boats on their head. That’s where our basic courses to include our admiral and our senior leadership is housed there as well. The West Coast has a real power base. The East Coast, an equal number of teams. That also has SEAL Team Six, which is like our all-star team that’s made tremendous headlines. The rest of the leadership is spread out though, as you can imagine, the Pentagon, DC area, Special Operations Command is down in Florida. Those are the major spots you’re going to find yourself if you’re a SEAL.
This is about conscious pivots and I wrote a book called Pivot on that topic. I would imagine as a SEAL a little thing or two about pivoting. For my curiosity and I hope other people would feel the same way, I’d love it if you had a pivot story you’re permitted to tell. I hadn’t talked about this beforehand, but if there is some great delineation or an example of what pivoting looked like in the SEALs or even what your definition of that is and relate it back to a story from those days in your career.
There are a couple of pivots I can think of that relate to the SEAL experience for me and then I can think of one pretty major within my time in the SEAL Teams. I’d say the first pivot I’d tell you about, which is a strange dotted line over to my life experience, but I grew up in the Bay Area, California. This is right in the heart of Silicon Valley before it had exploded into a place where if you haven’t sold a dot-com, you are not living. The street I grew up in, the house I grew up in, my dad bought it for like $100,000 or something like that in the ‘70s. They thought it was the worst decision of life. It was on sale in 2019 for $4.6 million.
It has not changed. It’s the same paint, the same basketball goal. When I was there, we thought it was a normal place to grow up. There were apricot orchards and good schools, good people, upper-middle-class, very upper class, and the hills above us. Being a successful athlete in high school, I probably had a good easy entrance into the popular group of kids. That being said, the controlling power of the popular kids were wealthier kids and kids that maybe could flash a little bit more and ran the school. Sometime around middle school to high school is when most people start dabbling with drinking, drugs, and things like that. For whatever reason, I had some level of self-possession and my brother’s the same where we didn’t start.
I never touched a drop of it. I didn’t drink. I’ve never done any drugs besides the occasional Motrin or something I needed from a doc. That choice to not drink, it’s one of the true game-changers in my life. I’m not evangelical about this. Most people can drink just fine. It’s a great thing to have with a steak, social lubricant. It seems like a healthy thing. At the end of the day, if you have a dark bourbon or something like that, I’ve got nothing against you. I was aware that it was not the right thing for me. That I leave high school, I go to play college sports and a very drinking-centric party type of sport. I go to the SEAL Teams, for sure you’re going to have to drink. I’m a lacrosse player, which is a big, aggressive guys, party-type sport. I ended up at the SEAL Teams where it’s like back then pre 9/11, it was the hairy-chested, bar drinking, frogman and you’re going to drink there and I never have it.
There’s something about that path, both the fact that I have a personality that can go to excess and a lot of things I like to pursue. It proved to be an unbelievable choice in my life. Particularly as a leader, I found myself in a unique spot where I never compromised myself. I saw other SEAL officers get carried out of the bar by their guys because they’d overdone it and you’re like, “Those guys have you now from here on out.” You’re going to tell them to show up on time and they’ll be like, “We had to drag you home last night, so we’ll be a little bit late if we want to.” There’s that level of what you give up as a leader. I think that was one of the first big pivots in my life. The second big pivot would be deciding to serve. Deciding to join the military and pursue much more a life path and a passion than a job. Somebody probably does the Navy as a job. In the SEAL Teams, you go into a program where there’s 80% some odd attrition to get in the front door. You have to be pretty committed.
Resiliency is something we’ll talk about, but those things, it’s far greater than any job. Those are two big pivots that started. In my conversation right here, I’d say a pivot within the SEAL Teams is you have a career progression that most people serving the military are going to follow. Whether you’re enlisted, officer, whatever it is, there is a career path, a line that you’re going to follow, or a course you’re going to chart through your career. You can control some part of it, a whole lot of it you can’t control. What I figured out very early is work your tail off to the point that no matter where you show up, you’re going to be of such high value that they’re keeping you and are going to promote you to the next round.
In the SEAL Teams, you go there to be a warfighter. That’s why you’re joining that organization. Nobody’s going that organization to learn a particular skill craft or if I do this, I’ll become a United pilot later. I’m not saying that’s what jet pilots do. There’s not a real, “We did this. Now here’s a perfect one for one exchange in your next life.” You want to see the bear. You want to put yourself in harm’s way and put your hand up when it says, “Here’s the harshest mission, the worst dragon we’ve got to slay. You guys are going to go.” The funny thing is my first three years in the SEAL Teams was pre 9/11.
All the guys that were in the SEAL Teams, even with a full 30 years career, had not done anything for real on the battlefield. They had not gone to war because there wasn’t a war. If you are in Vietnam, a couple of little encourages in Grenada and Panama. Maybe some of the events happening in Bosnia and some of those spots that they weren’t open engagement. People that had done this massive pursuit in their life and never got to see the job they came to do. My peer group, my age class was thrust into now the longest standing war this country has ever seen and that was a tremendous pivot. It was going from the preparation for all the work you need to do to be ready to do that job, to doing that job. The lessons that come out of that, the heartbreak that comes out of that, the passion that goes into that, the commitment to it, the peaks and valleys of that adventure are otherworldly. I’d say that the dividing line is when the open conflict on multiple fronts took place and what that meant to those of us that served in that window. Those that continue to serve that it’s a completely different world for a warrior when you’re at war.
You cover this in two books, is that right?
What was the inspiration to write the books and that, in and of itself is a major pivot. You think about going from the work you were doing to authorship. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to transition from one to the other.
It was a pivot for sure. I was early in the SEAL books. Besides Marcus Luttrell’s book, maybe a Chris Kyle who was on the same team with me on the West Coast and maybe one other in the modern era of books. I was in that first few rounds of books. All of us wrestle with a little bit the dichotomy of one of our real monikers is the quiet professional, then now we’re out talking about some of those things we learned. My books, if you read them, are very much higher ideals as opposed to chest-thumping, “This is what I did. Look at this amazing event.” It’s much more of these higher ideals that are important to me. Those things I learned and gleaned from my time on the battlefield, off the battlefield, and running training.
As I described earlier, I was a huge reader, and frankly reading a book, an autobiography by Winston Churchill in my senior year of college is the reason I walked into a recruiter’s office. It’s what the catalyst is. I don’t think you’d have a hard time finding a lot of people that read something that proved as a pivot or a spark into some other thing they’re going to do in their life. There was a component where I’ve always been much more literature and art guy as opposed to math and science. I liked to write that when I had an opportunity to a point where I felt like there was something to say, that committing it on paper would be a good thing. I figured if it proved as a spark or a fire for somebody else to serve, and I’ve lost count of the number of young lives that have reached out to me be like, “I read your book. I’m going to the military. I want to serve.” That’s a gift. I also think some of the things we learned on the battlefield are so unique to our global experience that if we completely circle the wagons and don’t talk about them, we’re losing a tremendous amount of information that would be of value to our culture, leadership, and country.
Let’s talk about the time that we’re in right now because we are certainly in pivot times. Things have caught a lot of people off guard. What I’d love is to the extent it’s even possible for people to imagine this, I want them to imagine if their mission was as critical as many of the missions that were so critical to our country that you were involved in. The mindset of somebody that’s going into something that is mission-critical. How would you take care of yourself? How would you show up? How would you create resilience in the face of a threat? There are people who are under threat right now. I don’t mean physical in terms of their health, but financially. In terms of their business, their livelihood, and taking care of their families. Draw the parallel there. I’d be thrilled to help people get a little bit of a Navy SEAL recipe for resilience in the mission-critical times we’re living in.
It makes me think of two things. It makes me think of the work you do before, things get hard and the work you’ll do after. In my mind, if you haven’t in some ways prepped by testing yourself, pushing yourself, suffering, leading into pain, and doing things that inoculate you to hard times, you are not going to be as armed for those hard times as those of us that have. The fact about it is I haven’t called too many SEAL teammates to ask them if they’re okay because I know the answer. They’re okay. They might have had to adjust their job or hold tight a little more than they normally would. We can go down to the full zombie apocalypse and our guys probably have some perverse desire to see how that would play out if it was a gun on your back and some water and how long you’d survive the worst-case scenario. It’s part of probably our strange fantasies and the way we look at the world.
Consequently, since we’ve gone through these very difficult times. When difficult times hit, we’re armed for that fight. I’m an introvert. I do a lot of speaking, a lot of big stage events. I love to interact with people and talk, but at my core, I’m highly introverted, which I’m sure you’ve done a lot of research and you know these personality traits well. It’s not so much that it makes me shy or anything. It just means that when I do a lot of talk and a lot of those things, that I need to shut down and be very quiet and do some reading, go fishing, get out in the woods.
When you self-impose or nationally impose me sitting in my house with my girls who I care about more than anybody else and a whole bunch of books I haven’t read, it’s almost like my ideal social scenario. Other than that, I’m not sure when the next convention is going to come up, which is where I make my money. It suits my personality well. The first phase is the preparation for tough times and I’ll tell a resilient story in there. The other thing I’ll say to your readers who maybe haven’t done that work or have not had a crucible hit their life, and this is by far the greatest they’ll ever see. What I would offer to them is it is also a gift to go through tough times because 100% we’re going to come out of it.The choice not to drink can be a true game-changer in your life. Click To Tweet
We know we have that as a country, as a race, as a species, we’re going to come out of this. I have unbelievable respect for those that won’t and those whose family members won’t. I can’t tell you how much I understand that. I stopped counting at 40 funerals and I’ve seen double or triple that in my time in the military. I know about loss and that hardship. Tough times are a gift because we get tremendous lessons out of them. You pull resilience and toughness moving forward from them. In many ways, it’s one of those, when you come out the backend of this was the first hard thing that hit you, particularly for young people, it’s going to be good for you. Because you’re going to come out of this thing and when the next lump or the next hit comes, you’re going to be more prepared for it.
There’s always a gift in hardship. When it comes to resilience in the SEAL teams, when I ran the course of instruction, I coined this phrase that was one of my greatest understandings of how we build resilience. It is this concept that I call Random Acts of Instructor Violence. Your friend that you talked to that was a SEAL instructor, he went to Team One, which is a West Coast team. These are scary humans as you’re going through the training. If you’re made for the training, you’ll love it, but they’re still sinister. They rule your life. They can hang in the balance of your fitness, your health, your well-being, and your future.
They’re pretty much all-powerful. SEAL training is hard no matter what you do. Every single day, it’s hard but if you’re performing at a high level, it won’t be as hard. If you screw up as a class, you can imagine it gets a whole lot harder. As instructors, at the end of every day, one of our instructors would talk to a class. Let’s say there are 100 guys that are in the class, we say, “Tomorrow you’re going to be on the pool deck at 6:00 AM sharp. You’re going to be in perfect ranks, standing in perfect lines and ranks. You’re going to have your fins in front of you. You’re going to have your dive mask on top of your fins and you’re going to have a razor-sharp dive knife on your hip belt. Do you have any questions? No? Beat it.” Off they go for their night to prepare for the next day.
If we, the instructors, show up late. Let’s say we show up at 6:05, and the class, who he said should have done what we asked them to do at 6:00, is still fumbling around with their gear. They’re still trying to get in line, trying to get themselves squared away. Five minutes after we told them to be there, you can imagine what that day of training is going to be like. You might as well pack your bags. We’re going to beat you mercilessly until somebody quits or multiple people quit. It’s going to be Armageddon because you failed to meet the standard we set for you. Every once in a while, we’ll show up as instructors at 5:55, five minutes early, and they will already be in perfect ranks.
They were there clearly a half-hour before that, they did what we asked them to do. Laser-like ranks, fins in front of them, dive mask on top, razorblades for knives and they’ll have a little bit of a grin on their face because we walk in and they’d be like, “We did it right,” and we’ll beat them worse than the day they showed up late. What will happen is inevitably 2 or 3 will be like, “This is unfair. This is a total BS. I’m out of here.” They’ll quit. For those that stay, we’ll be like, “The reason you’re going to do right by this job is what you’re going to recognize is the acts of violence on the actual battlefield, they are random.” While they can feel personal, they’re not. It’s the way that construct unfolds. If you’re not the type of person that can do everything right and have it go horrifically wrong, be fine with that and come back fighting the next day, you’re not long for this job. It’s not for you.
Those random acts of instructor violence are one of the true secrets of our training compound. Our training methodology that you could do everything perfectly right and it can go catastrophic wrong. That’s what you’re going to see in the balance. It’s what we’re seeing right now. I don’t think anybody did anything wrong for this event. People will armchair, a quarterback that we could have been prepared. We didn’t know what’s coming. Nobody knows when it’s coming and how much you do to prepare for things like this. You’ve got to take action and keep working the problem when that happens. Those are a couple of resilience concepts I have for the events.
I’m taking that in myself because from the time that we’re young, a lot of people are programmed to see mistakes as the thing you have to avoid. Somehow there’s this even maybe an assumption to avoid mistakes that things will work out. You get a chance of, let’s say, not having it go horribly wrong if you could figure out how to make the fewest mistakes possible. What is sinister and diabolical but incredibly valuable about what you described is the fact that you could plan your life to the nth degree. You plan your business, plan everything out, and do everything according to the books and by the numbers and the shit will still hit the fan at times.
Imagine the worst possible time and for you to be able to be the eye of the storm, to be the calm in the middle of a storm is incredibly valuable. Maybe let’s talk about that for a second because the value of being able to think clearly, be alert, and what it takes to be alert while other people are losing their freaking minds all around you is a very important skill in the work that you used to do. It’s usually an important skill in business for sure. Can you think of a time where that was tested more than normal?
The real beauty of SEAL training with that random acts of instructor violence is the unbelievable level of preparation we put in and how intense and visceral we make that training. There’s almost nothing I saw on the battlefield. While we certainly had curve balls and challenges and things that I didn’t expect at the moment, I don’t remember many times where I was like, “I never thought about that to unfold.” We had done the work to be prepared for what we would bring to bear in any given fight. It comes down to creativity and confidence and your ability to keep your head. If people haven’t read Rudyard Kipling’s If, that poem. They should read that if they want to talk about keeping their heads when others are losing theirs around them. It’s one of the great stories ever about that concept.
People ask me a lot what’s the number one thing I ever learned in SEAL training. This is often like a young man that wants to learn some fighting tactic or a way to kill somebody with a spoon or something like that, which I can talk to, but it’s not the number one thing I learned. The number one thing I learned was from a master chief right before we graduated from the basic course instruction. SEAL Master Chief is the senior ranking enlisted person in the United States Navy. You can go no further. At a basic training command, they are all-powerful. I remember we were planning for a practice mission and we’re behind in our timeline. The instructors know that. Like I was saying on that pool back with the random acts of instructor violence, we know we’re going to get beaten horribly for being behind. The senior officer in the class is running around knowing we’re behind screaming like the Tasmanian devil trying to get us caught up the timeline.
This master chief walked out, he could see the panic and chaos unfolding. He called all the officers over. He, in the end, gave us all this advice. He’s like, “Let me tell you one of the best things I ever learned from a master chief from Vietnam that shared this with me.” He said, “Calm is contagious.” He told me that at that moment years ago. I don’t think anything ever served me better my entire time in the military. I never saw a mission or a gunfight going so perfectly that if a senior leader or the officer in charge of the senior leaders in charge lost their head, it didn’t fall apart or go off the tracks. I never saw anything going off the track so bad if the people in charge kept their head that it didn’t at least stay the same or get better. It is true. Calm is contagious, particularly as a leader. If you keep it together, others will keep it together. If you lose it, they will lose it for sure.
Right before we started, we were chatting about Jones Beach and you know that beach. A disclaimer here, I’m not comparing our service at Jones Beach to your service, sir. Thank you, for your service and everyone else out there doing the work that they’re doing. I’ll say this, however, about the work we did. We were outmanned pretty much every day unless the ocean was like a lake and we had those days for sure. We could look at girls that day. We could be lifeguards in the best sense of what that was like. Most days, there were rip currents and the ocean can be a cool taskmaster. No controlling Mother Nature and that can be a beast. When you’ve got 100,000 people on a half a mile square piece of sand, and there are twenty lifeguards, ten at a time, protecting the people who are in the water, the odds are not exactly in our favor. When I was nineteen years old, we had somebody go down and had to do a full-on search and rescue to find this person in the dark, cold Atlantic water.
You’re in the water 90 minutes and you’re blue, you’re shivering and we get no gear. We’re diving down ten feet into the dark, trying to find someone, hoping you find and hoping you don’t. It was scary as shit at nineteen. When that whole thing unfolded, it was devastating to sit with a captain of our field and find that this guy was gone. They found him days later on the jetty at Field 1. He said, “We’ve got to learn. You’ve got to be able to come back from this. Everybody’s going to get up on the stand because the people that are on this beach are going to be here tomorrow again. We’ve got to be impeccable.” He said, “We’ve got to learn our lesson from this, first. Secondly, we’ve got to commit to a higher standard for sure.” That standard for us, it was something I talk about in my TED Talk, that we committed that no one would ever go on our watch again.
He made it pretty clear when he said, “You either make the save or you die trying.” That was the mantra. You didn’t go in the water and not come out with somebody. He said, “We’ve got to have each other’s backs to do this.” To be so outnumbered, as we were, and Mother Nature is so completely oblivious to us. We’re so insignificant, but we had to have each other’s backs. I want to get a sense of how important that principle has been for you in your career as a SEAL and leaving the SEAL. Coming out of the military, how important is it that you are maintaining some of the same philosophies and bringing them to life in the work that you do as an author, as a speaker, etc.
The trust and taking care of one another I think it’d be hard to put any stakes higher than in combat. One of the reasons we pushed training to that such far limit and extreme, and frankly to the breaking point, is that we make sure the one thing that’s a guarantee is that the person on the right and left of you, in front of you, behind you are at a minimum going to never give up. We drill that in from day one. You drill that in from bootcamp and then at SEAL training, even the most simple tasks.
If you’re running to the chow hall, you’re going to the bathroom, you need to get a piece of gear that you forgot or you needed, you do not run alone. You will never see a singular person, cadet, a student running through training. At a minimum, you will be in what we call a swim pair or a swim buddy. It’s like, “I got in trouble. I’m going to get beat mercilessly.” A buddy will jump up and start running with you and be like, “It’s probably going to happen to me too.” You cannot go anywhere without a buddy. On a swim, if you’re further than six feet apart, you can fail this swim because you left your swim buddy. You did not keep that two-person integrity. It builds up to four guys, eight guys, a squad, a platoon, an assault force, or whatever that might be. You leave no one behind. We’ve made a very conscious decision also on the battlefield that there was a pre-9/11 romance of we mean so much, leave no man behind, that twenty of us would die to pull a dead teammate out of the fight.
You also recognize in a real war, and that was a pre-war convention, that we’re never going to leave somebody behind. We’re never going to not keep, go searching for them and go find them. There are times when we had teammates die on the battlefield and more people are going to die if we try and throw you on our shoulder or do something to get out of there. Every one of us will be like, “If I’ve turned into a piece of meat, you better go. You can have a headstone at Arlington. You don’t need to have my body in it. I’d much rather see you guys see the end the day.” We’re talking the most extreme possible case in our line of work. If somebody is in the fight and still fighting, nobody’s leaving that person’s side until we get everybody out of there.
It’s a remarkable thing when your foundation is knowing that the people you’re around at a minimum will never fail you or never quit you. It’s very hard to replicate or it’s much harder to replicate post my time in the military. I know those guys would do the exact same thing in our post-military life when I’m around them and I can feel that. It’s a special thing to be around. I come from a family that my brother and my dad, my mom, and all those people are very much the same way. We have that commitment to each other and so that’s special. Those are bonds that are exceptionally hard to replicate in your next life. It’s why a lot of the guys and girls that come out of elite units in the military do struggle sometimes in their next life because they don’t feel the same level of purpose and commitment of those around them than the whole block of time they spent doing what we did.
The idea that somebody that’s given so much of themselves on behalf of their country and put in that service, that they could be lost at the alarming rate that we see military service people are lost when they leave. The suicide rates and other issues, they’re unacceptable. I don’t even know what to say. It breaks anybody’s heart to see that.
It’s one thing that we do exceptionally well in the military is to build everybody up to a point of performance. We don’t have an excellent on-ramp. I heard one of my friends talking about, “It’s like you’re going over a bridge. The military builds you up to this bridge. The bridge doesn’t go down the other side to land you back into their next life.” We’re much more cognizant of that. We have tremendous programs. The off-ramp both within the military and then amazing post-military civilian or nonprofit veterans service organizations that are trying to figure out how to get employment, enjoyable activities, and connective activities for veterans so they don’t feel lost. They don’t feel rudderless when they leave. I was very lucky in my departure. I don’t think I’ve ever defined myself by any one chapter in my life. I love history, but I don’t live in the past. I live in the present. That’s how I’m moving forward. I’m as excited about what’s coming next as what I’ve done up to this point. My personality was made to do that transition but I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss being around those guys. I’m purposeful every year to pick a surf trip out your window and a hunting trip with friends and spots where we can get together, reconnect and have those unbelievable campfires of catching up on our times and tell a bunch of lies and spend time together.
Reinvention is one of those skills. We’ve got four kids and we always wanted them to be independent-thinking. That was our early parenting. That was the only thing we had to go on. There’s not a whole lot of blueprint for what to do as a new parent. I would add to that that I want our kids, from our example, to be able to pivot in a way that is not seamless but doesn’t involve suffering. Reinvention is something that is a thing we do sometimes because we’re forced to do it. Other times, it’s simply because we’re able to recognize that there are seasons to everything. You had a season as a SEAL and now you have a season as an author, a speaker, and other things. It also sounds to me like resilience, as you were defining it, which is something that you create before you need it. That’s part of that preparation. You’ve got to prepare to be resilient before the shit would hit the fan.Work your tail off so that no matter where you show up, you're of high value. Click To Tweet
There is no high-functioning, high-performing team that doesn’t play and rises to the occasion. I had this idea, and I didn’t coin this phrase, but that people don’t usually rise to the occasion. We certainly don’t see it on the battlefield. What we see is them degrading to their level of training. If your level of training was exceptional, then you’re probably going to have an exceptional performance even if it’s going south. If you had piss-poor training, you’re probably going to have piss-poor performance. You’re not going to be able to fake it.
I would imagine when you look at any of the great dynasties in sports, you look at the Patriots, you look at the Bulls with Jordan and Pippen and all those guys. You go into their practices and their practices are different. They prepare harder, more focused, more driven, more dialed in to what the culture and the commitment to the goal is. The performance matches that. They perform based on the way they prepare for the event. I was at that super bowl a few years ago in Houston when it was the Pats against the Falcons in Atlanta and I was with Getty Images. I’m with the guys taking the photographs. The only people that are in front of Getty Images are NFL Films and they are a half-inch in front. You’re right on the field and I’m running their little SD cards because they’re posting pictures.
I’m like a little gopher out there but I get to watch this game standing on the sidelines. In the pregame, Brady is throwing little out routes, little slant routes to Edelman, and all his receivers. I remember one where Edelman went straight out and went to the side like a post or a slant and he’s feet from me and Brady throws this pass. Edelman could have had his eyes closed and had his hands out and that ball was there. I saw him reach a little bit to grab the ball, but it was right there. I saw Brady snap his fingers like, “Get back here, run it again.” He was off by inches with that pass and he’s like, “We’re running it again. I’m not going to have that be the pass. I’m practicing throwing.” These people are playing a different game. It’s something.
Sports is always a great analogy for those kinds of things as well. You can judge the performance on the day clearly. Somebody like Jerry Rice, I heard stories of how with Joe Montana. You’re a Bay Area kid. He would run these routes and every ten-yard little button hook or something and he’d take the ball, catch it and then run into the end zone. Every time he would catch a pass, he would run the 80-yard, the 90 yards into the end zone, “That’s all I’m going to be is in the end zone.” The guys that were on, he was mentoring by his example as well. He’s like, “That’s the standard.”
That’s infectious. When you say, calm is contagious, excellence is contagious, the intensity is contagious. All these things feed off each other. I don’t know what the NFL season is going to be based on the state of the world, but I wouldn’t be betting against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Tom Brady showing up. That guy is going to show up and that locker room is going to be instantly transformed. If you think people are going to show up and be like, “Let’s blow this one-off,” that isn’t going to be the case.
As we wrap up, I would love if you could share one thing that you do on a daily basis. A ritual to help you to build your continued resilience. Part of your performance has to do with the skill with which you communicate both in writing and verbally and in other scenarios as well. What does it look like for you to build?
There are a couple of things I do. One thing I’ll say, which I know will resonate with you because I watched a few of your videos and looked at some of the things you talk about. I do think a lot of people have separated physical, mental, and spiritual as if those are all not interrelated and connected to everything we do. If you think your physical fitness doesn’t directly relate to your mental, spiritual, and emotional health, these are all ecosystems. They’re like a tripod. You’re not going to stay up if you don’t have one of them. The massive amount of physical fitness we had in the SEAL Teams was one of our pillars. We are going to be physically harder and more prepared for the challenges we’ll face than anybody else.
I’m in nowhere near the same shape I was when I was a 26-year-old snake eater in the SEAL teams. Some workout, some athletic push every day, maybe one day off a week is vitally important. I can tell if I’m not getting cardio exercise, picking heavy things up off the ground and putting them over my head or some type of workout in, I’m on much worse for it. The physical connecting your mental is hugely important. The third part of that tripod is spiritual. If that’s religion, yoga, or meditation, you pick it. I’m not going to trouble anybody about that choice. Those three things, mental study and preparing yourself, physical, working out and pushing yourself and then that spiritual side. Those three things keep omnipresent in your mind are what make the highest performing people.
I’ve got a friend, if you’d be willing to, you should interview him at some point. A guy by the name of Warren Rustand. He’s a phenomenal thinker and a very successful businessman. He does a lot of work with entrepreneurs. He’s a real mentor of mine, but he’s very much about morning routines. I will not ever take anything from Warren and not give him credit, but it’s this 10-10-10. He does ten minutes of basically breathing or prayer or meditation. He does ten minutes of thinking, centering yourselves, and thinking about things and ten minutes of reading. There’s not a day in the calendar year that Warren doesn’t start with those three things. Talk about a discipline that takes place every time in the morning to set yourself on a course of excellence, focus, and drive. I’ve been trying very much to implement a variant of his with the workout, breathing, and thinking and it’s pretty good. The first thing you do when you get out of bed is to have a discipline system to kick the day. Warren knows what he’s talking about on that one.
I will say that the morning ritual for me is everything. It’s one thing for the better part of my years. It’s so dependable and reliable. I’m going to get a fruit that looks very much like the seeds that I plant at the start of that day. Emmet Fox is one of my favorite metaphysical teachers. Whether it’s meditation, stillness, or it’s being quiet with yourself. I’m a big prayer guy, but not everybody is, but that’s cool too. I love Emmet Fox and this one book, Around the Year with Emmet Fox is a great way for me to begin my day. My typical waking ritual, which is also powerful. I’ll remind myself of it as often as possible. Do it right now for everybody as well. If we’re lucky, we get to wake up again.
Clearly, that happened to you. When you went to sleep, there was no guarantee that that was going to happen. In fact, we know right now in the middle of this crisis, we’re all seeing unfold that there are people who are not going to wake up again. It’s both a tragedy and an opportunity at the same time. For us, when we realize we have been given another day, there’s a significant charge to that, there’s a responsibility. What are we going to do with that? What’s the creative opportunity in that new day we get? To me, step one, wake up. Let’s all agree to do that. I hope everybody’s willing to agree to that.
Step two, what gratitude can you cultivate at that moment? If for nothing else, then the opportunity of the day that you’ve been given, whereas other people have not been given that. Lastly, what’s the first thing you say in the morning? What are the first words you say either to yourself inside your mind, in that cavern, or the things that come out of your mouth? Mine are these four simple words. “I love my life.” Those are the words. I don’t even have to think hard about asking you this. Do you love your life?
I can’t believe it’s happening. Every turn has been a gift. The hardest parts have been the best parts. The easiest parts have probably been the boring windows of time, but I still pulled something out of this. It’s an adventure. It’s all a gift. I totally agree. You’re talking about reinvention early. It is so key. My dad and I were talking about this and he was a trial attorney for many years. He had a case that was about this guy that made ice skates. He is an Italian ice skate maker, but he was the best ice skate maker in the world. The lawsuit was funny. It was about somebody’s feet hurt and he was getting sued literally for not making the right ice skates.
I got to share this because my dad would love it. He’s on the stand at some point. The opposing attorneys are grilling him about how do you measure the foot and how do you do this? He shows them, “I traced the foot on a piece of paper and then I look at the foot, I can make it.” The guy is giving him an egregious time like, “Is that the proper way to measure a foot?” He says, “I’m no Jesus the Christ, but I’m pretty good.” He’s one of those guys that knew it. His grandfather was a bootmaker. His father was a bootmaker. He’s this bootmaker. Those people that have that singular design in their life, there’s some part of me that’s a little jealous. If you knew this is the one thing, I’m like, “If I could bake bread, that’d be cool.” I don’t think most of us are that. I know I’m not that.On the battlefield, if somebody is still fighting, nobody is leaving that person's side. Click To Tweet
Your dad was a trial attorney for a lot of years. Was that his one thing?
I would say so. It’s perfect for the personality described. He’s very disciplined, he’s very fit, he’s very focused. His brain retains information like nobody I’ve almost ever seen. Going through documents and finding those key points and critical nodes of ideas were probably like reading the Dick and Jane book for him. He’s a beautiful speaker and a powerful present guy. The trial room was truly his arena. I got the benefit of it as the doting son, understanding, and learning from him.
It’s good to be able to speak so highly of your dad, of a parent. I’m blessed that my mom and dad both are still around. I talked to him. He was on our Resilience-a-Thon. He was telling me he loved this guy, Dawson Church, who was talking, leading through meditation and we had some other people on. When you grow up in a household where lifelong learning is valued, then you get even a greater shot, the pivots, the reinventions along the way. They take humility and we’ve got to be students. If we can do that, there’s nothing that we’re not capable of. I appreciate your time. This was great.
I enjoyed it. Thank you.
People, please go ahead. We love your feedback. We know how important feedback is in the military, and it’s so important to all of us in business. This show survives and thrives on the comments that we get from all of you. It’s AdamMarkel.com/podcasts. You can leave a comment there. You can subscribe or leave a review on iTunes or Stitcher. I would love it if you’d all think about how it is you’re going to create the first moment of the day when you wake up. What’s that one thing that you want to cultivate in your mind? What’s that one thing you might even say? This has been wonderful, Commander. Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
- Commander Rorke T. Denver
- Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior
- Worth Dying For: A Navy SEALs Call to a Nation
- The Success Principles
- Chicken Soup for the Soul
- Around the Year with Emmet Fox
- iTunes – The Conscious PIVOT
- Stitcher – The Conscious PIVOT
About Rorke Denver
Commander Rorke T. Denver has run every phase of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs and led special-forces missions in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and other international hot spots. He starred in the hit film Act of Valor, which is based on true SEAL adventures. His New York Times bestseller, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, takes you inside his personal story and the fascinating, demanding SEAL training program. In his second book Worth Dying For A Navy SEALs Call to a Nation, Rorke tackles the questions that have emerged about America’s past decade at war–from what makes a hero to why we fight and what it does to us. Rorke was most recently seen on FOX’s American Grit. The series followed 16 of the country’s toughest men and women as they faced a variety of military-grade and survival-themed challenges set in the wilderness.
As an assistant officer in charge of BRAVO Platoon at SEAL Team THREE, he was deployed to SOUTCOM, the Central and South American Area of Operations. His platoon was the “alert” SEAL team for maritime interdiction, hostage rescue, counter-insurgency, and counter-narcotics. As SEAL officer aboard, Denver led his group’s response to a murderous uprising in the Ivory Coast nation of Liberia, launching advanced-force operations, conducting hydrographic beach reconnaissance, and helping to get U.S. Marines safely ashore.
In 2006, Denver was an officer in charge of BRAVO Platoon of SEAL Team THREE in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in one of the most combat-heavy deployments of any regular SEAL team since Vietnam. Stationed in Habbaniya, his team conducted over 200 missions including sniper operations, direct assaults, special reconnaissance, and ground patrols. Denver’s team has been widely credited with propelling the “Tribal Awakening” that helped to neutralize Iraq’s insurgency. Denver was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” for valorous action in combat.
After returning to the United States, Denver was appointed flag lieutenant to Admiral Joseph Maguire, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare, traveling to Afghanistan and briefing Congress on SEAL operations. In 2009, he became the First Phase officer of SEAL Basic Training including Hell Week, then rose to Basic Training officer. He went on to run all phases of training including advanced sniper, hand-to-hand fighting, communications, diving, and language.
Denver is the founder of Ever Onward, a fresh, new brand designed to use Navy SEAL principles to call leaders to take action, to suffer, and to be bold so they can perform at their highest levels. He is a highly-sought-after speaker to companies and organizations and provides numerous innovative products and services to help teams and individuals live and perform at higher levels.
Denver is an honor graduate of the United States Army Ranger School. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Syracuse University, where he was an All-American lacrosse player and captain of the varsity lacrosse team. He earned a Master’s Degree in Global Business Leadership from the University of San Diego.