It was 2007 in Fallujah, Iraq. Three o’clock in the morning, out in the streets. Darkness, dust, misery, dehydration. Potential danger coming from every direction. My Navy SEAL Team was on an operation to find a particular set of bad guys, and we had brought ourselves to a house where we had learned they might be hiding. Most of the team had entered the house, and I was one of a few SEALs outside, providing “command and control” for our teammates inside.
Suddenly, an Iraqi man wearing a traditional long white robe stepped out of a neighboring house. He reached quickly into his outfit, his hand disappearing from view—and this is the moment a life-or-death decision had to be made.
* * *
I’ll jump to the ending of that story. The man was pulling an ID card from his pocket. He was an innocent bystander who happened to be in a dangerous place and unwisely reached for something in his robe. Fortunately, my team had the confidence to wait a fraction of a moment, to assess the potential threat and think about the bigger picture before reacting.
Was this man in fact a deadly threat? Maybe, but we weren’t sure. Did we have to shoot yet, or did we have time? Well, as it turns out, we did have just a little bit of time—to get more information, to watch his face, his eyes, to watch his hand as it emerged from his robe. We were aimed and ready—even if he had a weapon, he would have still needed to pull it from his robe, point it at us, and pull the trigger. It wasn’t going to be minutes, or even seconds, but my teammates had the confidence in their ability to know they could wait until they saw just a little more.
Because we also knew the risks. Shooting innocent civilians doesn’t help us win the support of the people, it doesn’t help us find an ultimate path to victory, and regardless of the strategic implications, this was still a man’s life.
* * *
It sounds, at first, like a simple enough story—innocent man not killed by SEAL Team—but it’s easy to imagine things turning out very differently. And it may sound unrelatable, if you’ve never been on the battlefield, but the reality is that each of us makes these kinds of decisions—to take action, or not—all the time, with varying stakes, and with varying time pressures. Should you take on a new project, or lower the risk of failure by sticking with something you’re already comfortable with? Commit to growth within your organization, or jump to a different one, hoping it’ll accelerate your career path? Reach out to a friend in need, or decide you just don’t have the time?
I’ve spent my career trying to figure out how to make these kinds of choices most effectively, learning from the most successful people around me how to approach the world and our fellow citizens in order to live a life of the highest meaning, mission, and value. We get better, I’ve certainly found, by reflecting on what we’ve done and listening to the journeys of others.
As for me, I’ve lived a lifetime of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’ve been held at gunpoint in Peru and threatened with execution. I’ve jumped out of a building rigged to explode in Iraq. I’ve helped amputate a teammate’s leg in Afghanistan. I’ve made countless life-ending decisions to drop bombs on our country’s enemies—and sometimes I’ve made those decisions in mere seconds. I’ve made calls to parents that no parent ever wants to receive, and I’ve written hundreds of emails to my wife and daughter telling them how much I love them, just in case those were the last words of mine they’d ever read. I’ve prayed my men would survive every day—and I’ve made the decisions to help make that happen.
I’ve also run hundreds of meetings in the White House Situation Room. I led the process to create a new strategic arms treaty with the Russians, and went to Moscow for negotiations. I’ve developed sensitive corporate strategy and been responsible for countless multimillion-dollar deals.
In sum, I’ve spent the past twenty-five years feeling extraordinarily lucky to have the privilege to serve this country in a variety of ways—from my very first days in SEAL training as a twenty-one-year-old to my service as a Navy SEAL Commander in Afghanistan, as a White House Fellow and Director of Defense Policy and Strategy at the National Security Council under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and in the boardrooms of public and private multibillion-dollar companies—and through it all, I’ve found that the most successful, satisfied, fulfilled people around me have always strived to contribute more, and pushed themselves to do as much as they can across whatever dimensions are most important to them, wherever they believe they can make the most difference.
This continuous striving to make a bigger difference—for yourself, for your organization, or for the world—is what I believe holds the key to great outcomes in almost any situation, and it’s the mindset I’m talking about when I say “Never Enough.” It’s this push to realize that the goal shouldn’t be to do just enough to get by, but to always look for more ways to make an impact.
I talk about “Never Enough,” and sometimes people get the idea that I’m pushing for perfection, for someone to never be able to feel proud of what they’ve accomplished or satisfied that they’ve done the best they can do. But that’s not it at all. “Never Enough” is about understanding that whatever you’re striving to accomplish—whether that’s becoming a SEAL, excelling in your current profession, or making a difference in the lives of the people in your family or community—you can always grow your capacity, increase your knowledge and skills, and invest more in the people and causes around you. It’s not just so that next time you take on a challenge, your best can be even better, but so you can push yourself to truly align your actions with the goals you’re trying to achieve.
We can never be present enough, purposeful enough, and thoughtful enough as we approach each day. We can do the hard thinking that helps us truly understand what motivates us, and what kind of life we’re hoping to live—and then we can harness our energy to get us closer to those goals. It’s about acting with intention rather than letting life carry us along on a trajectory we don’t control. It’s about considering our mission at every step along the way. It’s about aiming for excellence, agility, and meaning in everything we do and not being complacent and just giving up. We won’t all be SEALs, but we all have aspirations and dreams, and we can all improve the lives of our friends and colleagues, the organizations we choose to be part of, and the world. It’s never enough to give up trying to achieve the things that matter most to each of us—and that’s where this book aims to help.
* * *
I remember early on in SEAL training—a grueling experience where out of my starting class of 120, just 19 ended up graduating as SEALs—when we had to run 2 miles in soft sand, wearing boots and long pants in hundred-degree summer heat. We sprinted as hard as humanly possible for more than 10 minutes, then reached even deeper when the finish line was in sight. The instructors immediately pounced on us, saying we were the worst class they’d ever seen in SEAL training, and forced us to do the entire run again—but faster. Some of us improved our speed the second time around, finding reserves we didn’t know we had, and some of us just couldn’t. The instructors separated us into two groups and told those of us whose speed had improved that we were failures, because the faster speed meant we hadn’t truly given it our all the first time around. They told the group whose speed had declined that they didn’t dig deep enough the second time and that clearly they didn’t know what it meant to be a SEAL. The instructors wanted all of us to understand that every run had to be our best run, and that the minimum was never good enough.
I realize now that whether we improved that second time or not wasn’t the point. We can’t always control our outcomes. Instead, the point was that no matter what came before, we can’t stop pushing. We can’t give up. High-performing people inevitably live in two places at once. We do our absolute best, and we also realize that our best is a moving target. No one is perfect, and no situation is perfect, either. There will always be distractions, obstacles, limits, and emotions that get in the way. Sometimes we’ll fall short, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. Sometimes we’ll succeed, but that doesn’t mean we’re finished. We can always grow our capacity, make ourselves more likely to hit our targets, conquer potential stumbling blocks, and expand the impact of what we do. I tell people all the time that I’m not afraid of aiming high and missing—I’m afraid of aiming low and hitting.
We have to aim the highest we can, and when we hit that goal, aim higher—or think about whether we ought to have a different goal entirely. We can celebrate success, but also realize that our journey is never finished. We can achieve greatness, but also understand that to truly fulfill our most important missions in life, the road never ends. While we can and certainly should be proud of what we’ve done up until now, it is ultimately never enough. That’s the mindset I believe can drive us all to lead more complete, more rewarding lives, each making the world a better place in our own unique way. That’s the mindset I want to share in this book, arming you with stories and lessons to inspire you to do your best, be your best, and achieve the most you can possibly achieve.
* * *
Another story from the battlefield, to help attach some concrete ideas to the goals of this book: For years in Afghanistan, our mission as a nation and our path to success were unclear. “Nations are really good at starting wars and really bad at ending them,” I once told the Wall Street Journal. When I took over as Commander of our SEAL Team in southeast Afghanistan, I realized the best path forward wasn’t just to fight the Taliban, but to reach out to them as people, to reinvigorate a reconciliation program that we hadn’t been able to get off the ground, and to appeal to our enemies with compelling reasons to give up their weapons and join us for peace.
My team and I approached groups of Afghan fighters—not without risk, of course—and I gave talks and drank gallons of tea in Taliban-infested villages, directly and indirectly telling fundamentalists committed to the destruction of both America and the government of Afghanistan that maybe we weren’t so different from each other. I’m a tribal leader, I said, just like you are, and our tribes have been killing each other for over a decade. We want peace, I explained, and we truly want you to participate in your own government, next to the great and innocent civilians in your country. If you are interested in having that conversation, in helping us both reach that common goal, I told them, here is the cell phone number of my interpreter.
We tried to understand their motivations, which, to a great extent, were economic. They needed money, and they needed infrastructure in their villages. They needed a channel and they needed a voice. We offered them three-month stipends, jobs protecting their villages, development projects like well-digging and school-building, and subsequently an opportunity to have a voice in how to help govern and care for their peace-loving fellow citizens.
The efforts began to pay off. We got calls and overtures from Taliban leaders, and we got fighters to come out of the hills and give up their black Taliban head wraps in exchange for the benefits we had offered. Over ten months, my team and I influenced over a hundred Taliban fighters to rejoin their government and people. It was not because anything about the war had fundamentally changed, nor was it because we were threatening them with powerful people and weapons. It was because we tried to understand their motivations, and tried to find common ground; we looked at the big picture and tried to take real action that would get everyone closer to their goals. We tried to think about a model we could scale, and that would build toward true and lasting success and peace.
Continuing our typical course may have been good enough for me to keep my job and good enough to keep the situation in Afghanistan from getting worse, but it wasn’t going to make the biggest difference. There was more we could do, more we needed to do. The status quo simply wasn’t enough, and really, if you dug a little deeper, there were three critical levels at which one might say it wasn’t enough:
First, it wasn’t excellent enough—we weren’t always working hard enough to understand the needs of our Taliban enemies, to understand their point of view and their situation. Second, we weren’t agile enough—we didn’t have the absolute best systems in place to address their needs, and to help them in ways they would appreciate. And third, the work we were doing, while important, ultimately wasn’t meaningful enough—until we made these efforts, we were going to remain locked in battle, never getting any closer to ending the conflict.
These three benchmarks—excellence, agility, and meaning—cover the spectrum of what we all need to aim for in everything we do. I talk about “Never Enough,” but these are the three magic keys to that concept, and the three pillars of this book and the lessons I hope to share within these pages. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about my team’s efforts to reconcile with those Taliban fighters. But we didn’t do it for the press, and we didn’t do it for our own egos. We did it to make the world a safer place. We did it to make a difference.
* * *
That’s also why I’m writing this. After all that I’ve lived through, I’m driven by a motivation to give back, to do what I can to help others perform their best, and to serve a cause larger than self. I want to share my stories with you not just to help you with your own life and career, but to help you help others. As I explained in the Author’s Note at the front of the book, I’m dedicated to the cause of helping special operations Gold Star families—immediate relatives of those who have been killed in combat. I’ve cried through far too many burials and memorial services, and I wake up too early on too many mornings thinking about some of the brave SEALs—my friends and teammates—who are no longer with us. There is no shortage of acute needs within the special operations community to help heal from the incredible stress the families of our fallen troops are under every day and will be for the rest of their lives. As you read this book and reflect upon your own life, I urge you to find the causes close to your heart and identify ways you can give back, help your fellow man, and help heal the world.
* * *
I’ve been so privileged over the years to lead and learn from some of the nation’s bravest men and women fighting for a country they believe in, and some of the world’s brightest minds working on its hardest problems. They’ve taught me lessons about strength and service, about confidence and humility, about organizational success and helping our fellow human beings.
And yet I’ve also seen huge egos and the desire for credit obstruct progress. I’ve seen people get in their own way, make poor decisions, mismanage crises, and fail to successfully complete their missions. I’ve seen potential wasted, and watched good people head down wrong paths because they lacked the right perspective, the right mindset to know how to reach their goals and how to do so with integrity.
We can push ourselves to our limits across many different dimensions—we can never be strong enough, never focused enough, never patient enough, never accountable enough—but it’s those three pillars of excellence, agility, and meaning that I’ve kept coming back to over the years, and I think they best cover the scope of what we do as human beings striving to find purpose in this world.
On an individual level, we must look to be Never Excellent Enough and build our own capabilities in terms of knowledge and capacity, strength and control, and accountability and orientation.
On a team and organizational level, we must aim to be Never Agile Enough and understand how to shift between roles to best serve our missions, how to put systems in place that lead to superior decision-making, and how to keep our teams as flexible and responsive as possible.
On an impact level, we must act to be Never Meaningful Enough, knowing what will make the biggest difference for the people in our lives and in our communities, and potentially on an even larger scale.
In the chapters that follow, I will explore different aspects of the headline principle, through stories and examples from my life and career, from the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned, and the change I’ve helped bring to the nation and the world.
Taken together, I believe this is how we become the best we can be, the people others rely on, and also the people who know how to rely on others in turn. This is how we do work of value, live lives of value, and stretch ourselves to reach our highest potential. This is how we can ultimately live in a nation of character, where leaders strive to be better, businesses strive to be better, and government strives to be better. This is how we pull people and organizations up. This is how we achieve our dreams.
Whether you are a college student, a young professional, a military servicemember, or an experienced leader within government or in the corporate world, we’re all the same in so many more ways than we are different. We’re all looking to live with more meaning and purpose, to succeed in our organizations, and to positively impact ourselves, our friends and colleagues, and others we may not even know. So many times in my life, I’ve seen the power of “Never Enough” come into play and lead people to improve not just their own circumstances, but the circumstances of those around them. It’s a way of thinking that applies no matter your stage of life, no matter your level of organizational responsibility, and no matter your ultimate goals.
I talk sometimes about my grandmother’s two sisters, who both became nuns in the Catholic Church and lived lives that were intensely meaningful to perhaps a few hundred or thousand people who benefited deeply from their work. On the other side of the continuum, there are people working on policy issues in Washington, DC, who might over the course of their careers move the needle a tiny percentage on some issue that can affect millions of lives in some small but significant way. There are parents whose largest goal in life is to go as deeply as they can in helping their children succeed and thrive—a narrow but hugely impactful focus on one, two, three people’s paths in the world. And there are people running multibillion-dollar companies, touching colleagues and customers worldwide. These can all be deeply valuable, deeply meaningful pursuits, and there’s no right or wrong in choosing to pursue any of them, no value judgments intended as I discuss the range of paths that people take in their lives.
No matter what journey you’re on, my intent with this book is to help you figure out what’s truly important, and then provide some ideas and skills to help get you there. In that spirit, I encourage you to reach out when you’ve finished this book and share your story—and to reach out to those around you to share any lessons my stories have helped you learn.
I remind my daughter each morning not to “have” a great day, but to “make it” a great day. “Have” is passive, implying that the world will simply happen around her, while “make” tells her to go out and cause things to happen, to actively create that great day for herself and others. You’re already making this a great day by deciding to do the hard work of self-reflection, striving to learn and grow, staying agile and flexible, and looking for ways to push your values out into the universe. Together, we can make all our days greater—by being “Never Enough,” and bringing enormous positive change to our lives and the world.
Copyright © 2021 by Michael Hayes.