Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life - by Eric Greitens

Your Frontline

You have a frontline in your life now. In fact, everyone has a place where they encounter fear, where they struggle, suffer, and face hardship. We all have battles to fight. And it's often in those battles that we are most alive: it's on the frontlines of our lives that we earn wisdom, create joy, forge friendships, discover happiness, find love, and do purposeful work. If you want to win any meaningful kind of victory, you'll have to fight for it.

Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength--if we have the virtue of resilience.

When we're struggling, we don't need a book in our hands. We need the right words in our minds. When things are tough, a mantra does more good than a manifesto.

Why Resilience?

"Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge." -- MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI

The test of a philosophy is simple: does it lead people to live better lives? If not, the philosophy fails. If so, it succeeds. Philosophy used to mean developing ideas about a life worth living, and then living that life. It still can.

We all need something to struggle against and to struggle for. The aim in life is not to avoid struggles, but to have the right ones; not to avoid worry, but to care about the right things; not to live without fear, but to confront worthy fears with force and passion.

What Is Resilience?

What happens to us becomes part of us. Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives. In time, people find that great calamity met with great spirit can create great strength.

When pain hits you, it hits a moving target. And since you're already moving, what will change is not so much your state as your trajectory. Don't expect a time in your life when you'll be free from change, free from struggle, free from worry. To be resilient, you must understand that your objective is not to come to rest, because there is no rest. Your objective is to use what hits you to change your trajectory in a positive direction.

Resilience is distinct from mere survival, and more than mere endurance. Resilience is often endurance with direction. Where are you headed? Why are you going there?

A virtue is an excellence that we can develop like any other excellence. When we think of a virtue as an excellence, it changes the way we look at the world and at ourselves. We begin to see that virtue is not necessarily something that we have, but something that we practice.

You weren't born with resilience, any more than you were born with the ability to use a compass or aim a rifle. Resilience is an excellence we build. We can practice it in the choices we make and the actions we take. After enough practice, resilience becomes part of who we are.

When we understand a virtue as an excellence that we practice, three other things will happen. First, you will gain a great sense of power. You will recognize that you have more ability than you thought to shape your character and, with it, your fate. Second, you will become more forgiving of others. Third, we begin to see the power, fun, majesty, and beauty in virtue. Virtue is not about what you deny yourself, but what you make of yourself.

We become what we do if we do it often enough. We act with courage, and we become courageous. We act with compassion, and we become compassionate. If we make resilient choices, we become resilient.


I begin with humility, I act with humility, I end with humility. Humility leads to clarity. Humility leads to an open mind and a forgiving heart. With an open mind and a forgiving heart, I see every person as superior to me in some way; with every person as my teacher, I grow in wisdom. As I grow in wisdom, humility becomes ever more my guide. I begin with humility, I act with humility, I end with humility. That's my humility mantra. I usually read it twice a day at the beginning of the day.

Great changes come when we make small adjustments with great conviction. You want to transform who you are right now and the role that you play in the world--in your community, in your family, with your fellow veterans. To get there, all you have to do right now is make a slight change of course. Point yourself in a new direction and start walking.

Over time, through a process of daily choices, we find that we've built courage, strength, and wisdom. We've changed who we are and how we can be of service to the people around us. What choices will you make today?

You don't need to be a golden boy. You don't need to be a hero. You don't need to pretend--to yourself or to anyone--that you're showing up with perfect motives. If you wait to begin until you've mastered your intentions, you'll never begin. Selfish, silly, vain desires can create real growth when you subject them to discipline. Accept that you are imperfect and always will be. Your quest is not to perfect yourself, but to better your imperfect self.

Those who are excellent at their work have learned to comfortably coexist with failure. The excellent fail more often than the mediocre. They begin more. They attempt more. They attack more. Mastery lives quietly atop a mountain of mistakes.

If every risk you take pays off, then you probably aren't actually taking risks.

What distinguishes the exceptional from the unexceptional? A willingness to fail, and an exceptional ability to learn from every failure.


Flourishing is not a virtue, but a condition; not a character trait, but a result. We need virtue to flourish, but virtue isn't enough. To create a flourishing life, we need both virtue and the conditions in which virtue can flourish.

In the same way that an infinite variety of colors can be created from three primary ones, we can think about the full range of happiness by looking at three primary kinds of happiness: the happiness of pleasure, the happiness of grace, and the happiness of excellence.

Without getting into the theological details, grace is often considered to be a free gift from God that comes to us even though we haven't earned it. And there is a happiness that comes to human beings when we are grateful for the gifts we have received. You might also call this the happiness of gratitude.

The most common mistake people make in thinking about the happiness of excellence is to focus on moments of achievement. They imagine the mountain climber on the summit. That's part of the happiness of excellence, and a very real part. What counts more, though, is not the happiness of being there, but the happiness of getting there. A mountain climber heads for the summit, and joy meets her along the way.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, talking about the concept of flow, the kind of happiness that comes when we lose ourselves through complete absorption in a rewarding task: "These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives. A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual." These moments of immersion, of engagement, of clear focus--moments that can last for hours, occasionally days--are some of the best times of our lives." "Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."

The challenge for the veteran--and for anyone suddenly deprived of purpose--is not simply to overcome trauma, but to rebuild meaning. The only way out is through. Through suffering to strength. Through hardship to healing. And the longer we wait, the less life we have to live.

There is happiness in struggle.

When we rob people of their pain--when we don't allow them the possibility of failure--we also rob them of their happiness. We are meant to have worthy work to do. If we aren't allowed to struggle for something worthwhile, we'll never grow in resilience, and we'll never experience complete happiness.


Aristotle told his students that "what is valuable and pleasant to a morally good man actually is valuable and pleasant." In other words, you know what the good thing is by seeing what the good person does. If you want to know how to live well, don't make things more complicated than they need to be. Just look at a model of someone who's already living well. Start there.

What's powerful about this simple idea is that, over time, you'll begin to find models for almost any part of your life that you want to make excellent. And because of this, in any well-lived life, you'll likely not have one model, but many.

There's no excellence in a vacuum. Look at the most original people you can think of--the pathbreaking scientist, the profound artist, the record-setting athlete--and you'll find people who started by copying. So copy, day after day. And one day you'll take stock and find that what started out as copying--whether it's your writing, or your way of being a dad, or your way of facing up to loss--has become something uniquely your own.

You won't achieve exactly what your model has achieved. But by learning the habits, disciplines, and practices that made their accomplishments possible, you'll find your way to accomplishments of your own. Rather than ask, "How can I achieve what they achieved?" try asking, "How can I create myself as they created themselves?"

We don't choose our models in a spirit of passive, all-consuming admiration, as a child does. We must choose actively, as an adult does. We're seasoned enough to know that no one exercises a perfect and complete set of the virtues. We can select the qualities we want to emulate, leaving aside the rest without regrets.

The models you choose for your life should match the challenges you're facing. Over time, you'll grow. Your sense of self will change. You'll have new challenges, and you will choose new models of excellence to help you meet them. The model who was perfect at one time in our lives can turn imperfect as our lives and our needs change. The model who taught us courage may be ill suited when the times demand patience. At each stage, we pursue different dreams, learn different ways of living a good life, and pass through different trials. So we cannot hold inflexibly to our models. We cannot make them into idols. And when times change, we have to let go of our models with gratitude.


If you want to feel differently, act differently.

When you put identity first--when you start from your conscious choice to be a certain kind of person--the way you think about achievement changes too. You see that character precedes achievement. While what we accomplish is sometimes beyond our control, we can always shape who we are. We can't promise achievement. But we can become the kind of people who are worthy of achievement. Make yourself into the kind of person who is capable of building the business, holding down the job, and teaching the kid, and the results will come in time.

Your actions shape your state. Here's an experiment. Smile. Really smile. Try to genuinely smile for fifteen seconds. If you're like most people, you'll feel better. Smiling for a few seconds doesn't transform you, but it does change you. This works in lots of ways. Take fear. If, when you're afraid, you slow and deepen your breathing, you'll gain control over your mind.

Some people try to make this business of living too complicated, Walker. It's hard, but it doesn't need to be complicated. Decide who you want to be. Act that way. In time, you'll become the person you resolve to be. When you act this way, you're going to feel like a fake at first. But this is exactly how we consciously create our own character. "Be what you would like to seem." Wear the mask of the virtue you want until it's no longer a mask.

Becoming someone new will sometimes feel like play. That's a good thing. A lot of adults think that the opposite of play is work. And they think that if something is serious or important that it should be treated as work. The opposite of play isn't work. The opposite of play is disengagement. Creating who you are is a serious and important endeavor. But engage with it and it'll feel fun, playful.

Millions of people, in all walks of life and in every endeavor, create distractions and excuses for themselves by focusing on tools rather than on character. They'd rather, as Socrates warned, focus on what they have than on what they are. But you know better than that. No tool can take the place of character.


When a habit has become so ingrained that actions begin to flow from you without conscious thought or effort, then you have changed your character. If we are intentional about what we repeatedly do, we can practice who we want to become. And through practice, we can become who we want to be.

When you read a good biography, or you come to know a good friend, what you begin to see is that the direction of that person's life is shaped not by a single turning point, but by thousands of days, each filled with small, unspectacular decisions and small, unremarkable acts that make us who we are. You'll understand your own life better, and the lives of others better, if you stop looking for critical decisions and turning points. Your life builds not by dramatic acts, but by accumulation.

People like to imagine that they will "rise to the occasion." They taught us in the Teams that people rarely do. What happens, in fact, is that when things get really hard and people are really afraid, they sink to the level of their training. You train your habits. And if a critical moment does come, all you can be is ready for it.

You don't need a turning point, an epiphany, a miracle moment to change your life. How many people have put off the necessary, unglamorous work of building habits because they spend their lives waiting for an epiphany that never comes? Don't wait. Don't wait a single day. Live.

A life without habits--in which we had to consider from scratch each day which shoe to tie first and how we want to brush our teeth--would leave us exhausted. By relying on habits, we free our minds to focus on what matters most.

If you're growing, you're likely failing. If you're not failing, you're likely not growing.

As time passes, some people become especially fearful of failure. They seek to protect what they've accumulated. They lose the hunger and daring of their early days. Comfortable in a cocoon, they experiment less. They try fewer new things. They embrace fewer adventures.

We should be, in part, beginners for our entire lives. Beginning anew refreshes the habit of learning.


The more responsibility people take, the more resilient they are likely to be. The less responsibility people take--for their actions, for their lives, for their happiness--the more likely it is that life will crush them. At the root of resilience is the willingness to take responsibility for results.

Life is unfair. You are not responsible for everything that happens to you. You are responsible for how you react to everything that happens to you.

If you take responsibility for anything in your life, know that you'll feel fear. That fear will manifest itself in many ways: fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of hurt. Such fears are entirely natural and healthy, and you should recognize them as proof that you've chosen work worth doing. Every worthy challenge will inspire some fear. Embrace the fear that comes from accepting responsibility, and use it to propel yourself to become the person you choose to be.

People who think you weak will offer you an excuse. People who respect you will offer you a challenge.


If you want to live a purposeful life, you will have to create your purpose. How do you create your purpose? You take action. You try things. You fail. You pursue excellence in your endeavors and you endure pain. The pursuit of excellence forces you beyond what you already know, and in this way you come to better understand the world. You do this not once, not twice, not three times, but three thousand times. You make it a habit. Through action, you learn what you are capable of doing and you sense what you are capable of becoming.

You want to know what your purpose is. I can't tell you. I can tell you that, whatever it is, you'll have to work for it. Your purpose will not be found; it will be forged.

The greatest definition of a vocation I've ever heard was offered by Reverend Peter Gomes. He said that your vocation is "the place where your great joy meets the world's great need."

People who lament, "I'm bored," are usually complaining about an absence of diversion, a lack of spectacle. But often, I think, they're really lamenting a lack of meaning. Without meaning, everything becomes spectacle, and spectacle becomes exhausting. In the long run, the only cure for boredom is meaning.

We all know what it's like to do work that doesn't engage us. Everything--the thought that you need to wash the dishes, a movement in the corner of your eye--becomes a distraction. In response, distracted people often try to eliminate distractions. They create processes, rules, or tricks to help them do their work. This is helpful sometimes. But much of the time, the drive to kill distractions can be a huge distraction itself. There will always be distractions in life. We can be unnerved even by the sound of silence. Focus comes not from working without distractions, but with a devotion so intense that distractions fall from our awareness. When we see people whose talents lie fallow, whose energy is engaged in pursuits they see as trivial--or worse, in pursuits others see as destructive--the problem usually isn't that they have too many distractions. The problem is that they have too few devotions.

Nobility in work lies not so much in the work that we do, but in the excellence we bring to it. We hurt ourselves as a society when we imagine that service is something that select people choose to do, rather than the expectation of every citizen.


If philosophy doesn't make you uncomfortable sometimes, it's not doing its job. When we take a hard, honest look in the mirror, it's natural to be disturbed. When we discover things we don't like about ourselves--small ways we've been lying to ourselves, bad habits we've fallen into--it's natural to be angry. Just as we can train ourselves to endure and even to seek the pain that sometimes comes from physical exercise, we can train ourselves to endure and to welcome the discomfort and fear that come when we do philosophy. Those feelings of discomfort are often proof that we're making progress.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." -- F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

If you think deeply and you find that two important ideas seem to be in contradiction, what you should do first is celebrate: your discovery is evidence that you've had the courage to think deeply. You've become self-aware. You've discovered something about yourself that most people never have the courage to consider: that your own ideas, and your own life, might not fit into a tidy little package. What do you do next? Press on. Maybe, as you think harder and live more, your contradiction will resolve itself. Maybe it won't. Remember that the intention of philosophy isn't to help you live a logical life. It's to make you self-aware and help you live a good life.

Benjamin Franklin, when he was just twenty-one, organized a club of friends called the Junto that met every week to discuss philosophy and public affairs. If you want to live like a philosopher, do what Franklin did--seek out good conversation. Philosophy is, and has always been, a kind of conversation. It's only by engaging with others that we break out of the prison of our own prejudices, our own bad habits, our own fears. That's what we're trying to do together here.

Broadly speaking, you will be faced with two ways of thinking about what counts as good in life: intentions or results. We are ultimately measured by our results, by the way our actions shape the world around us. Without results, all the kind intentions in the world are just a way of entertaining ourselves.

The "morality of intentions"--which would measure our goodness in terms of what we hope to accomplish rather than what we actually accomplish--tells us that our thoughts and feelings count for something in their own right. It's an appealing philosophy to those who exist, or want to exist, in a world of pure thought or feeling. But it can also be a selfish kind of morality. It elevates the helper above the one who should be helped. It says, "What matters is the fact that I have the right opinions, not what good my opinions do in the world. What matters is what I hope or intend, not what you deserve or receive." In fact, a morality of intentions--even the best intentions--can distort your view of the world in a way that leads to great harm. A morality of intentions also fails to help us get better. If all that matters are our intentions, we don't have much of a reason to make ourselves better at doing good. A morality of results is difficult precisely because it requires us to mold ourselves into wiser, tougher, more capable people who do good in a difficult world. Intentions do matter. But they matter because they find expression in our actions and in our character. What ultimately matters is not what we intend, but who we become and what we leave behind us.


I want you to practice practice. You must practice the art of practicing. Let me explain. When most people practice, they think of themselves as practicing how to do something. What if, instead, you think of yourself as learning how to practice something? If you learn how to do something--change a tire, prepare a canvas, develop a photograph, pour concrete, make macaroni and cheese--then you've learned how to do one thing. If you learn how to practice, then you have learned how to learn anything. It is only through practice that we attain excellence in any endeavor. And perhaps the greatest skill we can learn is the skill of practice itself.

One of the reasons why we talked about models before and in so much detail is that especially when things get messy, your models can provide you a standard for excellence in your work. When you don't know where to look for a standard, you can start by asking, "What would they do if they were here?"

The magnitude of the challenge × the intensity of your attack = your rate of growth

Five variables go into training or practice of any kind: frequency, intensity, duration, recovery, and reflection.

The Greeks understood that shaping human behavior requires repetition. This is as true of mental and spiritual training as it is of physical training. We can lose focus. We take a day off, and then a week off. We forget what inspired us in the first place. And to prevent these things from happening--to prevent the slackening of effort that can come in any practice--we build structures of repetition into our lives. In repetition, three things happen. First, we are reminded. Most of the important things in life need to be taught only once, but we need to be reminded of them often. Marcus Aurelius's practice of philosophy was really nothing more than an elaborate system of self-reminding. He recognized that "we need more often to be reminded than informed." Second, as we change over time, the same message works on us in different ways. A message about mental toughness in the face of exhaustion will be heard differently by the young athlete than by the new parent. Third, an idea is similar to a tool: for it to become part of who we are and how we think, we have to become familiar with it. We become familiar with ideas not only by reading about them or hearing about them, but by thinking about them, talking about them, writing about them, and using them in our lives.

Practice and purposeful repetition are what separate an idea that interests us for a moment from an idea that becomes a part of our character.

Is the problem really that people don't know enough? Or is it that they don't do enough of the right stuff? It's an important question to ask, because it helps us to get clear on the relationship between education and training. We often assume that learning is enough, that once we know something is good or right or wise, we'll act on that knowledge. Only rarely is that true.

Mastering Pain

Pain is rarely constant. Pain waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows. And so, too, does our relationship with it. To work through pain is not to put an end to pain, but to change how we relate to it. To work through pain is not to make it disappear, but to make it mean something different for us--to turn it into wisdom.

You don't have to push yourself to a new max every day. That's a recipe for injury. But you do have to push yourself. You do have to step beyond the boundary of your past experience. You do have to regularly and consistently pursue excellence at the edge. And you especially have to do it when you find that the world is giving you excuses to sit and do nothing. At the same time, there's a right way and a wrong way to push yourself. If you load a bar with a lot more weight than you've ever handled, you're going to hurt yourself. When you wake up and decide to do something crazy, you often end up in the hospital, or at least in a state of exhaustion and discouragement. Resilient people take risks. They might take big risks. But, as ever, there's a line between courage and stupidity. It's easy to do something crazy and hurt yourself. That's plain dumb. It's much harder, and also more valuable, to train and practice and prepare, and then push yourself just enough.

You fuel your excellence with challenges made to match you in the moment. Just as the athlete moves through muscular pain to become stronger, we can move through emotional and psychological pain to become stronger and grow wiser. But--and I want to emphasize this--we do not grow because of the pain. We grow when we recover from the right pain in the right way.

Consider this: one of the quickest ways for a medic to snap somebody out of her suffering is to ask her to describe her pain. You've done this with your kids when they're screaming. You ask them to tell you what's hurting them, and the mere act of having to breathe in order to speak slows their screaming. Then, describing what hurts forces them to step outside their pain and look at it. They might still be hurting, but they're calmer now. What happens is simple. And it works in most situations. To describe your pain, you have to (metaphorically) step outside of it. You have to look at it, analyze it. Instead of being in pain, you are now thinking about what the pain is doing to you. What's happened, at the most basic level, is that you've changed your relationship to pain. The pain might still be piercing. But by describing it, we see our pain. What happens--and this is true whether the pain we feel is from a knife wound, hunger, or a dearly loved relative's death--is that deliberate attention to pain helps us separate the physical sensation from the suffering we mentally attach to that sensation.

Everyone thinks like this occasionally, but repetitive negative inner monologues can be destructive. There are any number of strategies for stopping these destructive ideas from rattling around inside your head. Some people snap a rubber band on their wrist every time they catch themselves putting themselves down, while others jump up and down while smiling (it sounds nuts, but you do feel better). There are lots of ways to do this, but all of the strategies have two features in common. One, they make you aware of your self-talk. Two, you start to change the voice in your head. (This, again, is hard. It takes a lot of mental effort and attention, and many people simply aren't willing to do the work.) Once you're aware of the habit of destructive self-talk, you can--as with any habit--replace it with a new one. Talking positively to yourself will feel different at first: maybe it will come as a relief, or maybe it will just feel fake. But remember that changing the tone of your self-talk won't work if you try it only once. If you want to get in shape, you don't go for a run once or lift a weight once. You have to turn these activities into habits, until the day comes when you feel odd not doing them. Positive self-talk is the same: if you make it a practice, it works. Ultimately, you'll discover that, in tough moments, you've got a voice in your head that recognizes difficulty but still helps you to see possibility; it will become a part of who you are. Effective self-talk is usually simple. It's usually brief, even dull. A phrase is often better than a sentence, and a word will sometimes do just fine. Here are some examples researchers have collected from successful athletes: Good job, do it again. Concentrate. Breathe. Stay tough.

The process of taking a large goal and breaking it down into smaller parts is called segmenting. It's a simple technique, but it can make seemingly impossible hardship more manageable. We break hard things down into smaller and smaller steps until each step is easy. We make the large thing small, and the small thing smaller, and the smaller thing smaller still, until the next thing is the only thing, and that next thing happens now. When things feel too big to handle, break 'em down.

Mental visualization, or mental rehearsal, is one of the most powerful ways that we have to master pain, fear, and difficulty. Resilient people know that life is going to be hard, so they prepare themselves for hardship. Mental rehearsal, practiced properly, is simply productive preparation. The Stoics recognized something very basic about human beings: we worry. Today, people tell you, "Don't worry." That's usually friendly advice--and also unhelpful. People do worry. You worry. I worry. You can try to push fear out of your mind, but you'll find that one day it seeps back in, like rainwater working its way into the soil. It's better to tell people, "Worry productively." If you're going to spend time thinking about bad things that might happen, then use that energy for a purpose. Go ahead and visualize the worst that can happen. But instead of wallowing in your worries, imagine how you'll respond to them. Practice. Mentally rehearse what you'll do. Imagine and envision yourself making it through hardship.

Don't imagine yourself stuck in your worst-case scenario, panicking and flailing in an endless loop of disaster. Imagine real hardship. Then imagine how you are going to make it through that hardship. Both a panicked mind and a resilient mind will engage with fearful, anxious thoughts. What makes the resilient mind different is its ability to direct those thoughts productively. In the SEAL teams we called it contingency planning. Other people might call it worst-case-scenario thinking.

The naïve mind imagines effortless success. The cowardly mind imagines hardship and freezes. The resilient mind imagines hardship and prepares.

You either own your fears or they own you. Fears do their worst work when they knock around in your mind. You can't fight your fears until you put them in front of you. Write your fears down. Make them face you. The minute you do this, your fears will shrink, and you will grow.

We can begin to control the involuntary processes inside our bodies by controlling our breath. The relaxing effect of deep breathing isn't in your imagination; it has a physical reality. And it means that you have access to a powerful calming path whenever you hit your body's "manual override" switch. That switch is controlled breathing. Controlling your breathing won't erase your fears or eliminate your pain. But to be resilient, you have to learn how to exercise control over what you can control. At the most basic level, you can almost always control how you breathe. And controlling how you breathe will almost always shape how you feel, how you think, and how you react.

People who practice gratitude are less stressed and less depressed than those who don't. They're less likely to be overwhelmed by bad fortune. They even sleep better at night. One finding stands out: of all the personality traits psychologists studied, nothing did more than a sense of gratitude to promote happiness. That's why it's such a big deal that, even in the middle of a difficult time, you've found ways to give thanks. A moment of eye contact when we say "thank you," a list of the good fortune we've had this week or this year, a visit to a teacher or a friend or a relative who was there for us at a difficult time--these things make us happier, kinder, stronger.


The right way to reflect on our lives isn't too different from the scientific method. Start with a hypothesis, and then--no matter how good it makes you feel, no matter how commonsensical it sounds, no matter whose authority you have to back it up--test it. Test it honestly. Test it ruthlessly. See how it stands up to the facts of the world. Then let the results of that test--whether they affirm or contradict your hunch--shape your understanding.

Reflection is the kind of thinking that demands far more than intelligence. It demands, for instance, a certain kind of humility and courage. It requires the humility to recognize that you might have been wrong in the past, that you might be wrong today, and that you are certainly going to be wrong in the future. It takes the courage to be attentive to and honest about your own faults. And it takes a mind orderly enough and undistracted enough to enjoy its own company. To reflect well requires some virtue.

A lot of people talk too much. Especially when they are trying to learn, they ask too many questions. A lot of people need more work and less talk. More action, less complaining. We need to hear less about their feelings and see more of their effort.

Where do you start when reflecting on your experience? Let's make it simple. You can start with this question: Who do I want to be? If you have an answer to that question, everything flows from it. If you have a sense of the person you are trying to create, then you will know better, in any given situation, what to do. But let's not pretend that question has an easy answer. It takes a lot of hard thinking to work toward an answer, and you can't put your entire life on hold while you're trying to figure it out. So make it simpler still. Ask yourself: What am I aiming to do? What do I want to make happen? If you want to use military language, ask yourself: What is my mission in this moment? We can keep this straightforward. You ask: What was I aiming at? How did I do? What do I need to do differently next time?

How do you know if you're reflecting well? How do you know if the reflection that you are doing is going to make you better? The gold standard for good reflection is simply that it allows you to plan well. And planning leads to thoughtful action. It works like this: You act. You reflect on your action. You plan based on your reflection. Then you do it again. Act. Reflect. Plan.

Reflecting well also means recognizing the mindsets that stand in the way of insight. A closed mind is sealed against new information, new training, and new growth. It filters out facts, leaving them unseen and unconsidered. Just as a person locked in isolation loses touch with reality, ideas that never have meaningful interaction with other ideas become erratic and fragile. As their ideas deteriorate in strength, many people lock them up all the more tightly and react all the more angrily when they are challenged. In this way, people who were once vibrant, interesting, and productive become stale, boorish, and self-destructive. It's for this reason that, of all the vices, self-righteousness is often the most self-blinding.

There are four questions you have to answer to be situationally aware:

  • First, why am I here?

  • Second, what's going on around me?

  • Third, what am I going to do about it?

  • Fourth, how will my actions affect others?

These four questions apply to almost any situation. For example: First, why am I here? To have a productive conversation with my wife, and to show her that I love her. Second, what's going on around me? She's mad at me because I've screwed up again: I was tired after training, was short with her, and I'm also home late again. Third, what am I going to do about it? Apologize. Tell her that I was wrong. Give her a hug and let her know that I love her, respect her time, and want to be a good husband. Four, how will my actions affect others? If I apologize sincerely, she may forgive me, and we can have a good night together. Next time, I can pause before I snap. If you can effectively answer all four questions, you have real situational awareness.

It's important to remember that the model works best if you ask and answer the questions in the right order. You don't start recording everything that's happening around you without first thinking about your purpose in the moment--because your purpose makes some facts crucial and others trivial. You don't plunge into action without observing the world around you. You don't make a decision to act until you've taken stock of your effect on others. Each answer becomes stronger and makes more sense when you have a good answer to the previous question.

Part of wise reflection is reminding ourselves of the bounds of our mastery and the limits of our vision. And part of a wise life is having friends who can help us to see beyond our limited experience.


Whether or not we acknowledge it, we are all social animals. Every day we are shaped by the people we spend time with. Be with people who are the way you want to be. If you want to be excellent, be around people who pursue excellence. If you want to be happy, be around people who are happy. If you are around resilient people, you're far more likely to be resilient yourself.

It's been said that the deepest relationships are formed not when two people are looking at each other, but when two people are looking in the same direction. That's a very Aristotelian thought.

Friends challenge the flaws in our thinking and the flaws in our character. When they do that, they make us better. Good friends hold us to a higher standard when we are ready to make an excuse for ourselves. Friends sympathize with our pain, but they stop us from wallowing in it. Friends point out our blind spots, and they do so not with vindictiveness or cruelty, but out of honesty, love, and a desire that we live the fullest and best life possible.

Think of a community of friendship as a pool of experience that multiplies each member's wisdom. No one person, no matter how wise or experienced, can match the combined experience of a community. As long as we are imperfect, we will always find that the voice of a friend offers perspective and insight.


You can pursue any practice you like without a mentor, and you can build knowledge, but it's unlikely that you'll ever build mastery. A mentor teaches you everything you can't learn from a book. One of the people who has helped me think more clearly about the value of mentors is the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott. He taught that every activity relies on two kinds of knowledge: technical and practical. Technical knowledge can be captured in writing, rules, and mechanical practice. You grow in technical knowledge by absorbing information, not by doing. Practical knowledge, on the other hand, "exists only in use . . . and (unlike technique) cannot be formulated in rules." It's passed on by experience, through communities. It's the kind of knowledge that we learn directly from others--as coaches teach players and masters teach their apprentices. I like to think of this as the difference between "knowing that" and "knowing how." You can learn facts on your own. But if you want to know how to do something--from baking a cake to writing a story to disciplining a child--you usually have to be shown. The best mentors show us how.

It's easy to find people willing to give you advice. It's hard to find people with advice worth giving. It's worth pausing, then, to consider a few of the people who will not be able to help you. Some people love to make their lessons overly complicated. If a mentor becomes lost in his lesson, you can usually assume one of several things. One, the mentor hasn't mastered the material. Two, the mentor is trying to make himself seem important. Or three, the mentor can't remember what it was like to learn the material himself.

A good mentor will aim first not to give advice or instruct--activities that stress the mentor's superiority to the student--but to achieve understanding and then to share it.

The master has mastery over her whole craft. She instructs with simple instructions: Relax. Breathe deeply. Stand tall. And in this way she gradually pushes her student, one step at a time, past the edge of her previous understanding. Good mentors respect complexity. But because they've learned to separate essentials from distractions, they can offer clarity.

Good coaches cut through clutter and chaos. They direct your attention to the details that make a difference


At the most basic level, people form bonds when they share things. Breaking bread brings people together.

People also become connected through common study and shared discovery. When I say "study" here, I mean much more than sitting in a classroom. I also mean someone, wrench in hand, learning to fix a leak.

People form even deeper bonds when they serve together. "Serve" is not quite the right word, but it's better than "work." People can work with others and not feel any sense of common cause. Serving together is different. When we share a purpose with others, our work creates a shared connection. When the work matters, we're more often able to overcome personal differences in service of a shared goal.

Shared struggle brings people together.

Shared success can also help form teams.


Don't do this for me--do this with me. A leader earns devotion by showing devotion.


Creativity--ours and others'--makes life beautiful. We have to learn to think for ourselves, to question authority, and to disregard the rules at the right time. It's often a fun experiment or a helpful technique to paint without a canvas, to write without editing, to photograph without looking. All of this is good when we understand it in the context of what really creates creativity. What can be destructive is the idea that being creative is our natural state, that we'd all be Mozarts or Shakespeares if we weren't repressed by rules. What's worse is the thought that we'd all be more creative if only we were more free--free from constraints, from requirements. That confuses the relationship between discipline and creativity. The two may seem like opposites in theory, but in practice you usually need one to have the other.

The object in life is not to have as few commitments as possible, but to have the right kinds of commitments. When you make a commitment that's in keeping with what you value most, you've made a decision to be your best self. And when you keep that commitment, you're making yourself into the man you want to be.

Your commitments will sometimes feel heavy to you. And though this won't make them any lighter, it might help to remember that it's a bigger burden to live without commitments. A life with nothing to care for and no one to care about is one of the hardest things for a human being to bear.

"Work-life balance" implies that work is separate from living a life, or that it's something to be balanced against your life. That's strange, given that most people spend more time working every day than they do in any other activity. If all of those hours are not part of life, then something is deeply wrong. Life and work are not two enemies battling for our limited attention. In fact, the opposite tends to be the case. When we have meaningful, fulfilling, purposeful work, it radiates through our lives. And when we have happy, secure, loving relationships, they, too, radiate through our lives. The balance we seek is not that of a seesaw, but of a symphony. Every element of a symphony has a role to play: sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, sometimes silent, sometimes solo. The balance we seek is not for every instrument to be played in moderation at every moment--that's just a long, boring honk--but for a complementary relationship where each instrument is played at the right pitch and the right intensity, with the right phrasing and the right tempo. At certain times, particular aspects of our lives come to the fore, while others fall into the background. As new harmonies emerge, we can create something beautiful. "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

Some people aim to solve this problem by half committing to everything they do. And, of course, everything ends up mediocre. When you half-ass it at work and with your family, when you always worry about being somewhere other than the place you are, nothing feels exceptional. You don't need that, Walker. You need intensity tempered by intensity. Work hard. Pray powerfully. Exercise intensely. Laugh raucously. Love completely. And then . . . sleep deeply.

This quotation greets me every day in the lobby of my building:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.


This might not be right for everyone, Walker, but I think it makes sense to think of your life in terms of a quest. What's a quest? It's a journey with meaning. It's not a treasure hunt, where X marks the spot and reaching that spot is what matters. On a quest we discover the true nature of what we're after only by going on the journey.

Without knowledge of the past, we become lost in the present and fearful of the future. Knowing our history can make us more resilient, especially when we understand our connection to the people who went before us. I recently read about a study on kids' mental toughness. The more kids knew about their family history, the more resilient they turned out to be. I wouldn't be surprised to see that the same thing is true for teams, for communities, and for countries--that people with a strong sense of the past are often better able to deal with the hardships of the present. Why? Because as long as we're part of a story, we're not alone. Because we know that others have done what we now have to do. Others have suffered and survived; others have been beaten and still, ultimately, thrived. Those who don't know history become lost in the desert of the present.

And so you must remember this, Walker: storytelling is not just a way to remember what happened; it's a way to understand what happened. When you tell a story, you give an event meaning. In storytelling we bring past, present, and future together in a way that helps us to make sense of events and make sense of our lives.

Centuries ago, in fact, writers recognized that the best stories often start in medias res, in the middle of things. They realized that time in stories doesn't run like time on clocks. In a story, the real beginning comes when things start to matter in a different way. So you're in the middle of things. Who's to say the real story, the story that will have mattered all along, doesn't start right now? Maybe your story starts today.


"There are people who do not live their present life; it is as if they were preparing themselves, with all their zeal, to live some other life, but not this one. And while they do this, time goes by and is lost." -- ANTIPHON (FIFTH CENTURY BC)

We know we're going to die. But we're pretty darned good at forgetting it. Forget too long and you can spend a lifetime postponing and procrastinating. You can put off the life you want to live until you wake up to find that it's too late. You study but never act. You plan but never travel. You think it, but never tell anyone you love them. A lot of ancient philosophers recognized that through disciplined reflection on death, we bring urgency and vividness and meaning to the days that we live. They didn't "practice for death" because they were gloomy, or morbid, or because they wanted everyone to appreciate how "deep" they were. They did it because they wanted to live more fully.


Whether you use a religious tradition to sanctify time or you find your own way of setting time apart, what matters most is that you find time to stop. Stop striving, stop struggling, stop thinking about how to be resilient. Find joy and rest in a world that never stops moving. Take a long walk. Eat a slow meal. Pick up a book. Daydream. Spend time with people you love. And this is important: don't think of this quiet as a way to "recharge" for the work in front of you. That may well be what happens, but to treat your Sabbath as a way to prepare for work is just another way of making the Sabbath work by another name. The Sabbath doesn't exist for work. In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath comes every Friday at sunset--whether or not your work has been successful, whether you've been resilient or weak, whether you're flourishing or floundering. The Sabbath comes without your help. And when it comes, your only duty is to celebrate it. The Sabbath is an end in itself. Rest and enjoy--simply because. You don't celebrate the Sabbath to become more resilient. The Sabbath is the counterbalance to resilience. Excellence and enjoyment, resilience and rest; with the Sabbath we make our lives whole.