Get New Ideas by Email. Join 3k+ Readers.

5 Underrated Jocko Willink Quotes About Life and Leadership

What do you do at 4:30 every morning? Wake up, post a picture of your wristwatch on social media and start “smashing” your day with a workout? Then your name is probably Jocko Willink. Beyond his infamous morning routine, Willink is probably best known for his uncompromising philosophy of Extreme Ownership. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a wealth of underrated insights into life and leadership. But before we dive into five of those little-known Jocko Willink quotes we should briefly talk about who he is.

If you’ve never heard of him, Jocko Willink is a retired US Navy SEAL commander. Following his service in the special forces, the decorated veteran built on his leadership and battlefield experience and turned it into a powerful personal brand. Today, Willink can call himself an author, leadership instructor, podcaster, speaker, businessman and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ambassador. Together with his buddy Leif Babin, the black belt coined the philosophy of Extreme Ownership, a radical approach to responsible and accountable leadership.

If you have heard of Jocko, chances are you’re familiar with his other principles such as Discipline = Freedom. Here, he argues that only through discipline can you achieve the freedom to do what you really want. Then there’s his rallying cry to Get After It, that is to seize the day. And of course, GOOD. His simple yet powerful mantra about seeing opportunity in every failure or setback. Apart from coining memes, he’s written several books. Some are for kids who want to overcome their fears. Others are for grown-ups who want to lead others (to overcome their fears).

Many see Jocko as a principled and steadfast role model. A straight-talking man’s man’s man whose presence and philosophy promote responsibility and accountability in a world gone mad. Others may perceive Mr Willink as an unfeeling, militaristic and over-the-top caricature of himself. A man out of place. In a world devoid of love and kindness; whose cold walls are already dripping enough testosterone. The thing is, he’d probably respond to both characterisations with a short self-ironic statement — and then continue to get after it.

Regardless of what camp you’re in, let’s judge the man by the quality of his words. Here are five Jocko Willink quotes; undervalued practical advice on life and leadership.

1. Motivation

We start our list of Jocko Willink quotes with an unexpected motivational speech. It was prompted by a podcast listener who had a tough year ahead of him. A listener who humbly, yet somewhat naively, asked Willink to yell a personal motivational message at him. Here’s Jocko’s response.

Believe it or not, no one really yells motivational anything in the SEAL Teams. […] Even in basic SEAL training, there’s no one that’s yelling to motivate you. They might yell because you’re slacking. […]

And they’re yelling at you at that point because they want you to quit. They want you to quit. Why do they want you to quit? Because no one wants anyone in the teams that needs to be yelled at to be motivated. I don’t want anyone that I have to work with that the only way they’re gonna “get motivated” is if I yell at them. […]

You’re tired? Good. That means you’re getting after it. You got 11 more months of this? Okay, cool. Charlie Plumb [an American fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran] spent six years in a prisoner of war camp eating a rice bowl a day, being tortured, being abused. And he complained less in his book than you complain in this one question right here.

Jocko Willink, Yelling at You for Motivation

In a few words, Willink reframes the purpose of motivational yelling as he turns it into a Zen-level enigma. It’s a similar dynamic wannabe Zen students face when they’re rejected by Zen masters. It’s not to make the students try harder. It’s so the postulants realise they define themselves as someone with a problem who needs the help of a master.

In exactly the same way, yelled motivation is not meant to induce strength in the listener. It’s a tool to separate those who know how to motivate themselves intrinsically from those who don’t. To separate those who need others to push them to the limits from those who don’t. It’s probably not what Jocko’s listener wanted. But it’s what he asked for.

2. Tactical Fights

This is one of my favourite Jocko Willink quotes. It’s a lesson in long-term thinking that’s simple and obvious. Yet so hard to follow.

Don’t get wrapped around tactical competition. Think strategic all the time.

If you’re competing against me, I will have you in tactical fights all day long. I will put tactical things out there to distract you and fight you. And I put some minimum amount of resources against your whole deal and make you think you’re achieving this big victory — and you’re not!

I will be watching you take damage, I’ll be watching you waste resources, I’ll be watching you expend leadership capital while I’m putting money in the bank. I’m putting money in the bank and I’m gonna win.

I am going to win.

Jocko Willink, Jocko Podcast #266

Granted, it’s an old truism to prioritise long-term thinking over short-term gains. Delay gratification so the reward gets bigger in the future. What makes Jocko’s interpretation so powerful is again a change in perspective. It makes you realise how a proclivity to lose yourself in petty skirmishes can be weaponised against you.

It’s what Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power calls the art of timing. It’s preferable to keep a competitor occupied while you have all the time in the world to strategise. Unless it’s of utmost importance for you to win that tactical battle, in which case it’s not a tactical battle but a strategic one.

3. Detachment

In case you do get end up fighting a running battle you need a way to detach. You may be caught up in a heated argument when you suddenly realise that you should reassess the situation and rethink how you approach it. Here’s Jocko suggests you do it.

First of all, if you want to detach, step back. Literally, step back. […] If you’re in a business environment, step away from the computer. Put down your pen, back away. You’re in a heated meeting and you need to detach? Stand up and back away from the table. Literally step back and step away.

Once you do that, you relax. Now look, that physical part, it’s a physical reminder of what to do. You can get to a point in your life where you don’t need to do that. Or where you usually don’t have to do that. But things can still escalate quickly where even the most highly trained detached person still has to step back and take a wrap off and take a look around. […]

Now take a breath, look around and make a call. That’s it. That’s how easy it is to detach. The actual hard part of detachment is being self-aware enough that you know when to detach. That’s the challenging part.

Jocko Willink, Jocko Podcast #55

Being self-aware enough to know when you should take that step seems like a superpower. According to Willink, this is why it’s best if you can rely on others to step back with you. It also helps to be intimately familiar with your personal little indicators of supreme frustration. Typing an email response with clenched fists for example.

Jocko Willink MasterClass

4. Literacy

The last thing you’d expect a special forces soldier to be is probably an English major. But Willink has an underrated explanation for why he studied linguistics and Shakespeare in preparation for his role as a commanding officer.

I was an English major because, believe it or not, when you’re in the SEAL Teams and especialy when you’re in the officer position, you have to write and read all the time. So, when one of your troops does something and they deserve some kind of recognition for that you have to write them an award. And if the award is written well there’s a much better chance that it’ll be actually be given to the person you’re writing for.

You have to write evaluations for your troops. And the evaluations that you write is how your troops are judged so that they can be promoted. On top of that, if you want to go do a mission, you have to write a concept of operations, which is a document, which is five, six, seven, eight pages long that you send up the chain of command. That then they scower through and then see if they’re going to approve your mission or not.

Jocko Willink, Literacy & Strength

We may live in a civilised society where “the word has become the substitute for the deed,” as Sigmund Freud once wrote. Yet, the power of knowing how to write and communicate is often underestimated. It’s a crucial skill to have, even and especially as a Navy SEAL. Make the enemy fear your sword, and military bureaucracy fear your pen, I guess.

5. Iterative Decision-Making

Excellence in decision-making shows itself when we face dilemmas, have to make high-stakes calls under stress or weigh widely differing opinions about the best course of action. According to Willink, many decision conundrums can be solved through iterative decision-making. In a podcast episode with former fighter pilot Dave Berke, Jocko explains the idea of testing out small decisions instead of making a single big controversial one.

Iterative decision-making is not just making decisions. It’s the execution of that small decision. So, Dave, if I tell you: “Hey, I want you to assault that hill.” And you say: “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” And I say: Well, we need to get it done.” And you say: “I don’t think it’s gonna be worth the effort and the casualties that we would take.” There’s where were at, there’s our line in the sand.

Either one of us at this point…I can say: “I tell you what. Why don’t you move another 100 yards forward and push a couple point men up and see what they can see, and see if they start taking fire and see if there’s any cover that can get on the way there. How does that sound?” And you go: “That actually makes sense.”

Or, you could also say that to me: “You know what, Jocko. I don’t know about assaulting that hill. Why don’t we start with this. I’ll move a hundred meters closer, I’ll send a couple of scouts up, we’ll see if there’s any cover we could get. If it looks like we are taking fire I can pull them back. If we’re not taking fire, and we find good cover, I’ll proceed a little further.”

That’s it. That’s iterative decision-making. […] And what you find is that, when you make that small step, you learn more. When you learn more you can make a decision on which direction to go now.

Jocko Willink, Iterative Decision-Making

Decision-making doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing exercise. It’s a subtle collaborative art. I’ve written about tools such as DODAR to go through the process of finding and executing the best possible course of action. Iterative-decision making works with any of those tools. It’s one of the best ways to bypass the Law of Unintended Consequences.

BONUS: Resilience

We close our list of underrated Jocko Willink quotes with an anecdote juxtaposing one of the most horrifying experiences a human can have with everyday problems. It’s part of the story of William Reeder, a US helicopter pilot who was shot down and taken prisoner during the Vietnam War.

At one point [Reeder] is in a two foot tall bamboo cage in the jungle. And his legs are shackled and it’s night time and he’s trying to sleep. But he’s having trouble sleeping because the rats are gnawing on his wounds at his legs.

And so knowing that someone could suffer through that and survive and get through and make it out the other side and then carry on with a completely productive life tells me that we are pretty resilient as a species if we can dig deep and find that resiliency.

Jocko Willink, Literacy and Strength

I don’t know about you. But for me, that’s reason enough to get through a rough day and only complain half as much.

Closing Thoughts

The most popular Jocko Willink quotes seem to be his simple mantras. But beyond the surface, you can find a wealth of underrated practical advice. No doubt, a lot of his principles are as tough to follow consistently as his morning routine. That’s because the notorious early bird embodies an ideal. An ideal that shows what we could accomplish if we stopped complaining and just got after it. Good?