In today’s podcast I talk to Alden Mills, former Navy SEAL, inventor of the Perfect Push-Up, and author of the new book Be Unstoppable: The 8 Essential Actions to Succeed at Anything. In it, Alden uses a parable of a boat captain to impart hard-won wisdom he’s gained on the battlefield as well as in the business world on how to be successful even in a rapidly changing environment. Lots of great takeaways in this podcast. Take notes!
- How Alden went from being a Navy SEAL to inventing the Perfect Push-up
- Why knowing your “why” is the first step in becoming unstoppable (and how to discover your “why”)
- How and why to plan in three dimensions
- Why physical fitness is so important to success in other areas of your life
- How to adapt and improvise like a Navy SEAL
- How to stay hungry and humble even after you’ve gained success
- The importance of perseverance
- And much more!
You’ve likely heard the principles espoused in Be Unstoppable, but the boat captain parable that Alden uses provides a new angle on them. If you have sons, I highly recommend gifting them a copy. When my own son gets a little older, I plan on reading this book with him.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here. Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. One of the things that I collect are antique success books from the late 19th century, early 20th century. I love these books because first they’re super earnest, which is really refreshing in this sort of age of irony and sarcasm that we live in. It’s just nice to see someone who wrote so sincerely. I also like them because they focus on developing your character.
That was what they were all about in the late 19th century. You develop a character, and it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor because you had a strong character. That’s what mattered. I like that message. The other reason I like them is that usually they tell these ideas or impart teachings by stories or allegories. That’s why I love this book that just came out by Alden Mills. He is the creator of the Perfect Pushup, retired Navy SEAL, and his book is called Be Unstoppable: The Eight Essential Actions to Succeed at Anything.
I love this book because it reminded me like these antique success books that I collect, super earnest, all about developing your character, and it uses a story, an allegory to impart these truths or these bits of wisdom along the way. Today on the podcast we’re going to talk about this book, the allegory of the tugboat captain, and what are the eight essential actions to succeed at anything. Without further ado, Alden Mills, Be Unstoppable. Alden Mills, welcome to the show.
Alden Mills: Thank you. It’s great to be on it.
Brett McKay: Your book is Be Unstoppable: The Eight Essential Actions to Succeed at Anything. Before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about your background because I think it’s really unconventional. It’s really interesting. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who might not have heard of your name but they know about the product that you got to market, so tell us a little bit about your story.
Alden Mills: The best place when people ask me about my story, they hear about some of the things we’ve done, Brett, but at the end of the day, I grew up in a small town outside of Boston in Central Massachusetts. I was kind of the uncoordinated, two left feet, asthmatic kid. I ended up, through a series of trials and tribulations, overcoming that, becoming a Navy SEAL. I then invented the Perfect Pushup, which everyone thinks just kind of happened overnight, but Perfect Fitness was what I called the overnight success story that took 10 years.
Through that period of inventing products I invented my most important inventions, my four little boys, and ended up writing a book called Be Unstoppable, which was originally really just designed for them, and then it grew to much more.
Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. You’re sort of like another Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt started out as an asthmatic kid and built himself up into a soldier.
Alden Mills: That’s interesting you bring him up. He is a big fan of mine, big fan of mine. I’m a big fan of his, and I got a lot of inspiration out of him, especially early in life when my mother would tell me, “Hey, look at some of the guys from the past for thinking about your future,” and he was one of them.
Brett McKay: We’re big fans of Teddy Roosevelt at the Art of Manliness as well. You said you wrote this book, Be Unstoppable, for your kids, for your sons. I thought it was interesting. It’s a book that’s designed to pass on some values on success and personal development, but unlike a lot of like airport business self-improvement books that sort of give bullet points, you use a story or a parable. Why did you do that?
Alden Mills: First you got to really understand why I wrote the book in the first place. I had gone back in the Reserves after going through business school in 2000, and when I was back in the Reserves, and I hadn’t really thought much about it, I started seeing some of my buddies coming back on their shield in 2003, 2004 in particular. What I mean by that is they gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and it made me think about what I had to prepare for before I’d go into battle. In this case, really what I’m referring to as battle is going on deployments overseas.
Those were what were called just-in-case letters, so if you came back on your shield, when they handed the flag over to a loved one there was a letter that was written from the deceased to their loved ones. I had written three of those for the three different deployments I had gone on, and it made me start wondering what those guys, my friends, had written to their children. I was a new father at the time.
That put me down the path, after I ended up having four boys, wondering how I could pass along some tidbits to them. As I started to look at it, persistence by far and away was the overarching theme that I wanted to pass along to them, but I didn’t want to do it just standing on a soapbox saying, “Okay, do this. Then do that.” I wanted to create something interesting that they could remember, and of course I had to work the Navy, or at least the sea, into it, and that’s how the parable came to be.
Brett McKay: Awesome, so basically the Reader’s Digest version is about this young, it’s sort of, it’s a town where everyone gets a boat, and they go to this school, and they go out, and they can add on to their boat to take on better and bigger jobs, or they can just kind of be a barge boat if they wanted to. This one young guy, he just was having problems. He didn’t do very well in school. Finally got out there, and he flubbed his first trip across the harbor. Then he encounters this magical captain. Tell us about this captain. What were you trying to … He’s not just a regular captain; he’s a master and commander. What is a master and commander? What kind of archetype were you trying to reach or connect with with this captain?
Alden Mills: Captain Peter, the master and commander, really what I was trying to inspire my boys and those that really have the courage to go after their dreams. By the way, dreams don’t mean that you have to go just be an entrepreneur, but what dreams do do is they have to be … Real dreams in my mind are ones that are unique to you. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other people who have similar dreams where you can team up, but the whole idea behind the master and commander is that you have enough independence and courage that you’re not beholden to one job or somebody else’s dream if it’s not in alignment with yours. You have that courage to go out and live the life that you want to live and not be forced into some box of, “Well, I’ve got to do this for X number of years and then that.”
Captain Peter was really amalgam of different people that had come through in my life that whispered, sometimes shouted in my ears, different elements of what it takes to succeed. These elements, as I started really pulling my belly button out over seven years, they all added up to one thing, and that was persisting, persevering, understanding that there’s only two limitations in life: your imagination and your determination.
Brett McKay: Okay, so this learning how to persist, the whole idea of becoming unstoppable, and to do that Captain Peter teaches is it Tim? Ted was the bad guy, right? Or he wasn’t the bad guy.
Alden Mills: Correct.
Brett McKay: Ted was the guy who was sort of a … He had a fixed mindset. Tim … Was it Tim?
Alden Mills: Tim.
Brett McKay: Tim had the growth mindset, so Captain Peter teaches Tim the master’s code. The first one of that, and I thought that was really interesting, is that to become unstoppable, to learn the master’s code, you have to understand your “why” first. Why is that the most important, understanding your “why?” Why do people have such a hard time figuring out their why in life?
Alden Mills: Those are two big questions, and to me, really it’s the foundation for not just the book but any important thing you want to do in life. The first part about what’s the “why,” and why is it hard for lots of different people to find it or even try to find their “why?” The first piece is the “why” to me is if you look at the most important verb in life, I would say that verb is called care. Someone might say, “No, it’s love.” Care is really the basis of love.
For you to really understand and continue to get up when you get knocked down, you’ve got to be in alignment with what you truly care about. Look at every great, dynamic person, and dynamic meaning they’ve been going after dreams. Whether it’s Martin Luther King, whether it’s Gandhi, or whether it was Michael Monsoor who jumped on a grenade to save his fellow SEALs in Ramadi, they all had something so powerful that they believed in, that they cared about, they were willing to give their life for that. That is understanding the “why” of why it is you want to go after what you want to do.
The “why” is the hard part. The “what” is actually not as hard. You’ve got to be consistent at knocking out the doing but until you understand why you’re going to get up every morning at X hour to do “why” work, then you won’t have the stick-with-itness to stick with it. That brings me to the second piece of your question, which is, “Gee, why is it so hard for people to stick with their ‘why?'” or, “Why is it so hard for people to find a ‘why?'” So many folks get caught up in, “Everybody likes red Ferraris, so I guess I need to have a red Ferrari. Everybody needs to have X number of dollars in a bank account, so I’ve got to do that. Everybody goes to college. Then they go to this job, and go to this job, and then I got to be a VP by 30,” or something.
There’s this groupthink of society that, “Hey, no, no, no, we all got to compete for this social hierarchy,” when the great things that happened and what made this country great were people bucking the trend, finding their own course, and going after what they were willing to give their lives to do. Most of us today, it’s really figuratively. It’s not literally, except for our great men and women in armed services. Everybody else, for the most part, it’s about alignment with what’s so important in their lives that they’re willing to dedicate everything they got to go for it.
Brett McKay: How do you figure that out? Is it just self-re- … How do you get away from that groupthink? Is it just a lot of self-reflection? What is it?
Alden Mills: I think you’ve got to take three different angles to getting there, much in the same way when we go out into the woods and we’re lost, and they do this on purpose for land navigation and SEAL team. They drop you out. They put you in a dark truck. You have no idea where you are. They give you a compass and a map. Then you got to go find three landmarks, take a … You basically shoot different compass settings off the three landmarks to get your one position.
The three lines cross in that intersection, and you’re like, “Okay, I think I know where I am.” In the case of your “why,” one great intersection is saying, “Hey, what would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail? What would be the things that I would just love to be doing in my life if I could not fail? Unfortunately, somewhere along the line between high school, college, and maybe even before high school, kids stopped dreaming up crazy ideas, and they start thinking, “Okay, well, this is what society expects.”
We all know how to dream. We all know how to come up with really cool helicopters that turn into submarines, but at some point they forget that. After we stopped thinking about, “What would I do if I couldn’t fail?” go out and do another intersection of, “Whose lifestyle would I like to follow? Who’s life? Who’s that mentor?” like when we talked earlier about Teddy Roosevelt. My mother started pointed me, like, “Go look at people in the past,” and you’d be like, “Man, I’d love to have those kinds of experiences in life.” You’ve got one intersection of, “What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail?” another intersection of, “Hey, these are what people have done in the past. Boy, I’d love to emulate what they were like.”
The final piece is do a little account balance sheet of yourself of, “What are the things that I’m passionate about, and what are the things that I could really find a purpose in?” I’m a big believer in passion and purpose, which, by the way, I think when you connect the two of them that really equals what I really care about, but if you were to say to yourself, “What’s passion and purpose?” You can be passionate about lots of things, but you got to find that purpose in them.
It’s like two ores in the water, a port and a starboard. If you can link up the passion and purpose as your third intersection that’s going to help you get to your “why,” but in a lot of cases, Brett, the “why” isn’t just something that just pops out overnight. I started as a young kid. I didn’t wake up one day going, “I want to be a Navy SEAL and then do Perfect Pushup.” No, I woke up one day and I had a coach who I had all these kids making fun of me and my thunder thighs. Then one day I ended up seeing a coach who looked at my thighs and said, “Whoa, those are great big thighs! You ought to be a rower.”
Then I ended up rowing, and then rowing took me to the Naval Academy, and then the Naval Academy rowing took me to SEAL team, and SEAL team rowing took me to having the confidence to start my own business. It’s not like you’ve got to develop your “why” immediately overnight for the rest of your life. Think about your “why” for the next three to six months: “Boy, what would I do that would just get me so excited that I’d be thinking about it when I pee in the middle of the night?”
Brett McKay: I love that, so figuring out your “why.” The next principle of a master and commander is they have to know how to plan. I thought it was really interesting. You talked about 3D planning or planning in three dimensions. How do you do that sort of planning?
Alden Mills: First of all, 3D planning, and it is 3D, it’s meant in … It’s a double entendre between three dimensions, and what I mean on three dimensions, and I give talks around the country on this, most people think of x- and y-axis. The x- and y-axis would be more dollars, less dollars. On the other side of the axis would be more function, less function of something.
If you then remember going back to our earlier days of how to figure out volume on something there’s a v-axis out there. That v-axis is what I bring in as a third dimension or its time. If you apply those three elements, you then start realizing that the whole thing about planning is the preparation of it, because no plan ever goes according to plan, but the preparation of the planning helps you in dealing with the things that are going to go wrong. It’s just going to happen.
Once you start doing that planning process, you start to appreciate what I call the other element of 3D: At the end of the day, it’s not all about the plan; it’s about the preparation, and the preparation is by first defining what you’re going after, dividing it up into bite-sized chunks, and doing it daily because no plan is worth its salt unless you do the execution.
Brett McKay: You said an interesting point about how no plan is the same. Plans often fail when they first come in contact with the enemy. No plan ever go according to plan, so improvisation is required, and it’s a skill that I think is really important for young people to develop. I feel like a lot of young people have this hard time of adapting on the fly because they’re so used to having people, “This is what you do. Here’s this path you need to follow.” How do you learn to improvise, overcome unforeseen changes?
Alden Mills: The first thing I think you need to do is understand what I call The Three I’s of Improvise. The Three I’s of Improvise are the three most important verbs around improvise. If you look at improvise as the main verb there is invent, innovate, and improve. Those are the three basic ways you can improvise. When I say invent, invent is like creating a segue, creating something that is completely revolutionary. It has no reference point. It’s going to take a lot of time to educate people on it. Innovation, on the other hand, or innovating, is the one that most of society is used to seeing. There’s a reference point, as an example: the Perfect Pushup.
The Perfect Pushup was an invention, or an innovation, not an invention, which was my first product, the BodyRev. That was, and I almost lost my company around it because I didn’t understand that difference, but in the innovation, the reference point on the Perfect Pushup was a U-shaped pushup handle that went onto a rotating base clip, so it was just a tweak on an existing product. Then the final improvising, which you see a lot of, you end up seeing a lot of kind of failed products or a lot of me-too products, is improving.
Improving is nothing more than going from a little basic step to another one. This year our improvement on the product will be adding different colors, or we’ll going to add a new texture, or we’ll do a little tweak, and a nip, and a tuck. It’s not anything more than just incremental improving of something, so first helping people understand there are three basic ways to improvise. The second thing to understand is you got to fail. You just have to be prepared to do lots of failing.
Think of it like Thomas Edison when he would say, “Hey, I learned 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb.” The first thing is empowering the next generation, any generation for that matter, that the only time you really fail is when you don’t learn from what didn’t work. I’d love to come up with a new word that’s not failing; it’s just, “Oh, okay. I figured it out, another way for something not to work. Great.” That can be its own success, but getting people in the mindset of just trying something, because anybody can do any one of the three I’s that I just discussed.
Brett McKay:For those who are like our listeners who are managers, how do you encourage that with the people you’re managing, not managing; you work with them? You don’t boss people around. You work with them. I learned that from Captain Pete.
Alden Mills: Brett, I am so glad you clarified that statement.
Brett McKay: There you go. I know. Captain Pete got really stern.
Alden Mills: Yeah, it’s you work with people. I have never met anybody that says, “Hey, gee, I really can’t wait to be managed. I want to grow up and be managed.” No, we manage time and money and resources, but we don’t manage people.
Brett McKay: The people that we’re leading, how do we encourage that you can fail and figure things out, and that’s okay? I think a lot of people, they play it safe because they don’t want to lose their job. They don’t want to get in trouble, but how do you encourage the improvisation, that risk-taking that can actually lead to bigger and better things?
Alden Mills: The first way that I do the encouragement is the same way that I learned it when I was a young platoon commander in SEAL team, and I came back from my first big training exam, which is this large operation that you plan for several weeks on, and my commanding officer, in front of the entire team was like, “Mills, give us your report.” I give him the report. “You’re telling me it went perfectly, Mills?” I’m like, “Yes, Sir.”
He’s like, “That’s not what I want to hear.” I’m like, “I’m not tracking with you.” He goes, “No, I want to understand where are the areas that are going to break? If you’re not training hard enough to understand what’s going to break, then you’re going to learn in the battlefield what’s breaking. We want you to learn what’s breaking in the training ground.” The public encouragement in front of entire teams, letting them know, “Hey, I’m not asking you to just fail for failure’s sake,” but as we’re going out and creating whatever it is, whether it’s a service, whether it’s a product, in our case we make lots of products here at Perfect Fitness, we actually design the product in the beginning with what we think is the minimal amount of materials that can get by testing but set really high testing results.
It turns out the products usually fail the first couple of test runs through there because we’re trying to understand what is safe. What’s not safe in figuring out that breaking point early. The same thing goes when you’re bringing in teams and they’re working on … If you’re a service industry, the failure could be, “All right, we’re getting a whole bunch of disgruntled callers saying, ‘We don’t like that anymore.'” That’s telling you, “We just figured out our failure for this.”
The idea of encouraging people to push the envelope, and I would say this, safely, at the same time knowing that it’s going to go up and down the chain of command support through there, where it’s also documented what you’re learning from your failure is the first step to encouraging teams to work together to push the boundaries.
Brett McKay: Got you. One of the other principles of the code of the master and commander, and I thought it was really interesting, was physical exercise. What is it about physical exercise that can help you become unstoppable in business, or in your family, or whatever venture you’re going in?
Alden Mills: This whole thing about exercise, and I think this is what people forget, is for you to go out and persist, for you to go out and go after big dreams, for you to go out and really live an extraordinary life, you need stamina. You need strength. You need the ability to get up again and again, day after day and slug it out. That just doesn’t come from a cup of coffee; it comes from your own platform of making things happen, which would be your body.
When people start to understand, “Hey, you know what? Actually my body has a symbiotic relationship with it’s most important organ, which can’t be transplanted.” That would be the brain. SEAL team, they call the body the brain housing group, in that the brain is only as good as what the body delivers to it, that’s both in the nutrients side of the equation but also in blood flow, and blood flow is directly dependent on cardiovascular capability.
The two of those … Then if the brain is telling the body, “Hey, I want you to climb that mountain,” or, “You need to pull your body up over this or push your body away from that,” if your body can’t do it, and you can’t perform the work, you can’t go after the things in life you really want to do, so the chapter I call is Exercise to Execute is really another play on verbs of saying, “It is all about execution. It is all about taking action,” but you’re only going to be able to take as much action as your body is conditioned for, which is why exercise and getting in that mindset …
By the way, I’m not talking about turning people into Arnold Schwarzenegger here. I’m talking about 30 minutes of walking a day. I’m talking about doing some basic body conditioning. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Here’s a question that I had when I finished the book. We haven’t gotten into all the principles. I want people to go and read it because it’s really great, but what do you do once you’re a master and commander figuratively? How do you stay hungry and humble even after you’ve had success, and some of the biggest fears? How do you maintain that drive to keep going after new bigger and better goals?
Alden Mills: The first one in my mind is to never rest on your laurels, to always say, “What’s the next thing I can learn?” I think everyone should be adopting a life, a mindset in life, of never stop learning. I love hearing about the 90-year-old that’s gone back to college, or the 80-year-old that’s decided, “I’m going to try a new job or a new instrument.”
We ought to constantly be learning until the day we get promoted, and in first inhabiting that mindset, and then second, I remember a commanding officer telling me this right after I thought, hey, I was pretty cool doing a particular operation, was, “Hey, Mills, there’s always somebody better out there. There is always somebody better out there than you.” Whether it’s somebody in the arena that you want to play in or on the battlefield, there’s always somebody better.
If you want to be the best of whatever it is you want to be the best, or if it’s just, “Gee, I think I’ve learned everything. I don’t need to learn anything more,” that’s a big red flag. The more you can start catching yourself, and it won’t happen in the beginning. We’ll all make those mistakes. We all do because we’re human. We got the ego, which is our #1 ally and can be our worse enemy at the same time, but the more we can encourage ourselves to be humble and be a humble servant of those around us, I think the more we’ll appreciate how much we can get out of life.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. The book was fantastic. I’d recommend it if you’re listening. If you have sons or just daughters too, it’s great for them. Alden, where can people find out more about your work and about the book?
Alden Mills: I have a website called Be Unstoppable with Alden Mills. I know it’s a mouthful. I usually post speeches that I do around the country on that. I always encourage people to send notes. They can find me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. It really is a joy to inspire others to go after living the life that they’ve just imagined.
Brett McKay: Great. We’ll be sure to post those links up on our site when we publish the podcast. Alden, it has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for you time. It has been a pleasure.
Alden Mills: Brett, thank you. I appreciate it, and I love what you do at Art of Manliness. Keep it up.
Brett McKay: Thank you. Our guest today was Alden Mills. He is the author of the book Be Unstoppable: The Eight Essential Actions to Succeed at Anything. You can find that on Amazon.com. That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the podcast I’d really appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or whatever it is you use to listen to the podcast to help get the word out about the show, and help us get some feedback so we can learn how to improve it. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.