So. Jocko Willink is a fearsome beast of a man—235 pounds of hulking comic-book muscles packed onto a 5-foot-11-inch frame.
When he answers the front door, his face is red and stern. He’s breathing heavily and his shirt and shorts are drenched in sweat. He growls about wanting to stay warm and leads the way through his house. Past a bookcase full of volumes about war and violence. Past his small office, where his desk has neatly stacked business cards and more books and mementos—including an inexplicable bobblehead of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. He walks through the living room, where his youngest daughter’s My Little Pony toys are pushed into a corner.
“I don’t pick up toys,” he says. “I crush them.”
Soon he’s in the cinderblock garage out back. Thrashing hardcore punk music blasts from a small speaker next to the workbench on the wall. There are thick black metal mats over the cement floor, and across the mats are two loaded barbells—one with 185 pounds and the other with 405—and a roughed-up black metal kettlebell between them that weighs 85 pounds. He takes a deep breath, adjusts the black sweatbands at his wrists, and continues where he left off. He does clean-and-jerk reps on the barbell with 185 pounds, fully extending the weight over his head each time. He pushes the kettlebell into the air with a punching motion over and over with each hand. He deadlifts the barbell with 405 pounds and holds it for several seconds. Then he walks over to his notebook, makes a checkmark, and starts the whole thing over again.
Already in incredible physical shape, Jocko could coast. He could take the easy route and maintain his physique. But in exercise as in life, Jocko hates the easy route.
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It’s about 9 in the morning, but Jocko has been awake since 3:58 a.m.—when he posted a photo of his worn Timex wristwatch on Twitter. He does that every day, with messages like: “Opportunity is fleeting. GO.” Or “GET IT.” Or “Rise and shine and ENGULF YOUR SOULLESS ENEMIES IN FIRE.” In fact, he’d already worked out once today before sunrise, then went surfing in the early morning waves. This is his second weightlifting routine of the day.
Over the past year and a half, Jocko, 45, has become something of a star in the world of personal development. He was in the Navy SEAL Teams for years, first as an enlisted operator, then as a commanding officer. He led SEAL Team 3’s Task Unit Bruiser, the most decorated special operations unit of the Iraq war. (Famed “American Sniper” Chris Kyle was their point man.) Then he became the officer in charge of training for all West Coast SEAL Teams. After Jocko retired, he was invited to speak to corporate America about leadership and eventually decided to go public in 2015 with the book Extreme Ownership, which became a number one New York Times best-seller. He also has a flourishing consulting company, Echelon Front, and one of the most popular podcasts in America—with more than 2.4 million episodes downloaded from November to January alone and hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
Each episode is roughly three hours long and begins with Jocko reading from a notable memoir, poem or great work of literature he admires. (He was an English major and has an affinity for Shakespeare.) He preaches discipline, of course, along with fitness, healthy living and analytical, positive thinking. He stresses toughness as a virtue. He often responds to bad news and disappointment—loss, failure, unforeseen problems—with a guttural, snarling, “Good.” (His website sells a T-shirt with nothing but Jocko’s very serious face and the word GOOD printed across it.) His guests have included a nutritionist, a Vietnam War veteran and a war photographer. He discusses everything from martial arts and business to psychology and military strategy. Listeners from across the country write to him asking for advice in all aspects of life: How do you know when to fire someone? How do you deal with stress? How do you cope when someone you love dies? They ask about parenting, fighting and which novels he recommends. They ask about what he eats, what music he likes, and what he considers essential for a home gym.
I wanted to ask him, among other things, about his new fame and why he likes Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian so much. He endorses it any chance he gets. On his podcast. On Twitter. In the sparing interviews he’s given. I read it in college and when I think about it, I still feel almost tainted by the book’s nightmarish violence set during America’s expansion westward. Jocko says it’s the only modern literature he would put on the same level as Shakespeare.
As his popularity builds, so does his workload. On top of his business obligations and speaking gigs, he spends 15 to 20 hours a week preparing for the podcast and at least an hour a day writing. In a few weeks, he’ll publish a children’s book about a boy who’s picked on in school until he spends a summer training with his Uncle Jake, a Navy SEAL. (He expects the story to be optioned for a movie soon.) His third book, slated to come out later this year, will be a “field guide,” a compendium of Jocko-style wisdom that addresses workouts, nutrition, sleep schedules and his thoughts about martial arts. He’s also working on a screenplay he doesn’t want to discuss. No matter how busy he gets though, no matter what sort of travel or work or publicity fills his schedule, there are no excuses to miss a workout.
“If you really want to get on the disciplined path, start waking up earlier in the morning,” he says. “Once you get up, do something physical and get your body in motion. Your body and mind are connected.”
He says that when he works out, he’s either thinking of the things that make him angry in the world and using that anger to strengthen himself, or his mind is completely blank—“nothing but hollowness”—as he’s subsumed in the moment. After 20 more minutes of weightlifting, sweat lines his thick brow and drops mark his path across the floor. And as he continues, he sweats even more. This is an unusually chilly morning in San Diego, where he lives, and the cool air seeps in through a window and starts to collide with the heat he’s producing. Before long, some of the moisture on his head and neck turns into an eerie, ghostly vapor.
As he pumps his weights, Jocko is literally steaming.
Jocko says he doesn’t remember much from his childhood. He doesn’t have many stories from before the Navy—only vague recollections. He grew up in Connecticut and Maine, and he didn’t go back often enough to “exercise those memories,” he says. He was the middle child of three and his parents were both educators. His first name is John, but his parents nicknamed him Jocko before he was born, and it stuck. It seems to suit him.
He says he was in a hardcore band with his friends and that he was a troublemaker who liked fighting, setting fires and breaking things. He says he knows what it’s like to get roughed up while getting arrested. As other kids smoked pot and played hacky sack, he rebelled in a different way—by joining the military.
Jocko had always dreamed of being a commando of some sort, he says. As a teen, he read about SEALs dying in Panama in 1989 and signed up for the Navy straight out of high school. He weighed 174 pounds. With the first Persian Gulf conflict just underway, he was excited about the prospect of going to war, but the war was over by the time he was done with the six months of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. He dismisses the famous difficulty of BUD/S, which has a roughly 80 percent attrition rate. By the end of training, he says he’d added 10 pounds of muscle.
“It’s a lot of running and pushups and eating a lot of food and watching other people quit,” he says. “Those are some of my favorite things.”
“I was paid to fight and set fires and break things. It was the best job anyone could have.”
He loved virtually every part of being a SEAL. In retrospect, the maniacal chaos of his youth had been leading up to something important. “All of a sudden I was paid to fight and set fires and break things,” he says. “It was the best job anyone could have.” The clock on his cellphone is still in military time, and he says his goal is to renovate his house to make it “as much like the SEAL compound as possible.”
In the mid-1990s, he took up jiu-jitsu, sometimes attending several classes a day. When Jocko lacked a sparring partner, he’d grapple with 20 different SEALs, one every 15 minutes, and he’d force each one to “tap out.”
“That only means I knew more about jiu-jitsu than they did,” he tells people who ask about it. He stresses that brains can overcome brawn.
His first deployment to Iraq, not long after the war began, seemed relatively simple and when it ended he was excited to go back. When he got to the city of Ramadi during his second deployment, mujahedeen forces occupied the vast majority of the city, launching 30 to 50 attacks a day. He was part of the on-the-ground leadership that slowly took Ramadi back. Here he learned the many paradoxes of leadership. He needed to be close to his men to understand them—but not so close that one member of the team became more important than the others. He needed to make sure each man knew the mission and the tasks at hand, but he didn’t want to micromanage either. His men often eschewed standard-issue footwear and helmets, and they spraypainted skulls on their gear, but collectively the units under his command had more than 500 confirmed kills. And Jocko earned a reputation for being a cool-headed, open-minded leader.
He also knew the throes of battle would deliver the best moments of his life. He was surrounded by death and devastation, but he loved it. Because as bad as it was—at some points he was attending memorials for fallen Americans on an almost daily basis—he was still commanding men in war. It’s what he’d been preparing for his entire life. And he knew that if he lived beyond that, nothing would ever matter the same way.
This is one more paradox that has come to define his existence. The bleakness of war filled him with purpose.
When Jocko retired from the Navy in 2010, he expected to spend most of his time doing jiu-jitsu and surfing. But a friend, an executive at a big company, asked him to give his management team a leadership talk. Jocko gave an unclassified version of the briefing he used to deliver to SEALs before they deployed. He wasn’t sure if the business world could relate to his experiences and his perspectives on leadership. But our society has a fascination with all things Navy SEAL. The talk went so well that it led to another, and another, and eventually to the consulting firm he started with his former SEAL platoon commander Leif Babin, his co-author on Extreme Ownership.
Jocko started his own podcast in late 2015. The episodes are long, but they go by fast at the gym or on planes or as you’re working on something tedious. And there’s something about his gravelly voice, his confidence, his earnestness and authenticity—and the way we imbue SEALs with virtue and righteousness—that inspires a lot of people. It’s the way he can simplify complex things and put them into perspective. It’s the way he tells compelling stories you don’t want to end.
To demonstrate different points, Jocko almost always sprinkles in anecdotes from his own life. Sometimes they’re from his SEAL days. Sometimes it’s a problem he’s seen in the business world. Sometimes it’s about his wife’s cooking or teaching his daughter how to ride a bike. He doesn’t go into detail on anything and he rarely discusses headlines of the day. He almost never mentions religion—“my beliefs are my beliefs,” he says—or politics. The closest he’ll come are vague comments about “failure of leadership.”
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“I’ve been in leadership positions long enough to know that as soon you get into topics like that, people will just agree or disagree with me. They’ll stop listening to what I’m saying.”
This means he can have engaging, thoughtful conversations that go on for hours but reveal almost nothing about himself. He says he writes out most of his thoughts beforehand but always ends up changing the wording a little. Most episodes begin with what sounds like an overly formal “good evening” to his co-host, Echo Charles. Charles, a soft-spoken friend of more than a decade, is mostly quiet, there to represent the listeners. He interjects if he needs an explanation, usually when Jocko is using military jargon.
As the podcast worked its way into the top 10 most downloaded on iTunes, people started recognizing him on the street. (His kids hate his popularity.) And book sales have continued to rise. He’s sold around half a million copies. When he announced the children’s book was available for preorder in January, it immediately went into the top-50-selling books on Amazon that day. Fans also have the chance to meet and listen to Jocko in person at Extreme Ownership MUSTER, a weekend-long leadership seminar his company puts on that features former Navy SEAL officers—with a minimum price around $2,300 per attendee.
It’s been surreal, but Jocko is trying to ride the wave as long as he can. Last December, he released a spoken-word album called Psychological Warfare. It quickly became the top album in the spoken word category on iTunes. Track after track is Jocko’s voice, encouraging you to get out of bed, go to the gym, create something important, avoid the snacks and “sugarcoated lies.”
He also sells his own brand of tea. For years, dating back to his SEAL days, Jocko has blended his own pomegranate white tea. Tim Ferriss mentioned it on his podcast during the first mainstream interview Jocko gave and listeners asked about it enough times that a friend offered to mass-produce it. So on top of everything else, he’s now a tea salesman. This year he expects to move nearly $3 million worth of white tea.
Jocko asks our photographer not to take pictures at the beach in front of his house. He’s worried it’s recognizable and, as he says, “I’m responsible for a lot of dead bad guys.”
He’s careful and hesitant about something else during the photo shoot, too. He reminds the photographer that he’s still friends with a lot of guys in the SEAL Teams, that they’ll inevitably see these pictures, and that he cares very much about what those guys think. No, he doesn’t want to take a casual stroll on the beach. No, he doesn’t want to lean back on the wall and look out thoughtfully.
“We used to say that we’d rather die than look like a [wimp] in front of our friends,” he says.
That was his biggest worry about going public. It’s his biggest worry with each interview and new endeavor. Not the potential risk to his family, but the risk of looking silly or fake in front of the men he fought alongside.
“There is literally nobody else on this planet that I care more about what they think of me.”
As Jocko is talking to the photographer, his wife, Helen, is checking her email in the living room. She grew up in England, and they met in Bahrain, when she was a flight attendant and he was stationed overseas. They’ve been married nearly 20 years and have four kids, all between 8 and 17. What’s it like being married to Jocko?
“It’s intense,” she says, laughing.
She usually gets up around 5:30 a.m. and she doesn’t ever try to get Jocko to sleep longer. She works out in their home gym when Jocko isn’t using it. “He does his thing.” She says she gets to see “the other side” of him. “It helps that I know when he’s joking,” she says. (Jocko’s sense of humor is dark and dry.) There were times when he used to talk to her the way he talked to his SEAL teammates, and she says she had to put a stop to it, telling him simply: “I’m not one of the Teams guys.”
“We used to say that we’d rather die than look like a [wimp] in front of our friends.”
She says he’s great with the kids. When they complain about the Wi-Fi going out, he’ll mock their First World problems in an exaggerated Valley Girl accent to put things in perspective. Helen says their oldest daughter’s boyfriend is always happy and laughing, but quiet and serious anytime Jocko’s around. She knows Jocko had a short talk with the young man at some point but isn’t sure what he said.
After a shower, Jocko drives to his gym for a different photo shoot and to get some sparring time—“rolling” as Jocko calls it—with Charles. Victory MMA and Fitness is a spotless, all-purpose mixed martial arts gym a few minutes from the beach. Jocko owns it with a few partners and trains there with world-famous fighters. They give discounts to veterans. Mostly, he says, he just wanted a place where everything was exactly the way he wanted it.
As he walks in, he’s handed his daily pile of mail. Every day, there’s a new stack for him to go through. There are letters from fans—often young men who credit him with saving their lives. There are books on an assortment of random topics and pitches for products people would like him to mention on his podcast. And there are military patches and pins, each of which he seems to treasure. He keeps a collection near his desk at home.
Upstairs, the photographer asks him to clench his fists toward the camera. Jocko, now wearing a black T-shirt and cargo pants—what he calls his “business tactical” attire—tells the photographer he thinks the pose is “lame.” He explains that he isn’t known for being emotional, but, if the photographer wants to get him gesturing he can, but it has to be natural.
The photographer asks him to talk to a nearby light being held by an assistant.
“This light?” Jocko asks. “This light right here? This light has issues with me. It has problems. And it will get fixed—by me. I will crush it. I will smash it. I hate this light. It’s ridiculous.”
By now the photographer is snapping away. Jocko continues, pointing at the light, balling his hands until his knuckles are white, snarling as he talks.
“This light,” he says, dropping his tone an octave from an already-low grumble. “This light must be destroyed. And I will take this light. I will grab it. I will rip it apart. And I will set fire to the pieces I can’t bend into unusable—that’s what’s gonna happen. So get it away from me!” He yells: “Get it away from me!”
The photographer’s assistant holding the light takes a step back.
For years, Jocko trained to kill people. And he trained other men to kill, too. The mere fact that he’s still breathing is proof he thrived in the most stressful situations imaginable. There aren’t many other speakers or consultants with credentials like that.
Jocko doesn’t love this new attention, though. Despite the explosion of SEAL-related movies, books and businesses in recent years, every man in the SEALs takes an oath of “quiet professionalism.” From Jocko’s perspective, he’s “just a regular guy, getting after it.” He was hesitant to write a book, resistant to the idea of his own podcast and website. He rarely grants interviews. He has an entire chapter in his book dedicated to staying humble. “Check your ego,” he often suggests to leaders.
What keeps him going are the letters and emails he receives. Every day, from all over the world, people write to say he helped them get through depression or lose weight or put on muscle mass. Some say they were suicidal before listening to him. Helping people feels like the right thing to do, but Jocko doesn’t want people to think of him as a superhero.
“SEALs are human beings,” he says. “We may all have the same haircuts, but we aren’t robots. Some SEALs are great people. Some are not great people. Some have done unspeakably terrible things. You’re dealing with different people, different dreams, different desires.”
Jocko often consults his closest friends in the Teams to see what they think of his ideas before he goes public. His peers support him, he says, because they believe he’s speaking important truths. He’s long been viewed as the wise warrior in the community, someone younger men sought out for advice. Which often boils down to his favorite paradox, something he repeats often: Discipline equals freedom.
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If you wake up earlier, you can accomplish more and you will have more free time. Likewise, the more disciplined you are with money, the more financial freedom you can enjoy. Discipline gives you control. Not every day will be a good day, but if you’re disciplined enough in life, you’re prepared for the bad days, too.
Jocko offers no excuses, no hedges. He speaks simple truths that resonate.
Jocko offers no excuses, no hedges. He speaks simple truths that resonate. And in an age of luxury and comfort, people seem to crave this. Especially, but not exclusively, men. They crave unspoiled heroes. Strong, tough, smart, moral men they can model themselves and their children after. For many, Jocko is that high school coach who connected, the boss who understood. For others, he’s the father they didn’t have or didn’t listen to when they should have.
A few minutes after yelling at the light, he’s on a mat, grappling with Charles, his podcast co-host. Anytime they stop, they stand up and bump fists. Charles is 5 feet 11 inches and 215 pounds of lean muscle. In fact, he has a sleeve tattoo of a human muscle over his left arm. He’s also six years younger than Jocko. Still, Jocko forces him to tap out, quickly and repeatedly. Once he nearly separates Charles’s shoulder. “He normally goes even harder than that,” Charles explains afterward.
Eventually the crowd of cameras and assistants that had been following him for the past few hours goes away, and we walk to one of his favorite restaurants, Phil’s BBQ. He orders five gigantic beef ribs and a tea. He uses a knife and fork, but 15 minutes into the conversation, his plate is just a pile of picked-clean bones.
We talk about writing. He loved telling stories as a kid. He says these days he writes about 1,000 words an hour—which is incredibly fast. Jocko doesn’t outline, and he says his brain often works faster than his fingers. The children’s book is roughly 30,000 words, so he estimates it took about a month to write, because he was working on other things at the same time. He says he doesn’t necessarily borrow any author’s style, but he does like stealing the opening sentence from the Seamus Heaney translation of the ancient hero epic Beowulf.
“That first sentence,” he says, grinning. “It just starts with ‘So.’ Period. That’s it. So. How awesome is that?”
We also talk about Blood Meridian. He can’t remember the first time he read it. “I’ve read it so many times at this point,” he says. “It’s just a part of me.” He points out that the SEALs have a training facility in the Arizona desert, so he’s driven between Yuma and San Diego, just like the characters in the book.
“The way Cormac McCarthy describes each little species of plant so precisely,” he says. “I know that trail.”
After a moment, we go on to other topics, but a few minutes later he brings up the book again. He’s thought about it some more.
“You know why I like that book so much?” he says. “Because it’s about human nature.”
Blood Meridian is full of heinous, near-unthinkable violence. I tell him that’s an incredibly dark assessment of human nature.
For so long, his life has been about preparing himself and others to be ready for the worst conceivable encounters at any moment. He says one of the reasons he doesn’t sleep very well—even though he knows it’s important—is because sometimes he has nightmares. This view of the world has kept him alive, though. He points out that war also reveals the best of humanity. The men fighting for their brothers against evil enemies. The communities coming together to expel their ruthless occupiers. The SEALs willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, an act he considers so noble that it gives him hope for the future. He seems visibly moved as he talks about it.
While we’re sitting at the restaurant, he receives an email on his phone. Psychological Warfare, his spoken-word album, might soon appear on a Billboard chart. Jocko shakes his head.
“It’s so weird,” he says. His life has changed a lot over the past year and a half. He was a covert commando for years. Now he’s sitting at a table with a reporter, getting emails that his album has landed on some chart. He shakes his head again.
“Weirder than I can explain.”
In some ways, he’s playing a character. But he’s simultaneously aware of himself. At one point, Jocko’s talking about how much he hates things that feel good, like sleeping in and chocolate chip cookies. But halfway through he catches himself.
“As soon as you swallow that cookie, it’s making you angry. Because you know you broke, and it’s making you weak.” He stops for a moment.
“Do I have chocolate chip cookies? Yes I do. Do I have mint chocolate chip milkshakes? Yes I do. I love them. They are fantastic. But when I have them, they’re worth it. I earned them. I did something. I worked out super hard. I stayed clean on food.”
This is another way being disciplined leads to moments of freedom.
“All of a sudden, I’m with my 8-year-old daughter, and she wants to get ice cream? I’m going to get a mint chocolate chip ice cream milkshake, and I’m going to relish it.”
He doesn’t want to give the impression he has no weakness.
“Chocolate chip cookies are amazing,” he says. “The pretzel-wrapped hotdogs they have at the airport? Those things are good. They’re not good for you, but they taste good. It’s OK. I’m not a complete psychopath. Am I partially? Sure. I’ll accept that. But I’m not a complete psychopath.”
He pauses for a moment. The corners of his mouth turn upward.
“Just when I need to be.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.