Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present.
You can click the timestamp to jump to that time.Lex Fridman (00:00):
The following is a conversation with Jocko Willink, a retired US Navy SEAL, co-author of Extreme Ownership, Dichotomy of Leadership, Discipline Equals Freedom, and many other excellent books, and he’s the host of Jocko Podcast. Jocko spent 20 years in the SEAL teams. He was the commander of SEAL Team 3’s task unit bruiser that became the most highly decorated special operations unit of the Iraq War.
This conversation was intense and to the point. We agreed to talk again, probably many times, and what I find very interesting, aside from the talk of leadership, is the conversation about military tactics of specific battles in history. Quick mention of our sponsors, Linode, Indeed, SimpliSafe, and Ground News. Check them out in the description to support this podcast. Since it’s the Fourth of July, a holiday in the United States, let me say a few words about what this country, my country, the United States of America means to me.
First, by way of background, I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, just long enough to get a bit of the Russian soul, an appreciation of Soviet history, music, culture, of wrestling and mathematics, of engineering and philosophy, stoicism and humor, tragedies and triumphs of war and revolutions, all in ways that are uniquely Russian. I do happen to at times mention that I’m Russian. This is what I mean, that I got a bit of that Russian soul.
But of course, who I really am is an American. This country gave me the opportunity, the freedom to become and to be who I am, to stand as an individual. This seemingly simple freedom to be a sovereign human being in the face of all the beauty and cruelty of life is why I love this country. Much of life can be unfair, unjust, even tragic, but this is the country where if I’m clever enough, work hard enough, and just get lucky enough, I have a chance to dream big and make my dream a reality.
The United States welcomed me, my family, and millions of immigrants throughout its history, so that we can make something meaningful of ourselves, to love, to dream, to create, to find joy and meaning. It lets me be the weird kid I am, who wears a suit, talks about love, and has a fascination with robots. I know some people these days have an aversion to pride and love for their country. I love America. I also love humanity. I believe these two, patriotism and humanism, are not in conflict, much like loving your family and loving your country are not in conflict.
They are all manifestations of the human spirit, longing to strive for a better world. I was born a Russian, but I believe I will die an American. A proud American. Hopefully not too soon, but life is short. I already had one hell of a fun journey, so I’m ready to go when it’s time. As usual, I’ll do a few minutes of ads now. No ads in the middle. I find those to be annoying as a listener. I think they get in the way of the conversation. I also do give you timestamps. I hope you don’t skip, because I try to make these interesting, but if you do skip, please still check out the sponsors by clicking the links in the description. It is the best way to support this podcast.
This episode is sponsored by Linode, Linux Virtual Machines. Anytime I mention Linux anywhere, it brings joy to my heart. Linode is an awesome compute infrastructure that lets you develop, deploy, and scale what applications you build faster and easier. This is both for small personal projects and huge systems. Both things I hope to be involved with in the future. It’s lower cost than AWS, but more important to me is the simplicity quality of the customer service with real humans, 24-7-365, as opposed to all the fake humans trying to pass the Turing test on Twitter.
I honestly think compute infrastructure done well, both customer service, ease of use, debugging, maintenance, understanding the pricing structure, all those things, that’s essential. I really like what Linode is doing. Also, it’s competition for AWS, it’s very good. Competition is always good, especially in this space where more and more of our world is running on compute infrastructure. The bloodline of our human civilization is becoming computation, so.
Companies like Linode are essential. The tagline is if it runs on Linux, it runs on Linode. Visit linode.com slash lex and click on the create free account button to get started with $100 in free credit. That’s linode.com slash lex. This episode is also sponsored by Indeed, a hiring website. I’ve used them as part of many hiring efforts I’ve done for the teams I’ve led in the past. They have tools like Indeed Instant Match, giving you quality candidates whose resumes on Indeed fit your job description immediately.
If doing ad reads was a job, I would not get hired by anybody, I’m terrible at this. I like these companies, I’m just not very good at emoting my passion for them. I’m not sure if emoting is a word. I’m just going to keep running with it without looking it up. Hence why I would never get hired to do ad reads. Anyway, right now get a free $75 sponsored job credit to upgrade your job post in Indeed.com slash lex. Get it at Indeed.com slash lex. Offer is valid through September 30th. Terms and conditions apply. Join three million businesses that use Indeed by going to Indeed.com slash lex.
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It is Indeed simple, takes 30 minutes to set up. You can customize the system for your needs on SimpliSafe.com slash lex. I have it set up on my place and I love it. I do try to live life not paranoid because I think minimization of stress versus maximization of safety is the more effective way to live life for me. But I do make sure I make intelligent decisions of how to protect myself, how to protect my data, how to protect my physical safety.
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This show is also sponsored by Ground News, an apolitical news website that helps me get all perspectives on a story and analyze my blind spots politically. They draw from 50,000 outlets across the world and across the political spectrum. The point is to see every side and come to your own conclusions. I think this approach is the future of news. That’s why I’m a big supporter of Ground News. That’s why I took them on as a sponsor.
I see my membership there as support for the ideal of what they stand for, not just this particular company. Hopefully you can see it the same way. It’s been said before but probably can’t be said enough is that clickbait journalism is truly damaging our ability as a society to have difficult, long-form conversations as we strive towards the truth. Truth is not an easy thing to arrive at. It requires understanding context. It requires understanding history. It requires understanding lived experiences to different people, to be empathetic, to be data-driven, to be rigorous with your analysis, all of those things. And clickbait journalism is completely empathetical to that.
So that’s why I think you should support Ground News and other companies of that kind. Anyway, try them out by signing up at ground.news.lex. It’s inexpensive so it’s definitely worth it but like I said, it’s also a good way to support all the different efforts that try to fix our current state of journalism and the media. Go to ground.news.lex to sign up and show your support. This is the Lex Friedman Podcast and here is my conversation with Jocko Willink. Is it tragic or beautiful to you that some of the closest bonds that are formed between people are through war often?
Jocko Willink (09:11):
I think it’s both, both tragic and beautiful and for the obvious reasons.
Lex Fridman (09:20):
What are the obvious reasons? Why is it so obvious?
Jocko Willink (09:26):
Well, it’s tragic because a lot of people die and it’s beautiful because you form bonds with people that are very difficult to break once you’ve been through them. What is it about the trauma of war
Lex Fridman (09:40):
that makes bonds difficult to break?
Jocko Willink (09:46):
Because what you realize when you’re in a war is that the people that are next to you, you rely on them and they’re relying on you to survive and without them, you will not survive and when you realize that you need to work together as a team to live, that forms a very strong bond. And there’s nothing like that team outside of the,
Lex Fridman (10:12):
and there’s nothing like that team outside of the realm of war.
Jocko Willink (10:15):
I don’t know because I’ve, there’s a lot of things that I haven’t experienced in my life, but I think the pressure and the consequences of war, there could be similar situations in survival scenarios in various atrocities where people need to work together in order to survive and I think you could probably get something that was…
Lex Fridman (10:44):
There’s a very particular nature to the kind of war that World War II was, especially for the Soviet Union where it didn’t just influence the lives of people, it created culture, the music, the poetry, the literature. It’s in the way people think, it’s in the way people see the world, it’s in the way they talk even still to this day and of course I was talking about the direct relationship between two soldiers, but there’s something about the depth of human connection that results from the almost like reverberations of war, like generations later, you’re still close to other humans. There’s a coldness towards other humans like in Russia, but once you open up, it’s depth, you seek depth of connection versus like breadth of a career kind of thinking, how can I make friends with this so I can move into this direction? What can this person benefit me? Instead, you seek a depth of human connection and appreciation that brings a lot and maybe I’m romanticizing war here, but it feels like that’s inextricably connected to World War II for Russians. Does that resonate at all? Is it?
Jocko Willink (12:07):
So if you look at military training, what they do is they take people in the military from the civilian world, they bring them into the military and they put them through bootcamp, which is the stereotypical thing that you see on TV, you’re gonna get yelled at, you’re gonna get screamed at, you’re gonna get put in the mud and you’re gonna be made to do hard things together and what does that do with those civilians? Well, it gives them a common background, it gives them a common suffering that they’ve been through together and they form some sort of connection, some sort of bond.
Now, to make that bond a little bit stronger, after you get done with bootcamp, they send you to advanced infantry school and you suffer some more together and when you suffer more together, now you’re in a smaller group too, because now it’s infantry, it’s not supply people anymore or like logisticians, it’s strictly people that are going to fight, they’re infantrymen. So they go through a school together and now they get a little bit tighter. Get done with that and maybe you go to an airborne division, so you go to airborne school and now you all overcome this fear of jumping out of an airplane together and you celebrate surviving that.
Then maybe you get done with that and now you go at an airborne division, now you’re an even tighter group because you’ve suffered together. What comes next is special forces training or ranger training and what they do is they put you in these situations where you’re gonna suffer together and you’re gonna build these bonds because as I said earlier, you have to rely on each other to survive and by the way, not everyone does, not everyone makes it through this training, so you sort of have these memories of people that didn’t make it, you share that connection as well and you can keep going down this road until you go into combat with a military unit and military units that go through combat have an even tighter bond and the harder the combat that they go through, the tighter the bond is going to be. So I think when you talk about what the Soviet Union went through in World War II, there was a shared suffering to survive and so the entire nation has that common thread and that’s probably the thing that you sense or feel when you refer back to the bond that resonates all the way back to World War II.
Lex Fridman (14:36):
So in your podcast and your writing, you talk about some of the most fascinating things I listened to you talk about in terms of military conflict is tactics and sort of the details of combat but allow me to stick on World War II for a second. There’s a particular aspect to that war, I don’t know if you can speak to it, where twice the number of civilians died than military personnel. So the Soviet Union especially.
My grandfather was a machine gunner in Ukraine as the Germans were marching towards Moscow. There’s this main, there’s this important push in 1941 where they were trying to get before the winter to Moscow and what Stalin was doing is he was basically throwing bodies to slow the attack and what that meant is everybody understood that your job was, you have this heavy machine guns, it’s very, it’s almost unreasonable to be able to be mobile in any kind of way with them. So you’re thrown at the front and you’re just nonstop shooting and 95 plus percent of people are just dead of the soldiers are just dead and then you just go back and back and you’re trying to protect as many civilians as you can throughout this whole process but you don’t and so you have millions of civilians that die along the way through this march.
Is there something you could say about this complete, perhaps it’s naive of me to say but a war that lacks tactics, that lacks strategy and is purely about just no consideration of human life and just throwing bodies and bullets into a mix together where millions die and that in particular felt much less like conflict and much more like torture or suffering. It didn’t come off as torture only that interestingly enough as you probably know, my grandfather including everybody else volunteered.
They were proud to do this. They were proud to march to their death for country, for love of country but the question on the civilian side, when more civilians die than military personnel, what do you make of that?
Jocko Willink (17:27):
It’s awful and it’s awful when a soldier dies, it’s awful when a civilian dies, it’s awful when 10 civilians or 10 soldiers and it’s even more awful when millions and millions of soldiers and civilians die. I think it’s safe to say that the Soviet Union was facing an existential threat to their existence against the Nazis. So to not fight would be to die as well, maybe die a death a few years later, maybe die a different way but the choice was die now trying or die later on your knees.
And I think the choice was pretty clear as far as the tactics go. I mean, there is, this is attrition warfare. That’s what that is. We are going to keep, you know, you said throwing bodies at the problem, that’s attrition warfare. And the Soviet Union had a lot of bodies, more than the Germans. And when you fight with attrition warfare, whoever has more men and material will eventually win. It’s an awful, it’s an awful way but that’s what the strategy was.
Lex Fridman (18:50):
You often talk about leadership. Let’s put the evils of Hitler aside. The boldness of Hitler in making some of the strategic decisions he did was considered by many military historians quite brilliant early in the war or insane and brilliant.
Stalin on the other hand, I think university is seen as somebody who is terrible military strategist, especially early in the war. He did not see all the possible trajectories that the war could take. Is there something you could say about failure of leadership? Stalin also the United Kingdom before Churchill and also FDR in the United States side who basically was trying to turn a blind eye to everything that was happening over there with a perspective of we just want to make, we want to keep America’s interest as the primary interest and everything else let other countries work out their problems.
Jocko Willink (19:59):
You know, I think one of the things with Hitler was in the beginning of the war, he listened to his advisors, he listened to his generals and therefore they did pretty well with that. I think as the war went on, he believed that he was smarter than he was and made decisions that were bad, that cost him dearly. You know, I mean, case in point, as everyone knows going and attacking the Soviet Union while you’re still fighting a war on the other front is not a good move. There’s an example of yeah, bad leadership, letting your ego get in the way, believing that you can do things that are beyond your capabilities. But you know, as you mentioned in the beginning with Blitzkrieg, those were really dynamic and bold moves and they worked. And what does that do? That fuels your ego and makes you think that you can win.
Lex Fridman (20:55):
Many people consider that war a just war. What do you think makes a just war?
Jocko Willink (21:03):
I think you have the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese trying to impose their will on other nations and other peoples and when that happens, I think on a grand scale, people look at that and believe it’s just to step in and do something about it.
Lex Fridman (21:22):
Is there some gray area here?
Jocko Willink (21:25):
There’s nothing but gray area.
Lex Fridman (21:29):
The United States has been involved in a lot of military conflicts since then. How do you draw the line to the gray area? What war should we engage in and not? I know you don’t get into politics much, but the decision to go to war.
Jocko Willink (21:45):
You have to look at the situation that you’re going into and you have to make sure that you have the will to go to war. And the will to go to war means that you are willing to kill people. And when I say people, I don’t just mean any of them. I just mean enemy because in war, civilians are going to die. Women and children are going to die. A lot of people are going to die. And you are going to kill them. Doesn’t matter what kind of smart munitions you have. Doesn’t matter how disciplined your soldiers are. When you go into a war, civilians are going to die and you have to understand that. And the other thing that you have to understand is that your troops are also going to die.
And it seems like sometimes we’re a little bit naive about the calculation of what that’s going to look like. And maybe we think, well, not that many civilians and maybe not that many of our personnel are going to die. And that’s where you get into sticky situations. And you know, another thing when you were talking about the Soviet Union versus the Nazis, that’s total war. That’s what that is. And we don’t engage in that very often. It’s total war. It’s we will do absolutely anything to win. And America doesn’t fight like that very often. In fact, the last time we fought like that was World War II.
We, it was total war. We will do whatever it takes to up to and including the atomic bomb to destroy the enemy. So those are the kinds of things you need to think about before you go to war. And I don’t think we think about that very often.
Lex Fridman (23:28):
You know, even the United States, the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons is an interesting one because there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of hesitation on that. There’s a lot of critics of that decision as it was happening. So even America, you can imagine other countries like Germany would not be so hesitant to use nuclear weapons. It’s interesting to think about in deciding military strategy to inject ethics into it, into morality.
It’s not just about winning the war, but should we do this and doing the calculation of human life? Usually those decisions are made by leaders, not by the soldier that’s going to be implementing that decision. Do you put some responsibility, I should even say blame on the leaders and not doing that kind of calculation here? You could say that about the Vietnam War, you could say that about even the war that you were involved with in Iraq. Is there some criticism here that you could apply to leaders for failing not to consider the broader moral questions?
Natural, like all leaders will make these mistakes or should leaders not make these mistakes?
Jocko Willink (25:02):
Leaders are going to make mistakes. It’s impossible to know what’s gonna happen in war just like it’s impossible to know what’s gonna happen in life. You make decisions based on the information that you have at the time and you will make mistakes. And if you fail to admit that you made a mistake, that’s where I have a more significant problem than someone that makes a mistake and says, hey, this is the mistake that I made, this is the intelligence that I thought we were utilizing and it actually is not what I thought it was going to be and here’s the new direction that we’re going in. We don’t have enough of that type of ownership in leadership globally.
Lex Fridman (25:49):
Just saying I made a mistake that resulted in a loss at scale of human life, being able to say that.
Jocko Willink (25:57):
And when you don’t say that, you end up with a more loss of human life.
Lex Fridman (26:05):
Can I ask you about the loss of human life? How does killing a human being change you? What does it mean to kill a human being? What does it feel like to kill a human being?
Jocko Willink (26:24):
Well, I mean, I guess you’d have to look at what circumstances a person’s in when this is taking place. If you’ve got someone that’s in a fit of rage that goes and kills somebody, you know, they’re gonna come out of it and think, wow, I just really messed up. If you’ve got someone that is a sociopath, right? They’re not gonna feel anything and that person deserved to die and that’s why they died. If you’ve got a soldier who feels like they’re trying to protect their friends, they’ll move through that.
If you’ve got a soldier that’s doing it because they want some kind of personal glory, they’ll probably not feel good about it later. So I think it depends on the situation. I think it depends on the psychology of the individual that’s going through it.
Lex Fridman (27:20):
He said, move through that. Is there some calculation here that a soldier, when they kill another soldier, a realization that it’s just another human being? I mean, is there some heavy burden to that aspect? That it’s ultimately just human on human?
Jocko Willink (27:49):
I think it depends a lot on the scenario. I know that when I was in Iraq fighting, we talk a lot about the dehumanization of the enemy and it’s something that the governments will do. I mean, governments will do that to each other. I mean, the Japanese dehumanized the Americans and the Americans dehumanized the Japanese and the Americans dehumanized the Nazis and the Nazis dehumanized the Americans so that to remove as much of that human on human killing aspect that you’re talking about.
And what I’ve said is that when we were in Iraq, we didn’t have to dehumanize the enemy because the enemy dehumanized themselves through their actions, through their behaviors. When we know that they are torturing and raping and murdering the local populace, they’ve been dehumanized. And so as far as looking at them and thinking, oh, this is a human, another human that’s on the level of my uncle or my brother. I didn’t think of them that way. I thought of them as murdering, raping, evil, subhumans.
Lex Fridman (29:17):
Yeah, Iraq is different and America’s position is different. I think that America has not been involved in a war where it’s quite like two humans fighting, like teenage boys fighting against each other.
Jocko Willink (29:31):
And you’ve got to remember, I mean, we’re seeing these Iraqi kids that are living under this sadistic terror. The Iraqi women that are being raped and abused by these insurgents.
And so on the one side, we become the Iraqi populace is very humanized to us because we’re talking to them, we’ve got interpreters, we understand, we’re seeing them day after day, the same individuals. And so we form a bond with the local populace and yet we see what the insurgents are doing. And so it’s again, not difficult to dehumanize people that behave in that manner.
Lex Fridman (30:20):
Yeah, I suppose I worry about the dehumanization at a much larger scale when it’s not the kind of case that you’re talking about. Even now, hopefully I’m not fear-mongering, but there’s a sense in which there’s the drums of war slowly starting to build with China.
In the best case, it would be a cold war. There’s a dehumanization aspect that’s happening with China currently, which is they’re the other and they’re after stealing all of your data. There’s a cybersecurity, it starts with cybersecurity and it worries me because it creates the other out of a very large population that may ultimately lead to conflict, in the worst case, hot conflict, that would no longer be the situation you are in in Iraq and more similar to the Soviet Union conflict with Germany, that it’s kids and then they’re dehumanized to where you’re at scale slaughtering them or at least hurting their quality of life in a way that’s maybe, suffering has many forms. It doesn’t have to be through just a hot war. It could be through starvation, through camps, all those kinds of things and I worry about that. We kind of tend to think that these wars are behind us and I’m not always so sure that’s the case and at least in the way that, it ultimately starts with hate and again, hopefully I’m not being too dramatic but I see that there’s a kind of brewing of, it starts with dehumanization then turns to hate of the other. You see that with China, you see it a little bit with Russia and you have an early podcast between where you break down the tactics of the Chechen War versus Russia, it’s fascinating but that’s the kind of conflicts I’m referring to and I don’t know, there’s a, I know you’re a bit of a musician. I love Dire Straits’s song called Brothers in Arms. I don’t know if you know that one and there’s a line in it. I think they play it quite often in military funerals which I just recently learned but it’s this powerful song that has a line, we’re fools to make war on our brothers in arms. Do you think there’s some sense in which at the leadership level but just as human beings we’re perhaps foolish and engaging in military conflict as much as we have or as fool a very inappropriate word here?
Jocko Willink (33:28):
Well, I think that using the term brothers in arms means the people that are on my side, right? So it doesn’t make sense to start wars with people that are on your side. So that might just be the way the lyrics are written so that it fit the song or whatever. I think broadly what you’re asking me is, is war foolish? And I would say the answer is yes and if you can avoid it, you absolutely should. But if there is a bear or a wolf that is trying to get into your house, is it foolish to shoot that bear or shoot that wolf? I think the answer is pretty obvious. So when you’re threatened or your family are threatened or your way of life is threatened, then you have to do something to try and defend your family, your way of life. It should be the last resort. Should be the last resort.
Lex Fridman (34:31):
You had a conversation with Jordan Peterson where he asked you a question in terms of war being the last resort, whether you would like your kids to grow up in peace in a time of no war. You said, yes, but. And it so happens Jordan didn’t let you finish. Can you elaborate what follows the but?
Jocko Willink (35:01):
Well, you and I have been talking about the fact that struggle brings people together and brings out the best and the worst. It brings out the worst in people. War brings out the worst in people. It also brings out the best in people. So would you want your kid to go and enter in a wrestling tournament where you paid all the other kids off and your kid won? Or you enter them in a jiu-jitsu tournament where they’re a purple belt and you know that everyone that they’re gonna fight against is a white belt. And so they get the big W, they get the win.
But they don’t really get tested and they don’t really struggle. And if you don’t struggle, you don’t grow. So that’s the but, right? The absolute best times of my life were in combat. And the worst times of my life were in combat.
And so even though I wouldn’t want any of my children to suffer through the worst of times, at the same time, the but is I would want them to have the opportunity to feel that bond that you’re referring to earlier and to see human beings that are willing to sacrifice their lives for their friends.
Lex Fridman (36:31):
You mentioned the worst. What are some of the worst aspects of when you were in Iraq? What are the things that, the hardest on you?
Jocko Willink (36:46):
Having my guys killed.
Lex Fridman (36:50):
Is there a absurd cruelty to it? Was it due to mistakes or natural consequences of fighting? Is there any difference? Is that at the end is just losing those arms?
Jocko Willink (37:06):
There’s a million different ways to get killed in a war. And you can go out in an operation and you can do everything wrong and you can survive. And you can go out in an operation and do everything perfect and you can get killed.
Lex Fridman (37:21):
Is there some aspect which makes it worse when there’s mistakes made?
Jocko Willink (37:25):
Well, yeah, if there’s mistakes made, then you’re gonna sit there and beat yourself up eternally for mistakes that were made.
Lex Fridman (37:35):
But to you, the things that hurt is just losing, losing people close to you. Yes. Are you yourself afraid of death? Do you think about it? Does it make sense to you that this thing ends? Like do you, the stoics contemplated death. It gives flavor to life. It makes you appreciate. There’s something about finiteness of life that makes it, that makes it, this jocko discipline go drink sour apple that I’m enjoying is delicious. It makes it taste better because I’m going to die one day. And I think about that a lot. Do you think about it?
Jocko Willink (38:24):
Other than I know that it’s gonna end. I mean, but I don’t think about it on a daily basis. I think about- It’s just a fact. I think about, I know that I’m lucky to be here. I know that many people sacrificed to give me this opportunity to be here. So, but I don’t dwell on it.
Lex Fridman (38:48):
What about when you were in combat? Nothing. There’s tactics, there’s strategy, there’s the mission. And then your mortality is not part of the calculation.
Jocko Willink (39:01):
I think you get to a point where you accept the fact that you can die. Like I, you know, like I said, you can do everything right. You roll out the gate, you hit an IED, a triple stack subsurface IED, and you’re done. And there’s nothing that’s gonna stop that. It’s gonna happen. And I think if you’re scared of that or you’re thinking about that, it’s gonna inhibit your ability to do your job properly. And I think it’s also gonna drive you crazy. The thing that I thought about more was that happening to my guys. And that’s the gut-wrenching terror that you feel when operations happen.
Lex Fridman (39:40):
Can I ask you about love of country? It continues to, just how much I’ve studied Stalin recently in the past few years, it continues to surprise me. Not surprise me, it’s just tragic in some kind of way. I’m not sure exactly if I could put words to it, but how many people, and still do, but at the time were willing, loved Stalin, and were willing to die for country, for the love of country. And I too, maybe because I was born there and now I am a red-blooded American, I love, nationalism is a bad word, but I love the love of country. It gives, it somehow gives a meaning, like a brotherhood, like we’re in this together.
I love, that’s why I love the Olympics. That’s just the unity of it. It takes a step out of the selfish pursuits of any one particular ant, and looks at us as a big ant colony. And it’s inspiring, it’s exciting, but at the same time, it seems to get us to do horrible things, if manipulated by charismatic leaders. What do you make of this love of country? Is it a bad thing? Is it a thing that gets in the way? Or is it a good thing?
Jocko Willink (41:16):
Well, I think like anything else, if it’s balanced correctly, it’s great. And if it goes to some extreme level, then it becomes a negative. And I think it’s probably sourced in some sort of animalistic tribalism that we all have to be part of a tribe. And this is a real big tribe that you get to be a part of, and all you have to do is kind of show up. And so when someone says, hey, we’re gonna play hockey against the Russians, well, we’re gonna cheer for the American boys.
Lex Fridman (41:53):
So my area of work is artificial intelligence. It’d be interesting to ask your thoughts about something, which is autonomous weapon systems. US has now officially released a report saying that they’re open to, not open, but engaging in adding more and more autonomy and artificial intelligence into its weapon systems because China is doing it. And so these are the first steps in something that AI folks worry about, which is a race, an AI race in the space of autonomous weapons that can run away too quickly. Is that something, I don’t know if in general, if you have thoughts about weapon systems that make autonomous decisions at the small scale of just targeting where to shoot and at the larger scale of military strategy of just being given a mission of destroy this particular target, this particular, say, terrorist human being, and then figure out what is the right bombing campaign on your own to accomplish this task that minimizes civilian death.
And then just loading that in and letting the AI system automatically decide that. What are your general thoughts about it? Do you worry about it? Because as the positive effects that in the best version of that world, you kill fewer civilians, you kill hurt fewer of your own human beings, but at the negative side of that, you might lose the thing we kind of talked about, which is the basic humanity, even in the individual soldier of what is right and what is wrong, and not making huge mistakes that hurt thousands or millions of people.
Jocko Willink (43:55):
I guess what you’re asking me is if they could make a machine that could do more surgical attacks on enemy individuals, would I be for it? Yes, I would be for it.
Lex Fridman (44:07):
The problem is if you’ve ever used machines of any kind, their initial design may not be, there’s unintended consequences. There’s ways the machine actually behaves that you realize there’s bugs in this thing.
Jocko Willink (44:30):
So do we not put protocols in place to prevent something from going too far outside the boundaries of what we want it to execute? You do, but the question is,
Lex Fridman (44:38):
this is the first time in human history you can create things, machines, toaster, microwave oven, microwave oven that’s smarter than you in this particular task. I mean, it’s not yet there. What you’re learning a lot with military strategy is humans are actually really damn smart. It’s very hard to improve on a human. And so most actual drones that are unmanned are still piloted by humans. It’s very difficult to do every aspect of war, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that machines will start doing those things better and certain things, a certain more precise targeting of the enemy. The question is, so what happens when you start to rely on the machine to do some of the task is you get lazy.
You forget what it is like to do that task. Or more importantly, you lose the knowledge of the intricacies of that task and you forget the ways it can go wrong. So the protocols may not be sufficient to constrain the power of the ways that things go wrong, especially when things are moving really quickly, especially when the ethics of the two sides aren’t perfectly aligned. When people are some certain sides, like on Chinese side, may be more willing to take risks for dangerous consequences than others. So what happened on the bioweapon side is internationally, maybe you can speak to this more, but my sense, what I was told, there was a sense globally that bioweapons are not going to be used. They’re unethical.
There’s a sense like we’re not going to engage in this. And with AI currently, China and US said, green light, I’ll go ahead. It’s totally ethical. If it can decrease the loss of human life, why not? And my worry is that it’s much easier to design weapons that are effective than design weapons who have the depth of ethics and morals that humans do, which I think we don’t as human beings don’t acknowledge enough that even like the cold calculated killing of others, like precise, effective execution of a mission still has ethics in it. At every level, you know what’s right and what’s wrong. And I don’t know if you take that away, you’re not going to make huge mistakes that you regret.
Is that something you don’t worry about?
Jocko Willink (47:39):
I don’t really worry about it. But as you design something, like I said, you put protocols in place and from what I am hearing you say or trying to hear you say, there’s be a point where our protocols wouldn’t be sufficient to stop the machine from doing something that was unethical.
Lex Fridman (48:07):
I’m kind of worried that this is something you don’t worry about because a lot of people I respect don’t worry about it. And I don’t know what to do about that. A lot of generals don’t worry about it. A lot of people who know much more about war, like you than me, don’t worry about it. And that worries me.
Jocko Willink (48:26):
Well, that’s because you have a vision into the shortfalls of AI and I don’t. I don’t have a vision of the shortfalls of AI. I don’t know enough about it. As far as I’m concerned, you put a on-off switch somewhere, you put a kill switch on a system. And if it starts going awry, you hit the kill switch and that’s it. So if, you know, when you look at me and say, well, there’s no possible way to put a kill switch, that would be 100% effective. And here’s, you draw those concerns to me and we could talk through it and say, okay, well, here’s where we should draw the line.
Lex Fridman (49:04):
I mean, it’s like, again, for the Soviet Union, Chernobyl meltdown, there was always the ability, I believe, to have a kill switch. The problem is the more power you give to the machine, the more opportunity you give to the human supervising that machine to make a mistake and not shut off the switch at the right time. So yes, the solution, I mean, you’re putting the responsibility still in the human hands and I think that’s the correct place to put it. There should be good protocols, good leadership, good execution, competency all around. Your protocols should consider the basic failures of human nature, the human factor of how things go wrong. So there should be multiple people supervising the system, all those things. But I am just very skeptical of greater and greater power in the machine that can create war, that cannot lead to death.
Jocko Willink (50:01):
Yeah, and that’s why, like I said, and like you just said, you have protocols in place that are a kill switch. And if you think about the amount of nuclear weapons that we’ve had on planet earth for the past, however many years, and there’s been no rogue element that said, you know what, I’m gonna shoot this thing. There’s been no protocol that took place where all of a sudden we said, oh no, I mean, there’s been escalations, but the protocols worked, have worked so far. Now, that’s a scary thing to think about, that we rely on these protocols to stop some rogue element out there from launching a missile that could kill millions of people and trigger a global war. So yeah, the protocol should be strict.
Lex Fridman (50:53):
Okay, can I ask Jacquelyn a ridiculous question? If human civilization goes extinct, what would be the reason? You mentioned nuclear war, do you worry about this? The reason I bring that up, a lot of people in the AI community worry about artificial general intelligence, so super intelligent AI systems creating a lot of damage, autonomous weapons systems is one possibility. A lot of folks recently, especially with this pandemic, if you wanna be terrified, listen, somebody I talked to recently, Sam Harris, he did a four-hour podcast on how bioengineering of viruses is likely to destroy human civilization. I recommend that highly if you were too optimistic about the future of the human species. So apparently in the space of bioengineering is becoming easier and easier and easier to engineer viruses, engineer pathogens.
This is the world’s most depressing question. What is, is there something in particular you worry about, like that we should be thinking as a human species about?
Jocko Willink (52:08):
Yeah, I’m sorry to disappoint you again with my lack of worry for all these problems, but I don’t worry too much about it. We’ve made it through a bunch of wickets so far as a species and we’ll make it through some more, or we won’t. And if we don’t make it through some of these wickets and someone decides that what they’re gonna do over the weekend is create some crazy virus that spreads and kills everybody, yeah.
Lex Fridman (52:38):
You know what, I’m usually extremely optimistic about this stuff. I am now, I’m with you, except we won’t. Well, there’s always a chance we won’t, but I have a sense that human, first of all, I believe that most people have much more capacity for good than evil. All of us are capable of evil, I believe, but most people are much more capable of doing good and want to do good. And I also believe in the resiliency of the human species, that we’re an innovative bunch and we can respond to tragedy, especially we’ll respond more to tragedy as the scale of the tragedy grows and our response is much better.
Jocko Willink (53:22):
So that’s why I’m not worried about it, bro.
Lex Fridman (53:24):
What makes a great man? Let’s start at the individual. What makes a great man? What makes a great woman? What makes a great human being?
Jocko Willink (53:38):
Somebody that puts others above themselves.
Lex Fridman (53:41):
What makes a great leader of humans? But that sentence does a lot of work. There’s, when you’re a leader, there’s a lot of egos, there’s a lot of tension, there’s the humans, the human factor. There’s people who are timid, there’s people who are assholes, there’s people who are incredibly competent, but self-obsessed. I don’t know, there’s complexities of human nature. How do you get all of those people to be the best version of themselves and to lift up everyone else around them?
Jocko Willink (54:16):
Okay, so now that question is a little bit different now. So now it’s getting into a more specific question, but at the same time, a more broad question of what elements does it take to make a good leader? So you’re right that different people have different personalities, different tendencies, different levels of ego. And the way that I try and explain this is like a video game, and I’m not even a video game player, but I’ve seen this before where video game characters have various skills, various strengths and weaknesses. So maybe they’re strong, but they’re dumb, or maybe they’re strong and smart, but they’re slow. They just give them these ratings. And so that’s what human beings are. And that’s the way leaders are. And you can have different leaders with different characteristics.
And depending on how all those characteristics match up, you can have somebody that is very introverted, but they’re still a very good leader, because when they do communicate, they do it in a clear, simple manner that everyone understands. So even though they’re a little bit introverted, people still respect them and listen to them because they communicate in a clear way. You could have somebody that’s extremely charismatic, extremely charismatic, and everyone looks to them, but they’re slow in making decisions. And so now we’ve got someone that can’t really make decisions when decisions need to get made. So even though they’re charismatic, they’re still not a good leader.
So depending on the human being that we’re talking about, and you just mentioned earlier that human beings are more complex than anything and do a better job at just about everything than a robot. So that’s the same thing with leadership. You’ve got all these different characteristics and you match them or mix them together. And depending on where the ratings come out, depending on how that thing does in the end.
Lex Fridman (56:16):
Can we almost like as a case study, look at a few people in the tech area that I’m familiar with that I know well.
Jocko Willink (56:22):
We can, the only caveat being that I may have no familiarization with them whatsoever. You may have to brief me on them.
Lex Fridman (56:28):
Yeah, so I’ll do my best to reduce human beings into simple descriptions. And then you can give me insights of why the hell they’re such effective leaders based on my description, not based on your actual deep knowledge of the human beings. So that caveat of my inability to speak both the English language and describe humans well. Let’s talk about first Elon Musk. So he’s known as being quite harsh in the sense of first of all, a very high bar of excellence and also willing to what he calls the kind of first principles thinking of asking the questions that hurt, which is why the hell are we doing it this way? Why can’t it be done a lot, but not just better, but a lot better.
Jocko Willink (57:25):
So let’s, I don’t wanna hear his whole character. I’ll go one section at a time. So we got a guy that’s harsh. Yeah. And asking the really hard questions. How can that be good? Or why is that good? Well, first of all, it can be horrible. And there’s leaders out there that are harsh and they’re hated and no one likes them and no one wants to work for them and they never do anything. So what is it that Elon Musk does that gives him the ability to be harsh? So I was hearing a description of me when I would give feedback to young SEALs that had made mistakes during training operations. And the description was that the same thing, like this harsh blunt force trauma and just totally direct sledgehammer of truth that I would hit guys with.
But it’s interesting because I always talk about building relationships and making sure you’re not offending someone. Yeah. So how do these things match up? Well, I can tell you how they match up. When I was being harsh, the guys that I was being harsh with knew without one shred of doubt that I cared about them more than anything else. And that the reason I was giving them this feedback is because I wanted them to be able to lead their troops. I wanted them to be able to go accomplish their mission and I wanted them to be able to bring their guys home from war. So I wasn’t being harsh about it. So I wasn’t being harsh because it elevated my ego. I wasn’t being harsh because I wanted to denigrate them. I was actually being harsh because I wanted them to accomplish the mission.
So if that’s where Elon comes from, hey, listen, we gotta make this happen. This is for the good of the world to do this and people know that, then it works.
Lex Fridman (59:16):
I’ll bring this point back up with another guy, Steve Jobs, but let me stay on Elon for a second. The other thing he does, which is interesting, I see the value of this. It’d be great to hear you speak about it. It’s unlike many of the other CEOs, very rich billionaires involved in leading a lot of people. He puts a lot of time into making sure that he’s on the factory floor. He famously sleeps in the middle of things and he puts a lot of effort. He’s also very good at it, is being a low level engineer. So whatever the task is, he wants to understand the details and he’ll talk to the lowest level person in terms of somebody who’s working literally on putting parts together. He wants to understand what the problem is, what the challenge is. If there’s an emergency, he wants to understand the actual details of the problem. Not like delegating into a manager, but like, because a lot of CEOs, a lot of managers will talk about sort of the power and the importance of delegation. Here, he wants to know if there’s a big problem, he wants to know the exact detail. He wants to know the exact problem. He wants to, at the fundamental level, understand how to solve that problem.
What that has to do with materials, what that has to do with the actual manufacturing, the mechanical engineering aspect. We’re talking about engineering. This is a guy who wears a suit, is a CEO, tweets about Dogecoin, but actual job, he’s low level engineering. And that to me was always inspiring to see somebody who knows what the fuck they’re doing.
That’s what, like he gains the respect of engineers at the lowest level. I don’t know if that’s scalable, but that’s always been inspiring to me. And I wonder how many people it’s inspiring to. Maybe you could speak to the value of doing that, of no matter how high your level of leader is, to be able to do the low level shit.
Jocko Willink (01:01:25):
Yeah, and that’s a common trait that good leaders have. And maybe he doesn’t necessarily know how to do everything, a good leader, but they go down there and talk to the frontline troops and say, hey, what is the issue that you’re dealing with?
How can I support you? How can I give you help? And one key point that you said is he said, when there’s a problem, he gets in there. So there’s things happening at his companies that they’re working and so he doesn’t have to die. I’m not saying he never does, but he doesn’t have to spend as much time working on or looking at some subsystem that’s functioning well. He’s got a good leader in there that’s handling it and he checks in with that leader and the leader says, yeah, it’s working perfectly. He says, great.
When there’s a problem, that’s when he might have to get down there and dig into some details so that he fully understands it. So that he, when he digs down in the details, and this is important, he’s coming from an altitude where he has a better, bigger perspective, not necessarily better, but a bigger perspective. So if you sit there and work on a problem, whatever, for eight hours and you’re staring at, if you were planning a mission and you were planning it for eight hours, you’re staring at the maps and the charts and you’re figuring out where all the troops are gonna be located, and I come in after eight hours and I look at your plan from a distant perspective, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to see holes in your plan that you couldn’t see because your perspective was too close.
So that’s good for me to be able to come in from a higher perspective and have a look at it. But also, there’s times where I need to get down there and actually look. You know, if you’re looking at a problem and you say, look, I can’t figure out, boss, I can’t figure out how to get to this target, and I’m looking at it from a distance and I don’t see, I might need to start digging in and looking and saying, oh, here’s a route that we can take that actually makes sense, let’s try that. So I think it’s a good example of someone going up and down in altitude to look at problems, understanding what’s happening with the frontline troops, and at the same time, being able to go back to the strategic level, and I can, it’s probably this way. The reason that he’s successful is because he doesn’t get stuck down there. Because if he felt the need to micromanage each and every part on a Tesla, it wouldn’t be, it would be very unlikely that he would have the capacity to do all that.
Now, he can hand over some broad chip design and say, hey, this is what the function needs to be, and he gives it to Lex, and Lex goes there with your team and you figure it out and you make it happen. If he had to actually do that all himself, most likely not possible. So that’s what leaders should be doing. They should go elevate and then get down in the weeds when they have to, and then go back up.
Lex Fridman (01:04:14):
Sad thing. This is the part that makes me not want to do a startup, is basically his whole life is dealing with emergencies. Just like you said, he’s not dealing, this is not shooting the shit about details of engineering. It’s dealing with, in the case of the company, life and death, something that can just completely damage the production line, right? So he’s constantly dealing with emergencies, putting out fires. And I don’t know if there’s something to be said about the psychology of that, of how he’s poking himself that he’s worried whether his mind can hold up much longer.
Jocko Willink (01:04:56):
So hopefully, in the near future, he will start to form more decentralized command where he has some subordinate leadership that he fully trusts, and most important, that he has properly trained so that they can handle these day-to-day fires at least 80% of them. So only 20% of the time does he actually need to go in and solve a problem.
If he’s not doing that right now, then that’s going to end up being a problem. So I work with companies all the time, and that’s what’s interesting about this, is I go and work with a CEO or with a C-suite of a company. It takes a little while to figure out what’s going on. I’m kind of going off of the things that you’re telling me almost anecdotally, right? But let’s say that what you, and also, I don’t know how familiar you actually are with the inner workings of his companies, but if we were to assume that what you’re saying is accurate, then my advice would be, hey, listen, you need to start putting a little bit more time and effort into training up some subordinate leadership that has the trust, knowledge, and expertise that you will be able to turn over some of these details to for two reasons. Number one, so you can let your brain, you can survive a little longer, as he put it, but also, all the time that you spend as a leader looking down and into your organization is time that you’re not looking up and out.
So when you’re not looking up and out, you’re not seeing what the competitor’s doing, you’re not seeing where the market’s going, there’s problems that can come from that. So if right now he’s spending too much time looking down and in, and you mentioned, you know, you said, I don’t know if I wanna do a startup, when you do a startup, you’re gonna be looking down and in for a while. It’s gonna take a while, you’re gonna have to do all this work yourself, you’re not gonna have the finances to put people, manpower behind these things.
That’s probably, maybe he’s in that mindset a little bit because he’s done so many startups over the years, and so he’s habitually in the weeds. So my advice would be, all right, let’s start looking at formulating some subordinate leadership that has the, like I said, the expertise, the trust that you can start to turn over some of these more minute details to them so that you can start looking up and out.
Lex Fridman (01:07:07):
Yeah, I think he’s done that more successfully in some places than others. At SpaceX, a lot of people give the credit to Gwynne Shotwell for the CEO, the COO of SpaceX as a very successful person that runs shit, but in Tesla, not as much. So I wonder if you can comment on something a lot of people worry about, and this applies to a lot of tech companies, which is a lot of people worry about that if Elon disappears, the innovative spirit, the company is, as we know them today, will collapse, will stagnate, and will basically fail to do what they’ve been doing for so many years successfully. Is there some aspect to what makes a good leader that if you disappear, the thing still lives on, and not just lives on, but thrives?
Jocko Willink (01:08:05):
Yeah, so what we have to do in those situations is we have to establish a strong culture inside that organization. And if you’re, there’s reasons why this happens, right? If I have a big ego and I form a company, and I love the fact that everyone looks at me and says, oh, Jocko made this company and he’s the creative force behind this company, and that fuels my ego and it makes me feel good, and I’m working with you, Lex, and every time I’m working with you, I’m working with you, Lex, and every time you come up with an idea, I say, Lex, you need to stay in your box. Right, so I’m not creating a culture that rewards that sort of creativity. And eventually, when I die, I won’t have educated my team on how to maintain that creative aspect. So again, hopefully, inside that organization, he’s encouraging and growing that culture where creativity is rewarded, where it flourishes even when he’s gone. That’s what we have to hope for.
Lex Fridman (01:09:08):
He is, but I also seem to notice that there’s not many people like him. People become complacent too easily. I’ve been disappointed by people a little bit. It’s like success makes people soft. Now, with Elon, it seems like success doesn’t have any effect. It’s like the reverse effect. It’s like, it’s always like, what’s the next biggest thing, right?
He’s living that exponential growth, which I think that’s the problem that you have to have somebody who’s constantly trying to find the 10X solution, like trying to constantly improve things and restlessly. I mean, that probably has to do with finding the right people, not just creating the culture, but creating a culture with the right set of people. Speaking of which, Steve Jobs. There’s two things I want to mention there. One, once again, the harshness, but a very different kind. And the second is team building. So on the harshness, he is much harsher than Elon in the following way. I’m having a sense that you will not like this, but I’d like to defend it, is he loses his shit quite a bit.
He was famously, at least especially early on, being very emotional. He was letting passion dominate the discussion. There’d be a lot of firings. There’d be a lot of mean things said to people. I don’t know what you make of that. How much as a leader are you allowed to just lose your shit in your love for the thing you’re doing? And how effective is that?
Jocko Willink (01:11:01):
As a leader, you shouldn’t be doing that very often. So you can look back at me and say, well, Jocko, here’s the most profitable company that’s ever existed, and so you’re wrong. Well, going back to that multitude of characteristics that human beings can have, well, it’s the same thing with businesses. It’s the same thing with companies. Steve Jobs was off the charts in some of his traits, his ability to understand design, his ability to understand human interface with computer systems. So, so far off the charts is that despite his bad temper, emotional behavior, the company still thrived. That can happen. You can have people that, you can have people that are horrible leaders that develop something that’s so universally outstanding that you end up with a company that’s successful. The reason, I mean, I get asked that a bunch. You know, people always ask me, because I say, look, you shouldn’t be losing your temper as a leader. Well, what about Steve Jobs? He used to yell and scream all the time. Great. When people say that to me, I say, oh, okay, are you as good at design as Steve Jobs was? Were you as good at marketing as Steve Jobs was?
He had a certain amount of skills that were off the charts, and so he was able to be successful, despite the fact that he would lose his temper, treat people horribly. That’s not, that’s not good. It’s not good. And it would have been even more successful if he wouldn’t had those characteristics. Now you might say, well, he, his anger is what pushed things. Well, let me ask you this.
What leader wins? The leader whose team is afraid? Who, the team who executes the mission because they’re afraid of their leader, or executes the task because they’re afraid of their leader, or the team that loves their leader so much that they don’t want to let them down, which team wins?
Lex Fridman (01:13:19):
You’re implying a confidence that love is more powerful than fear, but I’m not so sure. This is the Machiavelli question. You’re saying ultimately it’s always better to lead by inspiration and love than by, by putting the fear into the team.
Jocko Willink (01:13:37):
What I’m, what I’m saying is that I’ve seen countless times is me leading through my authority, leading through my rank, leading through punitive measures is infinitely worse than me and you working together as a team to win.
Lex Fridman (01:13:57):
On the second point of Steve Jobs is he has this idea, a philosophy of A players where you have a group, like the power and the productivity of a group of what he called A players is invaluable. So you want to get a team of people who are the best at what they do. But the most important aspect to him was that a single quote unquote B player on the team destroys the entire productivity of the team.
Is there something that brings true to that? So he was, this could be a temper thing, but vicious about firing and removing the, what he felt was a toxic B player in a team. So A players feed off of each other unless there’s one B player present.
Jocko Willink (01:14:51):
Depends on the nature of the B player. Is the player, is the player a B player because he’s a little bit lazy? Is he a B player because he doesn’t have good vision? Is he a B player because he’s got a big ego and always thinks he’s right and now creates conflict in the team. So there’s a bunch of different B players. Look, if you’re working for me and you’re kind of a B player, but guess what? You’re a grinder and you get stuff done, I want you on the team. You might not be the smartest person I have, but I know that you’re committed to the team and I want you on the team. So you’re a B player, but that’s okay.
Now, if you’re Lex with a giant ego, I’d rather have Lex that’s not quite as smart because I got other people that are smart. I got other people that are smart on the team. Look, you’re gonna need some smart people on the team, but a team is made up, it’s a team. And so you take these different components of a team and if you have complimentary components, you’ll end up with a superior team than just basing it on the level of, and what’s an A player? Sometimes in the SEAL teams, they would get something called the stacked platoon and what that would be is someone, some senior person in that platoon would manipulate and maneuver to get the quote best guys that he could in that platoon. So the most experienced guys, the person that had great, great reputations. And sometimes those platoons would be great.
Sometimes they would implode because what you end up with is a bunch of A players and now no one wants to follow anyone else. No one wants to agree with anyone else. Everyone wants to do it my way, not it’s my way, not Lex’s way. Lex is stupid, no, you’re stupid. We end up with problems. So can one person derail a team? Absolutely. Under good leadership, one person should not derail a team.
Lex Fridman (01:16:57):
This could be a tech thing too. There’s some multiplying effect of just pure excellence, no matter the personalities. I think for Steve Jobs, the ego doesn’t matter. None of that matters. What matters is the quality of the output, the genius of the result. And that somehow multiplies itself. And the ego’s actually, like one of the problems with egos is like, what does ego usually say? It says I’m much better than you. When you have people that are really good together, it’s very hard for the ego to flourish because you’re constantly being shown that you’re not as good and there’s a competition. So I think his idea was that if you get people that are really good at what they do, it turns as opposed to you being complacent and not doing much and thinking you’re better than everyone else and your opinion is better is you almost getting in that competitive race. You know that magic that happens when you’re at the end of a marathon and you’re just head to head, you’re just going full steam with a person that is as good as you. There’s no place for ego there. Which is great.
Jocko Willink (01:18:09):
Which is great. Let’s use that example. You and I are racing. We’re at the end of the marathon. We’re both highly competitive, highly competitive. We have massive egos and we both wanna win. We both wanna win so bad that we give everything we’ve got. Everything we’ve got. That’s totally positive, right? Isn’t that totally positive? Now imagine this, same thing. We’re in a race, we’re in a marathon, we’re in the last 100 meters, it’s you against me and our egos are huge and we’re pushing to win and you start to pull ahead of me.
And my ego is so big and I hate losing so much that I somehow accidentally push my knee up against your foot on a back stride and throw you onto your face. So that’s what ego, ego is an awesome driver unless you let your ego control you and you let ego drive your decision making process in which case it turns into an incredible problem. So you might have someone that is excellent.
You might have someone that’s outstanding. You might have someone that’s tens across the board but their ego is so big that they can’t work with other people. They can’t accept anyone else’s ideas. They can’t compromise on something because they think their idea is better all the time and that is going to be problematic. And I don’t want them on the team. Now as a good leader, guess what I’ll do? I’ll put them into a situation where I can utilize their best aspects but not have their ego destroy the team.
So I might say, hey, Lex, you know what? I actually want you to take lead on this part of the project over here and since you’re so smart and you work so hard, I know you’re gonna pull ahead of everyone else so you grind on that. Once you get that result, give it to me and I’m gonna disseminate it to the team. So I isolate you from wrecking yourself and the rest of the team with your giant ego.
Lex Fridman (01:20:13):
So then looking at a completely opposite person who’s just a fascinating person to me is Sander Pochai who’s the CEO of Alphabet, CEO of Google. I admire the, in a romantic sense, the madness that is Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. So to me, the opposite of that is Sander Pochai who’s like a very, very smart person. Like everybody loves him and he’s also a great listener. So he always brings people together. And so the energy of that person in the room is like, the basic energy, if I were to summarize it is like, I wanna hear all the voices in the room. That’s the energy he brings. And it’s almost like he doesn’t want to impose a final decision. He wants to hear all the voices and somehow always the decision just falls out.
I don’t know what to say about that style of leadership but it’s always surprising to me how that love brought a lot of people together. And still, I mean, some of the greatest things Google has done over the past several years could be attributed to that. Continued innovation, bringing out the best out of people. There’s of course, bureaucracy, which I could criticize at the end of the day, which always happens with big companies. I would argue actually the dictatorial style of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk help fight the bureaucracy, which is one criticism I would give of being a listener and being kind. It’s sometimes you can’t cut through the bullshit as effectively. But he’s one of the only people I’ve ever heard of who everybody loves. He’s an inspirational figure to millions, especially in India. He’s a celebrity in the best kind of way. Is there something you could say about that kind of leadership where you’re never the asshole, you’re never the dictator, you’re always the listener and the compassionate, empathetic glue that brings the team together, basically with love.
Jocko Willink (01:22:25):
Yeah, that’s great leadership.
Lex Fridman (01:22:29):
If you had to choose for Google, for large companies, is there something to be said about what is more effective, the dictator, the ruling by love or the ruling by fear?
Jocko Willink (01:22:45):
First of all, everything’s a dichotomy, right? And so to think that all the time, you’re always gonna be able to just bark orders at people and they’re always gonna listen to you and you’re always gonna get the best result, that would not be smart. To think that every single time, you’re gonna come to a 100% consensus amongst the troops and that decision is going to reveal itself without you nudging it along, that would also be short-sighted and naive. So what a good leader does is they stay balanced. And as much as they can, they listen to what the troops have to say, they take that feedback, maybe they quietly nudge things and I’m sure he does that, I’m sure he does some nudging that maybe no one even picks up on. I like to say the best forms of leadership is leadership with minimum force required. So if I can go into a room as a leader and not say one single thing and the team can come to the right consensus and move in that direction, that’s my preferred method.
Maybe I have to give them a little bit of a nudge, a 10% nudge in one direction, okay, that’s better than me walking in there and giving them 100% dictatorial direction of exactly what I wanna have happen. Now, occasionally, if we have an emergency situation, people are starting to be frazzled and they’re not sure which direction to go, then sometimes as a leader, you have to walk in and say, all right, everyone, here’s where we’re going. And people get on board, why? Because for many years or months or however long, you’ve trusted them to come up with a plan.
And when you as a leader trust your team to come up with a plan, the team starts to trust you and you get leadership capital. And as you build leadership capital, occasionally you need to cash in some of that leadership capital, you need to spend some of it. And maybe it is, hey, listen, here’s the direction we’re going right now, we’ll debrief it later, but we gotta make a move. And the team who trusts you says, Roger that, boss, we got it.
Lex Fridman (01:24:48):
And all of them actually do this interesting thing, I’d love to hear your opinion on it. Sander certainly does it to a large degree, which is it’s in the process of delegation trusting a person to do a really difficult thing. Like tossing it up and saying like, I trust you can get this job done. Even if your resume does not support that, I’m actually kind of amazed that human beings when they’re given the trust to get the job done, they step up very often. That’s kind of an amazing property of human nature.
Jocko Willink (01:25:31):
People often ask me issues about leadership and I always say that one of the best tools for teaching leadership and for teaching a bunch of other lessons is leadership itself. So when it happens all the time, when you elevate someone into a leadership position, they do step up and they do make things happen. So that’s not surprising to me. You do have to mitigate risks. So saying, hey, you know, Lex, I know you haven’t been in the military before. I know you have very limited weapons experience, but I want you to run a target assault on a real mission in whatever country. That would not be good. That would not be a good move on my part. Now, if I said, all right, Lex, you know what? I want you to get some leadership experience. I’ve got a training mission and it’s gonna be using paintball and I’m gonna put you in charge of it. I got no problem doing that.
Lex Fridman (01:26:25):
Some of that is judging human character. It’s like, there’s potential. There’s something in this person that they have enough demons or whatever the hell it requires to have that fuel, they’ll figure it out. They’ll hate themselves if they don’t and they’ll find the right, they’ll find the tools, they’ll find the path, to achieve whatever the level of perfection they can. It’s been really surprising to me. It’s been making me rethink the whole hiring process because I often, now I’m thinking and looking, so I’m looking for people both for the startup or just for my own life or help and I almost want to see evidence of excellence, but maybe you want to just, based on just judgment of human character, without evidence of excellence, have people step up. Like Joe Rogan with Jamie, that’s a funny side of, I didn’t understand how little Joe knew about Jamie when he hired him and Jamie stepped up and now runs one of the most successful podcasts ever and that’s an incredible kind of, he’s one of the best producers in the world now, not to let it get to his head. And by the way, the funny thing about him,
Jocko Willink (01:27:37):
and one of the best Googlers in the world,
Lex Fridman (01:27:39):
one of the best Googlers, the funny thing about Jamie, this is, okay, you might not like this, but what I like, I’m constantly exceptionally self-critical to the point of my self-hating sometimes. I deeply appreciate every single moment I’m alive, but everything I’ve ever done, I feel like a shit. And when I talk to Jamie about everything he’s done, he’s just in every way he carries himself, he’s so self-critical, he’s so worried that it’s wrong, it’s bad, that anxious energy, I love it.
Because that’s how you lead to growth and progress. You might, a therapist might say, that’s probably not good for your wellbeing. Fuck it, it’s good for the, what’s good for your wellbeing is to create awesome things. That’s ultimately what leads to happiness, is to create the best thing you can in your life. And so when I see that in somebody like Jamie or anybody I talk to, when you’re really self-critical, that’s a good sign to me. Is that ridiculous?
Jocko Willink (01:28:42):
It’s not ridiculous at all. And it goes back, the way you were phrasing these questions about what makes a good person and what makes a good leader, the way you phrased them kind of eliminated the normal answer that I give. The normal answer that I give, you asked me what makes a good leader, what makes a good person, is being humble.
So when you’re going to hire someone for your startup or whatever company you’re creating, that is a key characteristic to look for, is someone that has the humility, like young Jamie, to say, yeah, you know, I could have done this better and here’s what I can improve and here’s what I need to work on. When you have somebody that thinks they know everything, out of the gate, you’re already got someone that’s gonna be hard to deal with. They’re gonna be hard to coach, they’re gonna be hard to mentor. When you have somebody that’s truly humble, you barely, again, it’s minimum force required because when you say to Jamie after a show, how do you think that went? He says, well, you know, I did this wrong and I didn’t have this set up in time. And you don’t barely have to do anything because he’s got the humility. If you’ve got someone that’s a big eagle and you say, hey, how did that show go? He goes, I went awesome on my end. Now guess what you have to do? Now you have to start applying force as a leader, which is expending leadership capital, which we don’t wanna do because we always try and conserve our leadership capital as much as we possibly can. And when we have to expend it just to get Jamie to make some improvements, that’s bad. So when you go looking for people, look for people that are humble. Now, does this mean you look for people that don’t have any confidence? No, that’s not what I’m saying. There’s a balance to all these things. That’s the dichotomy of leadership. But people tend towards, and look, I work with a lot of military troops in the past. Now I work with companies. The reason I talk about humility all the time is because for someone to get into a leadership position in the military, they have to have confidence. So the tendency is that their confidence is going to outweigh their humility at some point. Same thing with civilian companies. If you get to a point of leadership inside of a company, you have to have confidence to get there. You don’t get to a position of leadership inside of a company lacking confidence. So the tendency is for confidence to grow a little bit too much. And we have to put that confidence into check. We have to put that ego into check. Really good leaders. They’re confident, but they’re humble. That’s the balance of the dichotomy.
Lex Fridman (01:31:17):
Hear that, Jamie? Don’t get cocky. On occasion, rarely, you talk about discipline. What does a disciplined life look like? Doing what you’re supposed to do. What if I want to lay on the couch and eat Cheetos and watch soap operas? That doesn’t feel like discipline. Do you think you’re supposed to do that? Well, you could argue from a meaning of life perspective that perhaps happiness is the most important. And if it makes me happy, perhaps that’s…
If it’s fulfilling, of course eating Cheetos and watching soap operas is fulfilling for nobody whatsoever. Next question. But there’s something about discipline that’s more than that, which is like the rigor of habit, right? You wake up early in the morning all the time. What is it? Jordan Peterson talks about make your bed, one place where you probably agree with Jordan.
Jocko Willink (01:32:27):
People ask me if I make my bed, I don’t. There’s a disagreement with Jordan. There we go. You know, when I was younger, before I was married, I didn’t make my bed because I had one sleeping bag on it and I would get out of a sleeping bag. There was nothing to make. Now I’m married and I can’t make my bed because my wife’s in my bed. So I don’t make my bed.
Lex Fridman (01:32:54):
Okay, so what in your life, maybe we can talk about the one that’s most publicly facing, which is you wake up at four o’clock or around four o’clock in the morning. You post on social media a picture of your watch, it being early just to remind people that you are man of your word. What’s that about? What’s the philosophy of the four o’clock? What role does that play in a disciplined life for you?
Jocko Willink (01:33:28):
Okay, from that perspective, what role it plays is getting a jump on the day. And when you wake up early and you get a jump on the day and you’ve got your workout done and you’ve got a little bit of work done, by the time normal people are getting up, that’s a win. That’s a win, that’s a psychological win. And it’s not just a psychological win, it’s an actual win. It’s an actual win. So that feels great. It doesn’t feel great maybe when your alarm clock goes off, but by eight o’clock in the morning and you’ve already accomplished some of the major tasks that you have, some of the most painful tasks that you have for the day, you’re off to a great start and it’s gonna feel great.
Lex Fridman (01:34:10):
Let’s break this down then. What does then the rest of the day look like? What is the perfect, productive, disciplined day in the life of Jocko Willink look like?
Jocko Willink (01:34:25):
Wake up, work out. Wake up when? Four, 4.30.
Lex Fridman (01:34:30):
Work out when?
Jocko Willink (01:34:32):
Five, five to six or seven. No.
Lex Fridman (01:34:36):
Eating. No. And then what does the workout look like?
Jocko Willink (01:34:40):
Depends on the day.
Lex Fridman (01:34:42):
What’s the perfect? We’re talking about body weight, lifting, cardio, heavy bag, jiu-jitsu.
Jocko Willink (01:34:51):
Okay, yeah, when I say workout, I mean no jiu-jitsu. So jiu-jitsu comes later in the day.
Lex Fridman (01:35:00):
So this is just you alone?
Jocko Willink (01:35:02):
This is me alone working out, yep. And I’m gonna be doing a wide variety of things.
Lex Fridman (01:35:08):
This is the thing that has the pictures of the aftermath with some sweat at the end. So the goal is to do whatever the hell results in some sweat and that takes an hour.
Jocko Willink (01:35:18):
Sometimes it takes 12 minutes. Sometimes it takes three hours, depending on what kind of mood I’m in.
Lex Fridman (01:35:28):
You got some demons to work through or is this just work? So you got the David Goggins who clearly has demons screaming inside of his head that he’s trying to work through are you just getting the work done out of the discipline? Or is this, I think Joe is a little bit with David Goggins is like there’s some ego, there’s some bullshit that you’re trying to get out through some of the exercise. That’s a good way to kind of humble you is just doing that exercise.
Jocko Willink (01:35:57):
Well, exercise is certainly humbling. I mean, but it’s physical conditioning, right? It’s preparing your body so that you can handle whatever it is you’re gonna do. Perfect.
Lex Fridman (01:36:10):
What do you do after? Let’s talk about food.
Jocko Willink (01:36:14):
Hopefully surf if the waves are good. Surf for? How good are the waves?
Lex Fridman (01:36:22):
Let’s say they’re good. This is a perfect day. It’s a perfect, perfect waves. Why do you surf? It’s fun. Okay, this is fun. Okay, man and nature. It was just like what surfing is the ultimate is the power of the infinite power of the ocean versus a little silly looking man on a board.
Jocko Willink (01:36:45):
You could say it’s the infinite power of the ocean versus a silly looking man on a board, or you could say it’s fun.
Lex Fridman (01:36:52):
Because it’s fun. I’m Russian and romanticize. Okay, this is for fun in the morning. Beautiful. And this is you’re still haven’t eaten? No. Okay, so when do you eat?
Jocko Willink (01:36:60):
I’ll usually start grazing around 11 o’clock.
Lex Fridman (01:37:05):
I’m grazing. What’s the, what’s the diet? That’s the, is there a perfect diet or do you graze?
Jocko Willink (01:37:10):
I’ll eat some nuts, you know, something like that. I usually start grazing. Maybe I’ll have a little piece of meat or something like that.
Lex Fridman (01:37:19):
Does work entering any of this? I’m sure you have a lot of people that want your attention. Yeah, yeah.
Jocko Willink (01:37:23):
Yeah, no, work is about to happen. Cause you know, even if I woke up at four, worked out from five to six, surf from six to eight, now I’m starting to work. Writing, recording, reading, talking to clients.
Lex Fridman (01:37:43):
Is there parts of the day where you try to find moments to think deeply, to read deeply, to sort of really focus? Cause this world wants, is full of distractions, right? Even talking to like even work stuff, the emails and all those kinds of things that can scatter your mind. Is there times you seek to have that focus?
Jocko Willink (01:38:06):
Well, I read a lot of books. And so usually when I read, I’ll be reading for a chunk of time, maybe an hour at a time, maybe a little bit longer. And I might do that twice a day. So I don’t know if that counts as what you’re describing, but then same thing with writing. When I’m writing something, I mean, I just, that’s what I do. I write, usually write for about an hour. I can get about a thousand words an hour out of me. So that’s sort of what I do.
Lex Fridman (01:38:38):
What does the rest of the day look like? Just a lot of work, but one is the jujitsu. I want to find out about the jujitsu.
Jocko Willink (01:38:43):
So round four, 30 or five o’clock at night. You train.
Lex Fridman (01:38:50):
Yep. And how hard? You still, how are you doing body-wise? Are you still, is the old man still got it or?
Jocko Willink (01:39:01):
Are you talking to me?
Lex Fridman (01:39:06):
It’d be good for viewership and ratings if I die before the end of the podcast, so.
Jocko Willink (01:39:11):
I still train with the same guys and I’ll train, you know. So I’ve been very lucky when it comes to getting injured and stuff like that. So I’ve had some injuries, but they’re healed. And so, yeah, I train.
Lex Fridman (01:39:25):
And food-wise, you mentioned grazing of some nuts, very light kind of things. Is there a main meal here? Yeah, at night. At night. Yep. High in protein or is it anything?
Jocko Willink (01:39:38):
Yeah, I’ll have like a steak and salad. I’ll usually have, for dessert, I have like a protein shake, so.
Lex Fridman (01:39:46):
Is there a thing where at the end of the day, you have like a samurai sword and you meditate on death and all those kinds of, is there some weird ritual you partake in?
Jocko Willink (01:40:01):
No. Or do you just go to bed? When I get done with the end of the day, I might read a little bit more.
Lex Fridman (01:40:06):
Read more. Yeah, because reading- So read early on and read-
Jocko Willink (01:40:08):
Reading makes me tired, usually. So I’ll read a little bit more.
Lex Fridman (01:40:14):
Is there a key to you that you can speak to that makes for a productive day, just the way you approach it mentally?
Jocko Willink (01:40:21):
Yeah, write down what you’re supposed to do, wake up early and start doing it.
Lex Fridman (01:40:26):
And then get it done.
Jocko Willink (01:40:28):
Yeah, I know it’s a miraculous trick.
Lex Fridman (01:40:30):
Can I ask you about jiu-jitsu? By all means. What have you learned from being a practitioner? You’re a black belt. What have you learned from this journey of being a martial artist?
Jocko Willink (01:40:49):
Jiu-jitsu for me was the connective tissue that started to join my mind together with all the different aspects of my life. And so jiu-jitsu for me was really important and I don’t think I would be doing anything that I’m doing right now if it wasn’t for jiu-jitsu.
So there’s various aspects of my life that were in existence, but I didn’t understand how they were connected until I started training jiu-jitsu. The primary things are interacting with other human beings and combat tactics and strategy and jiu-jitsu and all those things are connected. They all follow the same guiding principles and I wouldn’t have recognized those guiding principles if I didn’t do jiu-jitsu.
Lex Fridman (01:41:38):
Can you elaborate, because you’ve trained for many, many years, what, is it the hardship, is it the humbling nature of just being tapped all over, you know, non-stop? Or I actually don’t know how many times you can.
Jocko Willink (01:41:51):
I’ve tapped more times than you. Okay.
Lex Fridman (01:41:54):
Yeah, so good, is it just the hardship of physical training, like the honesty of the mat in the sense that you know what works and what doesn’t work? Which aspects were the most impactful for you?
Jocko Willink (01:42:06):
All aspects, so yes, from a humility perspective, when you realize, when you think you know what you’re doing, when you think you have certain skills and you realize that there’s always somebody better than you and you realize that, hey, maybe I don’t have all the answers all the time. And you bring that to a leadership perspective and you walk into your platoon and you realize that maybe you don’t have all the answers all the time and maybe you should listen to what other people have to say. You bring that to a combat situation and you realize that you think, if you sit there and think that you’re smarter than the enemy, you’re gonna be complacent, you’re gonna make mistakes. So there’s one aspect out of the gate.
As far as, you know, if I’m going to try and get your arm, do I attack your arm?
Lex Fridman (01:42:54):
Maybe not directly, unless I’m a white belt.
Jocko Willink (01:42:56):
Exactly, what do I do? I attack your neck and when you reach up to defend your neck, that’s when I get your arm. Well, if I’m out on the battlefield and there’s an enemy position, should I attack frontal assault into that position, no, I shouldn’t. I should put down some covering fire and I should maneuver around to the flank. It’s the same thing. If I’m dealing with you and you’re my boss and you’ve got a giant ego and you’ve come up with a plan and I don’t like your plan, should I walk up to you and say, hey Lex, your plan isn’t good. No. Or should I say, hey Lex, can I ask you some questions about how you want us to execute this because I wanna make sure I understand your vision.
So all these things are connected. Yes. And I wouldn’t have realized that we could sit here and do this forever. I could tell you these comparisons forever. But all this connective tissue, bringing all these things together, I wouldn’t have seen it without, I don’t think I would have seen it without jiu-jitsu. So jiu-jitsu to me had a incredible life impact on me. Look, the physical part, yes, absolutely. Does it keep you humble when you know that there’s a 145 pound individual that can tap you out when you’re 220 pound, 25 year old guy?
And there’s 135 or 140 pound, you know, 46 year old guy that can make you tap out? That’s humbling. And what do you do with that? Do you run away from it or do you continue to pursue it? Same thing with life, same thing with anything. So jiu-jitsu is an incredibly powerful, not just physical aspect, but it’s a way to understand, it’s a way of thinking.
Lex Fridman (01:44:45):
You’ve also competed. Is there something you can speak to the value of competition? Obviously you’ve been through combat, actual military combat is many, many, many orders of magnitude, more high stakes than competition in a silly sport like jiu-jitsu. Nevertheless, it still has some of the echoes of the same challenges. Is there something you can speak to the value of competition for you?
Jocko Willink (01:45:16):
Yep, competition will reveal weaknesses in your game that you can then go back and train to rectify.
Lex Fridman (01:45:24):
So that’s very useful to sort of, yeah, as a testing ground. Of course, training can be that testing ground as well, or that feedback.
Jocko Willink (01:45:34):
Yeah, but as you and I both know, if you and I train together all the time, you’ll know my game, I’ll know your game, and even if we have five other people, we all kind of understand each other’s games, and you’re not doing something to me that I don’t expect. So when I go and compete, this random person has a game that I’ve never seen before, and I may or may not know how to deal with that game. If I know how to deal with it, great. I get the victory, maybe I don’t learn as much. If I don’t know how to deal with their game, I get the loss, and I get the win of learning what some weakness in my game is.
Lex Fridman (01:46:09):
So you mentioned offline that your friends, and you work with Dean Lister, and Dean Lister is one of the people that inspired John Donahue, who I’ve very much been, I’ve gotten a chance to talk to quite a bit recently. I don’t know what you think about this. This is not a therapy session, but, or maybe it is. It’s turning into one. It’s turning into one. He’s a fascinating person, John Donahue, in terms of creating almost a science of jiu-jitsu to a level that I haven’t seen before, which is systems thinking about, like you can think about military combat as tactics in a particular situation, but then you zoom out and you want to create entire systems of tactics in all situations, right? He’s very, kind of wants to keep zooming out and creating giant systems.
And which I appreciate that even though the task is probably impossible to do completely, but there’s something that’s in terms of competition that he kindled the fire in me that I want to get back out there. He has a particular thing that did it, which is very different from my personal journey in jiu-jitsu, which was to a degree that people I worked with cared about competition, it was always about winning and, or doing well, all those kinds of things. For John, it’s about winning. That like winning is not even a thing that’s important. What’s most important is winning by submission or dominance.
And not just the end, it’s the entire time competing such that the only thing that matters is that kind of victory. And that’s a very different level of competition that’s actually liberating in a certain kind of sense.
I remember so much of my competition was about kind of fear of not taking risks. You get up on points or you hold a strong position, you kind of advance and you get more points. Maybe you chase the submission, but there’s always a fear of risk. And for him, you embrace the risk. You should not be competing out of fear. Live and die by the sword versus stay in safety. I don’t know if there’s something to be said here.
Jocko Willink (01:48:50):
Well, I mean, this is not, you said it’s novel to you. It’s not novel to me. The entire, my entire journey on jiu-jitsu, in jiu-jitsu was only about submission. And as you mentioned, Dean Lister is my coach and my main training partner for 20 something years. And if you ever watch Dean train or fight, that’s what he’s trying to do is submit is everyone. That’s what he’s always done.
That’s what he always will do. He, you know, he has the highest, I think he has, in fact, I know he has the highest submission victories in ADCC. He, that’s what he does. So this is, in fact, as jiu-jitsu got more popular and we started seeing people competing to win by points, that was what was novel to me in the beginning. Now it’s the standard. So it’s not novel to me. I love the fact that John Donahue and all of his troops go out and they try and submit people. I think it’s awesome. And I think that’s what jiu-jitsu is.
Lex Fridman (01:49:55):
All right, let’s ask for some advice for white belts. There’s a lot of white belts who listen to this. What advice would you give, you’ve been in jiu-jitsu for many years, in terms of a successful journey through jiu-jitsu. What advice would you give them? People just starting out.
Jocko Willink (01:50:12):
Just keep training, keep your ego in check. Don’t freak out. Try and use the techniques that you learn and all this stuff sound like I’m saying it. You know, notice how I’m saying it. Yeah. Hey, tap out, keep your ego in check and everyone. But the thing is everyone says this all the time and white belts still start off by going completely nuts for at least, you know, three to six months of I’m not gonna let this guy tap me out and they’re gonna, and I’m gonna tap this guy out. Not by using technique, but by just using strength. And it’s just inhibiting your learning. So as much as you can, I know you gotta get it out of your system. I know you don’t wanna tap and I know you wanna tap somebody.
As soon as you get that off your chest, then try and relax and try and learn the techniques.
Lex Fridman (01:50:56):
It’s perhaps counterintuitive. It never was to me, but it’s counterintuitive that to start on the journey of really sort of mastering jiu-jitsu or whatever, or improving is you have to relax. And that seems to be a very counterintuitive lesson. I learned that early on with, that was thanks to the Russian system. I played piano and like music, but basically actually this is true for basically any sport that includes the human body is like relaxing is the way you start learning stuff. You have to learn, you have to literally, and most people don’t seem to understand this. It’s like you have to learn what it means for the human body to relax.
I guess you have to have enough knowledge of all the muscles involved to know what it means to relax those muscles. So for piano, you have to understand what it means to relax your wrists and your fingers in order to learn how to move them. If there’s tenseness in the fingers, you’re not going to, you have to learn how to try hard while relaxed. I guess the beginner, if you don’t internalize this lesson, will try hard by tensing up hard and like trying hard tensing up more as opposed to relaxing more. And that lesson cannot be conveyed through words, I guess. I’ve had the great fortune of having dictatorial teachers as they do in Russia for piano and so on, where you get like hit if you don’t learn to relax, which is a counterintuitive notion, but it works.
Jocko Willink (01:52:30):
Yeah, this brings me to one of my favorite pieces of coaching advice that I will tell white belts while they’re struggling on the mat. I’ll tell them to relax harder.
Lex Fridman (01:52:41):
Okay, that’s beautiful. For somebody who studied war, who participated in war, what do you think is the best martial arts for, let’s call it self-defense, for hand-to-hand combat outside the constraints of sport?
Jocko Willink (01:53:04):
So it’s not one answer. The answer to me is jujitsu, boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, Judo, Sambo, and on down the list. I definitely start with jujitsu. The reason I start with jujitsu is because in a self-defense situation, if you are a big monster human and you wanna fight me and you square off with me, guess what I’m gonna do? Run away.
Mm-hmm, because I don’t wanna get involved. Even if I see skinny little Lex out on the street and you start yelling at me and saying you wanna fight me, I don’t wanna fight you. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if I can beat you or not. What if you stab me? What if you sue me after I get done throwing you onto the concrete? There’s a million bad things that can happen and almost nothing good. For self-defense, my first self-defense is my feet to get away from you and if you square off to punch me, I can run away from you. If you square off to kick me, I can run away from you. If you push me, I can run away from you. So great, I don’t need to know how to box to run away from you. Where this all changes is when you grab me and now I don’t have the option to run away anymore. Now I actually have to know how to get away from your grip and that’s where jiu-jitsu comes into play.
So especially if you get me on the ground, if you grab me and get me on the ground, now I need to know how to get you off of me and get up and get away from you so I can run away. So that’s why I say start with jiu-jitsu and from there, boxing, wrestling, judo, sombo, muay thai. Yeah, in the standing position,
Lex Fridman (01:54:54):
I mean, I’m a judo person as well and the judo is very limited in their understanding of the full grappling spectrum, even though they do all the things on the ground as well, but it’s so focused on the feet, but nevertheless, it’s important to understand the thing that judo has as a sport and it’s good to practice that jiu-jitsu doesn’t is not just the skill of grappling on the feet, but the skill of explosive aggression that sometimes jiu-jitsu is more about in terms of tactics, it’s more about patience. I mean, it depends how you practice it, but because so much is about control and technique that sometimes you don’t get to practice like aggressive, explosive aggression and judo is so much about aggression implemented in such a way that the demonstration of power is effortless, right? That’s the beauty of jiu-jitsu.
Jocko Willink (01:56:00):
Yeah, and same thing with wrestling. Wrestling also has a high level of intensity and aggression as well. Yes, yeah. So that’s where I agree, judo and wrestling, absolutely awesome, get some. And striking boxing muay thai. Yeah. You know, like you should train all these things.
Lex Fridman (01:56:19):
Are there books and movies in your life long ago or recently that had a big impact on you?
Jocko Willink (01:56:26):
Yeah, the main one is about face, which is sitting right here. There you go. This is written by Colonel David Hackworth. It’s the book that really had a massive impact on me from a leadership perspective. And I ended up, I talked about it enough that it started kinda coming back and started selling well and they contacted me and I wrote a forward for it. So that book had a huge impact on me and I still, when I read it, I still get lessons out of it just about every time. So is it Vietnam War? And Korea.
Lex Fridman (01:57:01):
Jocko Willink (01:57:03):
And he got in towards the end of, right at the end of World War II. So he was kinda raised by the soldiers that fought in World War II and then he went to Korea and then he went to Vietnam.
Lex Fridman (01:57:15):
An exceptional warrior, a soldier’s soldier. If you can give a little inkling, what made him a soldier’s soldier?
Jocko Willink (01:57:26):
So he died in 2005, so I never got to meet him. And I had a guy on my podcast who worked for him in Vietnam, a guy named General James Mukuyama and luckily his son had reached out to me and said, I think you’re talking about my dad because I read some passage in there that Jim Mukuyama, well, young Captain Jim Mukoyama, company commander in Vietnam. He said, I think you’re talking about my dad.
Would you wanna talk to him? And I said, absolutely. Well, here’s the thing that I didn’t really understand and you read one quote, but there’s all these quotes in that book that talk about how great Hackworth was and what an incredible leader he was and how he was the best combat leader anyone had ever seen and all these just really complimentary things that are said by a bunch of different people. And when you read the book, you’re reading this guy’s account of what he went through. But I never really knew if that was all true or did he just cherry pick his friends quotes about him and cherry pick the stories that he wanted to tell.
And so it was very interesting for me when I met General Mukuyama, who he became a general eventually, when I met him and we were talking about his life. And I was very curious and I was a little bit nervous going into this interview because I was thinking maybe my hero, my mentor, this guy that I’ve never met before, maybe he’s just an arrogant jerk that talked himself up in this book. So I’m sitting down with General Mukuyama and I finally got to the part where he’s meeting Hackworth for the first time. And I said, did you know who Hackworth was when he showed up? So he was Mook, they call him Mook. Mook was the like the adjutant to the general that Hackworth was gonna be working for. So when Hackworth comes into the office, the first person he meets is this guy, this guy Captain Mukuyama.
And so Hackworth walks in and I said, when Hackworth walked in, did you know who he was? And Mukuyama says, everybody knew who he was, Mr. Infantry. And so he ended up explaining that everything that is written in there about Hackworth, they just loved him, they adored him. Up the chain of command, it turned out a little bit different. And the title of the book is about face and if you’re familiar with military drill about faces when you turn around 180 degrees and at the end of the Vietnam War, towards the end of the Vietnam War, he was so disgusted with the way that the war was being fought. He was so disgusted with the decisions that were being made by the leadership that he did an interview. He was the first colonel, first senior officer to do an interview that spoke out against the war that was happening. And this is while he’s in Vietnam, by the way. So he got drummed out of the army and he was forced to retire and that was that.
So there’s an element of rebelliousness to him. And when you talk to me about are there times when the leaders making the leadership, this absolute senior leadership, the civilian leadership is doing the wrong things, yes. And there’s times when people speak out against it. And there’s an argument for and against that too, even with Hackworth. Did he, when you get, when you quit your job or you do something that gets you fired, which is what he did, you immediately give up all your influence over what’s happening. So they get another, they get another battalion commander to take his place. They get another colonel to step in and take his place. That’s what they do.
And now he can’t help anymore. He can’t help his troops. But at that point in the war, he loved his men so much that he was sickened with the situation on the ground. And he spoke out about it. So that book had a huge impact on me. And like I said, I still read it all the time. I reread it all the time. And I always take lessons from it.
Lex Fridman (02:01:48):
Let me ask you about love. This is not usually associated with Jocko, but what role does love in terms of friendship, in terms of family play in a successful life and life in general?
Jocko Willink (02:02:02):
Again, this is putting other people above yourself.
Lex Fridman (02:02:06):
Do you see that as love? That’s ultimately the implementation of love. I would say, yes. Jocko, I’ve been a huge fan of yours. You’re somebody who inspires me to get up early, to get shit done, to be disciplined about my life and to be the best leader I can be. It’s really truly an honor. And thank you for wasting all your too valuable time with me. I don’t know what you were thinking, but thank you for doing it.
Jocko Willink (02:02:34):
Well, thanks for having me on. I can guarantee I’m not as cool as you just made me sound. I’m just out here, like I said, trying to help people out. And I think you’re helping a lot of people out with your podcast. So thanks for having me up here to share some of my experiences. And hopefully I’ll see you on the mat one day. For sure, looking forward to it. Could be sooner than you think.
Lex Fridman (02:02:55):
It sounds like a threat. I love it. Thanks for listening to this conversation with Jocko Willink and thank you to Linode, Indeed, SimpliSafe and Ground News. Check them out in the description to support this podcast. And now let me leave you with some words from Jocko Willink. There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.