in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #389: What It Means to Be a Quiet Professional

We live in a time of hype and self-aggrandizement. But my guest today argues that what the world needs more of are quiet professionals — people who’s only focus is to get the job done well. His name is Rob Shaul and he’s the founder and president of Mountain Tactical Institute. We had Rob on the podcast last year to discuss his physical fitness philosophy.

Today on the show, I talk to Rob about his philosophy towards work and life that he’s laid out in a series of essays on his site about what it means to be a quiet professional. We begin by unpacking the foundational definition of a quiet professional, and then Rob walks us through the traits and attributes he thinks one must develop to embody this ideal. Rob’s ideas are refreshingly understated in a culture that puts a premium on bombast.

Show Highlights

  • What is a “quiet professional”? 
  • Character traits of the quiet professional 
  • The ethos of the craftsman in work
  • Why leading in a quiet manner is actually liberating and energizing 
  • Applying this ethos to various kinds of jobs and professions 
  • How do you embrace the grind? 
  • The intrinsic rewards of being a quiet professional 
  • Ensuring that we learn from our mistakes and follies 
  • Meditating on our insignificance, and our mortality 
  • What do you when you start feeing a little self-important? How do you inject humility?
  • Mundane tasks that are necessary for success, and how to keep motivated to do them 
  • How to make do-or-die decisions  
  • Rob’s 3 steps for happiness 
  • How a quiet professional approaches self-improvement 
  • Why should you “embrace the suck”?
  • Why developing your gratitude is so important 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Connect With Rob and Mountain Tactical Institute

Mountain Tactical Institute website

MTI on Instagram

MTI on Facebook

MTI on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We live in a time of hype and self promotion. My guest today argues that what the world needs more of are quiet professionals, people whose only focus is to get the job done well. His name is Rob Shaul and he’s the founder and President of Mountain Tactical Institute. We had Rob on the podcast last year to discuss his physical fitness philosophy.

Today on the show, I talk to Rob about his philosophy towards work and life that he’s laid out in a series of essays on his site about what it means to be a quiet professional. We begin by unpacking the foundational definition of a quiet professional, and then Rob walks us through the traits and attributes he thinks one must develop to embody this ideal.Rob’s ideas are refreshingly understated in a culture that puts a premium on bombast. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at Rob joins me now via

Rob Shaul, welcome back to the show.

Rob Shaul: Hi Brett, thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: We had you on awhile back ago to talk about your company, Mountain Athlete, Tactical Athlete. We talked more about physical training programming, how you train individuals who are working in the mountains like back country skiers, hunters who are out there in the mountains. You also train LEOs, military guys who are going to be in mountainous regions. But today, I’d like to get a little more philosophical. You have this article on your site tactical athlete, called Being the Quiet Professional, Quiet Professionalism. Throughout I guess this year, you’ve been kind of fleshing that idea out more. In that article you wrote that you’ve been thinking about this idea of the quiet professional for years, and you’ve been chewing on it. Why has it been something you’ve been thinking about for so long?

Rob Shaul: You know, I think the idea of that term quiet professional kind of comes from the military special forces community, specifically in the Army special forces, Green Berets and those types of folks. Years ago, the first tactical athlete programming course I taught was down in Tampa Bay at MacDill Air Force Base and some special forces guys down there and from different services. One was a Green Beret, ended up a real good friend of mine. He’s a Master Sergeant and retired as a Master Sergeant, or Sergeant Major. We had just kind of started talking about this idea of the quiet professional and some of the ideals. For whatever reason, that just kind of caught my attention. As I started to examine that idea in my own life and in my own professionalism, and it just kind of built and grew from there to the point where I decided to start writing it down, some of my thoughts, and putting some framework to it.

Brett McKay: We’re going to get into some of these specific traits, but how would you describe a quite professional? Maybe this would be best, who are some examples of quiet professionals? You mentioned some Special Forces guys, but any other examples from your own life? What encapsulates what you’re thinking about, or your ideal quiet professional is?

Rob Shaul: You see these quiet professionals, one thing about it is that the idea of being a quiet professional is really an internal idea. The idea is, you kind of set your own expectations and you try to grow internally to those, and not outward expectations or accolades or anything, getting beyond that is part of the journey to become a quiet professional. There’s no real job title, or profession, or education level that determines it. I’ve met quiet professionals who they checked me out at the grocery store, who come and do my plumbing, who work on my accounting, who are attorneys. It’s just a real approach to life and to the craft, which is their work, just kind of a mission first, service first, just doing the job in a craftsman like manner. You can just sense it from them. They have a certain solace about them and a sense of peace. They’re not perfect, but you can kind of see that they know what the good questions are and they’re working on those answers. Sometimes the hard thing is finding out what’s the real question, and they know what it is and they’re working on the solution. I can’t really point to any specific examples or I’d be uncomfortable doing it because they would be embarrassed maybe.

Brett McKay: Right, right.

Rob Shaul: But even though the term kind of comes from this tactical special forces community, in my mind anybody in any profession or any walk of life can be a quiet professional.

Brett McKay: When I hear that phrase I think of someone like, yeah, you said they do the work, they do it well, and they don’t try to make a big deal about it. They just let the results speak for themselves. They don’t go out of their way to say, “Hey, look at this great thing that I did.” They do it, and then that’s it.

Rob Shaul: Yeah, the bigger idea is that all work can be turned into a craft. Quiet professionals are craftsman or craftswomen. The craft itself is the idea of a craft when it comes to work, there’s this kind of stage you go through where you’re always chasing perfection knowing you’re never going to get it, but just enjoying the journey along the way and keep aspiring for that. When you make that transition in your occupation or whatever, it blossoms and can become really something that’s really enriching and fulfilling for you. One of the things I point out is that quiet professionals really ideally put their mission first and they’re dedicated to service. You would think on the outside that this something that is altruistic and certainly it is, you are not self-absorbed and focus on serving others.

But there’s also an incredible liberating element to it. Takes a lot of energy to be self-absorbed and selfish. It can wear you out. I think it’s one of the reasons these self-absorbed people are never very happy. It just takes too much energy. But if you’re focused on service and mission first, not only are you hopefully serving other people, but it is in its own quiet way liberating. Your choices are what you’re going to do, the first question is what’s going to benefit the unit, or the mission, or the people in my life. Generally when you have choices, the answer to that question is pretty clear. Then you just do it and it cleans stuff up, and that mental clarity is really valuable and liberating.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, I love that idea of how constraints can actually make us more free. I love that section where you highlight one of the traits of a quiet professional is they have a mission. They know what the mission is and they make all the choices based around that mission. Now, if you are embedded in a unit, combat unit, military unit, or you’re a law enforcement officer, you have this mission imposed on you from the outside. You know what the mission is. What if you’re not in that position? What if you’re just a regular guy, a civilian working a nine to five, how do you think they can figure out what their mission is so they can tap into that quiet professional ethos?

Rob Shaul: I don’t know that that’s a complicated question. A teacher certainly, their job tasks are fairly direct. I think that the trouble comes in where if you’ve come up, is it worth it, am I getting accolades, am I getting paid enough, are people appreciating my job or appreciate the work I’m doing? Again, it really doesn’t matter what the actual job task is or what the work is. It’s your approach to it that makes you a quiet professional. Again, in my own experience when I see people who are like this, believe me there’s plenty of Army Special Forces guys who aren’t quiet professionals, right?

Brett McKay: Right.

Rob Shaul: There’s plenty of people who just work in everyday lives who are kind of a rare ideal to aspire to. The way you framed that question implies that you have to have a service based altruistic mission or job description to be a quiet professional and I’m not too sure I agree with that. I don’t like to limit it to certain professions, for sure. At least in my mind I don’t.

Brett McKay: Right, every job you have, in a sense you’re providing a service. You’re doing something to help another human being. I guess what you’re saying here is a quiet professional does the work well for the sake of doing the work well. That’s what you’re supposed to do, and not for any sort of monetary gain or getting a pat on the back.

Rob Shaul: One of the examples I use in one of the essays I wrote is my own grandmother who came to live with us when I was in elementary school. She had been a maid in the casinos in Rio, Nevada. I was helping her one summer morning, or had to help her make beds in the house. I was not interested in this. I was maybe 11, 12 years old, or maybe a little younger. I wanted to grab my fishing pole and go down to the park and do some fishing. We were making a bed and I said, “Okay, it’s good enough. Let’s go on to the next one so I can get out of here.” She said, “No, it’s not.” She said, “I’m a professional,” and by god that bed was corners folded. If you can make a bed and do it in a way that’s a work of art, she did it. No one was watching her. None of us would’ve known the difference. But that example, I’ve always thought of that. The dignity that she brought to her work, even when she wasn’t working, it was still something she was known for and that she took pride in. There’s a certain dignity that quiet professionals bring to the work regardless of the situation, regardless of the compensation, regardless of who’s looking. It’s that bigger idea that is so beautiful.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, I love that. One of the other ideas, traits you think that a quiet professional should have is this idea that they’re a grinder. What does that mean? I think we all think that you’re going to rise and grind, and hustle and whatever, but how do you … I feel like when people talk about grinding, it’s often in that un-quiet professional way. It’s like boasting, “Here I am working so hard. Look at me.” For you, how does a quiet professional grind?

Rob Shaul: There’s an idea to the idea being a grinder that great leaps forward, are few and fleeting and progress comes on a series of steps of constant small improvement, which takes awareness and reflection and just grinding, in my mind. I’ve thought about being a grinder and being this type of person who’s a hard worker in three steps, just based on my own experience and people I’ve known in my life. The first is that there’s this expectation that you’re a hard worker. It’s generally put on you by your parents, or by an organization you’re in. Others say, “If you want to do this, you should be a hard worker,” and that expectation of others is why you work so hard.

Then there’s this next step where there’s some pride that comes in. Instead of others focusing that expectation on you, you kind of do it yourself because now you’re known as a hard worker and you take pride in that, so you work really hard to keep that reputation up. But it’s still not about really the work. The final one is this idea where you work hard … You don’t really work hard, you just end up seeing what you’re doing as a craft. You put in the details, and the hours, and the hard work, not because it’s expected, not because it’s out of pride, because you want to be as a hard worker, but because you see your work as this incredible gift.

You’re always trying to, like I said before, reach this idea of perfection in whatever you’re doing. You know you’re never going to get there, but along the way the learning is unending. It’s always teaching you that journey, and that learning, and that frustration, and humility, and I guess failure and moving on from that, all that journey is part of what pushes you along and keeps you at the grindstone. When I say grinder, I mean it in an adoring way. I’m kind of one of those grinder guys who doesn’t have a lot of talent, just has kept at it and I admire other people who are like that. But even the most successful people I’ve known, when you take away the gloss and stuff, generally there’s a little bit of talent and a lot of hard work.

The successful people who are happy do it for the craft of it. You can be successful and work hard and still not be happy, but if you’re able to turn what you do into a craft and understand that craftsmanship element of it, then you can be happy doing it.

Brett McKay: Getting to that point, does that take time? Is that something that you have to go through those steps, like you’ll do something because there’s an expectation, and then you do it because you get accolades, and then eventually you just do it for the love of the craft or the sake of the craft?

Rob Shaul: Yeah, all of the entire journey to being a quiet professional is like two steps forward and one step back. If you fail along the way, you don’t always put mission first. You can be selfish. You can be lazy sometimes or whatever. It takes time. Yeah, I think that it is this kind of journey, not only within the work but within you as an individual. One of the things I mentioned is the idea of the difference between experience and wisdom. It’s on your path of becoming wise. Becoming wise takes work and failure. Yeah, it takes time, at least it does for me. It has for me. I’m 49 going on 50 and I still have a lot of work to do.

Brett McKay: Well, and this idea of wisdom and experience, you have another essay about this, what are the traits of the quiet professional. We want wisdom and we often gain that from experience, but you can have experiences and not gain any wisdom. I know lots of people who have had lots of self-inflicted terrible experience but they’re none the wiser for it. In your experience in working with special operators and the type of men you work with, how do you see … Is there a process that people use to ensure those experiences, those mistakes, you learn from them?

Rob Shaul: You get experience by accident, no matter what. Just living gives you experience. We’ve all met people in their 70s or seniors who are just bitter and angry. They obviously have lots of experience, they’ve lived for seven or eight decades. But I wouldn’t say they’re wise. How can you have gone through all that and still not identify what’s important? Everybody has experience, but wisdom takes work. In my own life, I guess, and watching others, I’ve identified some of the steps, the to-do list along the way. The first one is to learn through your mistakes. To really learn from your mistakes, this takes some reflection, some really clear eyed self examination, acknowledgment and owning it, looking at your responsibility as a mistake. Maybe even some penance, and then to act on a commitment to not make that mistake, or something similar moving forward. Like you said, people keep making the same mistakes.

Forgiveness, others first, but really I think you need to learn to forgive yourself and understand you messed up. Acknowledge it, own it, and then move on and not continually beat yourself up about that. That takes wisdom. For me personally, this idea of embracing death as I get older my knees hurt in the morning and I don’t recover as fast, and I got little tweaks and all of these things are just signals of nature to me that my time on this earth is limited. I’m not going to live forever. That can be a beautiful tool to help you understand that you only have so much time, and to live in the present, which is one of the most difficult things that we all can learn to do, or try to aspire to.

Being tolerant, the older I’ve got the less righteous I’ve become. The more when things come up, I take a step back and see the world in shades of gray and say, “It depends” a lot, rather than, “This is right,” or “This is wrong.” I think that is a part of this idea of my own internal growing tolerance. The most wise people that I’ve met are also the most tolerant. Cultural change, they’re resilient, they’re adaptable. They understand what’s important. The minor differences, especially between people just aren’t that important. They’re the most tolerant.

Another is to detach from expectations. In other words, at some point in your life you’ll hopefully learn that what other people expect or what maybe the society expects or whatever, may not align with who you are. Once you’re able to give that up, there’s just such a liberty to that and maybe a grounding sense that makes you more wise. You’ve probably heard this before in your 20s you’re worried about what people think about you, and then in your 30s you’re like, “Oh, I don’t care what people think about me.” Then your 40s, you kind of realize they were never thinking about you the whole time, right?

I think that’s part of this idea of detaching yourself from expectations of others and identifying who you are and living your life accordingly to where you want to live it. Then finally, just to be humble. Understand that you’re not owed anything. You’re not special, life’s not fair.  The universe is huge and time is infinite. We are really, really insignificant. When you realize that you’re just not that damn important, you’re, I think, able to let some of this angst and stuff go and find some solace. And again, kind of live more in the present and identify what’s important.

Understand that just like all these things I find to be elements of what it means to be a quiet professional is it’s always two steps forward and one step back. The entire process is a journey. It’s not like you just wake up one day as a quiet professional. You make a lot of mistakes and learn a lot of stuff along the way. It’s just all part of this bigger journey.

Brett McKay: I want to go back to this idea of being wise means you’re not self-righteous. What I’ve seen is there’s a lot of leaders once they’re put in a position of leadership … A lot of people who are put in positions of leadership … doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a leader even if you’re in a position of leadership … they become self-righteous and self-important. What is it about being in position of authority that makes people like that?

Rob Shaul: You know, just really a simple elements of that type of position that maybe cater to you some of our worst instincts. The first is, a leadership position no matter what the level, implies that you’re somehow above the people below you, that there’s something special about you. That kind of caters to maybe some of our worst instincts. As part of that, comes with this idea that you’re smarter than others. With the idea that you’re smarter than others, then the way you see the world is right and the way others see the world is wrong. Leadership is tough. Leaders do have to make decisions and at some point, the people or the situations effected can see those as black and white.

The idea of being self-righteous, certainly I’ve fallen into that in just the work that I’ve done and over the course of my life. Now, I have hopefully gotten to the point, because I can feel that welling up inside me, Brett. I can feel this … when I feel it coming on, and most of the time, not all the time, but most of the time now I kind of know what that feels like and I’m able to step back and say, “Whoa, every time you fall true on this feeling it hasn’t worked out well. Maybe it’s time to take a step back and take a dose of humility and open your eyes a little bit.”

I think it takes a special person to get into a leadership position. Maybe the best example from history is Marcus Aurelius, and his meditations. As you read about the Emperor of Rome who was by far the most powerful person in the world, he wrote in his diary, “Don’t let it go to your head,” all the time. I think again, there’s just elements of leadership that cater, or at least a position that can cater to our worst instincts. It takes a wise person to see that and not let it happen to him or her.

Brett McKay: What do you when you feel like, “Okay, I’m becoming really self-important here. Mountain Athlete is the greatest fitness program ever. All others are terrible,” when you get into that mode and you’re thinking in black and white. What do you do to pull yourself back and inject a bit of humility? Do you have any specific tactics you use, or practices?

Rob Shaul: Oh boy, that’s a great question. I think first, yeah, just getting to the point where I can feel that coming on has been a huge step for me. I feel it coming. If you don’t feel it coming, and are able to detach from your emotions, then it’s hard to stop it. That’s the first thing. I don’t know. I think what’s caused me to be able to feel it coming is just learning from my mistakes when I’ve acted on that self-righteousness and seen how it’s worked out. It hasn’t worked out well. I’ve reflected and taken a step back and clear eyed examination of what happened and how I got myself in that position, and worked to try not to let that happen again.

One of the things that kind of comes up with that is generally in my experience when that kind of thing comes up is generally some kind of conflict with somebody else. One of the things I learned that’s really helped me, a couple things, especially in conflict with other people, is the ability to say and embrace, “You may be right.” Just be able to say that. Instead of saying, “You’re wrong,” or whatever, be able to say, “You may be right. Let me think about that.” That’s one thing, one key that I have is that. The other time that comes up is where maybe somebody you’re competing with in some way or another, person or an organization, and they have some success and it gets you upset for whatever reason.

It took me a long time to be able to say for my competitors, “Good for them. Good for you. Good for them.” But just being able to say that, oh my god. Just being able to say, “Good for them,” has been able to help me turn away from the outside to what I can control, which is my own performance, my own attitude. It has really just been really liberating. First is recognizing it, being able to say, “You may be right,” then we say it but then take a step back and see it from that person’s side or that organization’s side. Then when someone you don’t like, or you’re competing with or whatever has success, being able to say, “Good for them.” Those three things have really helped me with that.

Brett McKay: One of the other traits you talk about that a quiet professional has, and maybe this goes along with the idea of a grinder is that they’re able to keep doing those mundane tasks that are necessary for success. In your personal life it could just be as simple as just general hygiene, or exercise, or doing the laundry or whatever. Then you can think those are really mundane, you just want to not do it. How does a quiet professional ensure that he keeps doing those mundane workaday things that he knows are necessary for that sort of baseline success?

Rob Shaul: One of the things that most of us learn when we have some type of failure is when you take a step back and you look at why you failed, most of the time you’ll find a failure in the fundamentals. Quiet professionals that I’ve known, whether it be athletes or mountain guides, or soldiers, their fundamentals are really solid. I was recently reading about a story about an experiment that was conducted on performance. It was done on some singers. All of the singers had to go through an initial set of fundamental notes before they sang the piece they were going to do. The researchers put some gadgets on the singers that could measure their intensity and brainwave and stress when they completed this set of fundamental practice notes before they sang their piece.

Then they took that data and separated the good singers from just the average singers. The really good singers had a lot of stress when they practiced those fundamental notes. They put a lot of effort into it. They were really concerned about how well they did and they really were checking their performance. The singers who weren’t at a higher level didn’t pay nearly as much attention to that fundamental work. That’s really, I think key to this idea of always going through the fundamentals and the daily habits, those daily mundane tasks who are hidden in the background, but are really the foundation for higher level performance. That’s, I think, if you’re a quiet professional it’s an acknowledgement of the role, that fundamental work plays in higher level performance.

Brett McKay: You talk about how quiet professionals are willingly embrace making those hard decisions because we’re all going to face them no matter what sort of line of work we’re in. We’re going to face them in our family life. What’s your approach to making those gut decisions, do or die decisions?

Rob Shaul: Yeah, I’ve just in my life, reflecting back, and the people I’ve known, there’s some tools that we developed on this making really hard decisions. Hard decisions generally pit our head versus our heart. Our head tells us to do one thing and our heart tells us to do another. We get in this infinite loop of back and forth, and going around and around without being able to identify which way to go. One of the first things that I point to as a tool that people can use is if you know what you’re doing right now is wrong, stop doing it even if you don’t know what comes next. If you’re in the wrong profession, or in the wrong relationship and you continue along that route knowing it’s wrong, maybe looking for the next thing to do, you sometimes don’t have the space to find that next thing. By stopping what you’re doing, even if you don’t know what’s going to come next, it’ll force you to head down that path to find out what is right for you.

I’ve met lots of people who get in this rut where they know things are bad, but it’s not bad enough to quit. They can stay in this rut miserable for years, and years, and years. This tool of if you know it’s not right, stop doing it, is a real tool to kind of break you out of that rut. Another thing that kind of goes along this way is, not making a decision is a decision. If you’re in the wrong profession and you’re in your 20s or 30s and you know it’s wrong, but you don’t know what you want to do next, or you’re scared or whatever, and pretty soon you’re 35. It’s more difficult to … Some of those opportunities you had when you were younger are gone now. Not making a decision cut out some of those opportunities and choices you had before, so it’s kind of like you are making a decision. You’re limiting your choices.

What I’ve learned in my own life is that deciding against integrity, whether it be integrity to who you are or who you want to be, and doing something opposite of that, well the easier one is just the idea of moral integrity always comes with a painful cost. You always have to pay the piper when you decide against integrity of some way. Understand that when I say that I don’t mean to be preachy. I kind of adopt the Aristotle approach to becoming a person of integrity, which is, you’re never going to be perfect, but the more decisions you make that align with who you think you are, or with moral integrity, the easy it becomes and the more down that road you go, which is best.

The next one is that I’ve learned that if integrity isn’t an issue, and it comes down to deciding between your head and your heart, always go with your heart. I’ve met lots of people who have gone with their head and regretted it. I’ve never met somebody who’d gone with their heart and have. Sometimes going with your heart is maybe not the best tactical decision, but I think that it’s generally the best decision for you.

The finally, I like the idea of not artificially living in your options of your choices. I found that happens a lot with the people who for some reason … I’ve done a lot of life coaching in my work on the side I guess, and a lot of people think, “Oh, it’s just this choice or this choice,” but if you take some time and explore different options you have lots more choices or get some more information, taking that time to get that information in a deliberate way really can make your decision much more clear.

Then finally, I kind of created a happiness formula that I’ve observed and experienced in my own life. I think three things will make you happy. One is doing work you love. Two is being around the people you love. Three is living in a place you love. If you can get two out of those three, you’re doing really good. If you get three out of three, you’ve hit the jackpot.

Brett McKay: Another part of being a quiet professional, or just being a professional in general is that you’re never satisfied with where you’re at. This is kind of going on the idea you do things for the sake of the craft and you’re always striving for perfection. You’re never going to get there, but you strive for it. There’s a lot of stuff out there about self-improvement and professional development. What do you think is different from … What do you think makes the way a quiet professional goes after self-improvement and professional development different from say how most people think about it?

Rob Shaul: Maybe it’s in the attention, that word self-improvement, or those two words, the first word is self. Maybe the quiet professional would say, “Improve mission performance,” or “Serve people better,” instead of self-improvement. Then taking that attention off him or herself and kind of working in these other areas has maybe a similar effect, but maybe a more authentic, genuine and lasting impact on a person’s life, and wisdom as they move forward. That would be the, maybe, perhaps, the one difference is just that idea of self-improvement in a way can obscure things, or muddy stuff up in terms of what is really important down in the road in the long run.

Brett McKay: So it sound like you’re striving after selfless self-improvement. You’re improving yourself for the sake of a larger purpose.

Rob Shaul: Yeah, thanks for helping me out there, I was struggling. But you’re right. Yeah, that idea of selfless self-improvement. Yeah, this idea of instead of how can I improve personally, how can I make the mission first, or make the team first and do more towards that. That difference of attention can make all the difference in the person’s life.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I noticed in my own experience, whenever I’ve been trying to get myself better for a larger purpose beyond myself, I actually improve more than if I were just doing it for myself. Does that make sense? I think back to my football days. I put in all the effort in the gym and stayed after practice longer, not for me, but because I wanted the team to do well. I’ve seen that in my own professional life. It’s like whenever I focus on, “How can I help my audience better,” I improve more when I’m not thinking about myself.

Rob Shaul: Yeah, that’s been my experience in my life too. When I’ve focused on … in my work, focused on improving the programming, and my coaching, and my writing for the sake of doing a better job at our mission, my experience has been the same, that I’ve learned more about myself doing that. The path has been more clear. There’s an interesting element to this bigger idea of aspiring to be a quiet professional. Like you’d said before when you embrace these ideas over the course of whatever time period, embrace them more and more, life gets, and your work just gets simpler. It gets more clear. That clarity is liberating. Instead of me first, mission first. Instead of self-improvement, team improvement. That difference in perspective can really, I think, clear things up and have a more lasting and enriching effect for the individual and the organization down the road.

Brett McKay: There’s this phrase that you see, I’ve seen it on like on morale patches, on tactical vests and bags, and it’s this idea of embracing the suck. What does that mean and why should a quiet professional embrace the suck?

Rob Shaul: There’s a element of experience and wisdom that comes along with that. I think when you see those morale patches there’s this macho element to it. It’s part of my list for what it means to be a quiet professional too, but I don’t mean it to be embrace the suck because you can suffer. In my own experience, this idea that everything is hard. Life’s hard, and when you get to a certain age, and things are going along well, you’re like, “This isn’t natural.” When you’re younger, when the hard stuff comes you get all upset about it and disappointed, and life’s not fair.

But at least me now, when things are going along too swimmingly, I get a little suspicious. I’m like, “I know the suck is coming. I know that hard part is coming.” Then when it gets here, I kind of embrace it. It’s like an old friend who’s returned. Okay, now things feel normal. Now with humility and humor, I can laugh at it and say, “Okay, what took you so long to get here?” I’m just going to keep grinding along. I don’t let it get to me. That’s this bigger idea. In the gym when we’re doing long grinds with my athletes I’ll say, “Hey, don’t let your head beat you. Don’t make it harder than it is.”

I think that’s something that we can do. We kind of fight the suck. Just by embracing it and walking it along as a companion along for the journey, just kind of ornery companion, but still a companion, can make all the difference in how you perform and your attitude, which affects how you perform. It certainly helps with your wisdom, your growth on your path to be more wise, and humility. A big part of that is having some humor about it, being able to laugh at yourself and laugh at your situation.

There’s one quiet professional here who’s a professional mountain guide. A lot of the mountain guides are pretty incredible athletes. He’s not one of them. He’s a pretty average athlete. Boy, he just has a great attitude and he’s really a grinding worker. He’s on the cusp of becoming the international certified mountain guide, which is in that world, a huge deal. From where he started, a few years ago he started skiing. He was working towards his ski mountaineering pin, and he was a terrible skier. But now, he’s guiding in the back country in the Tetons. That’s huge.

But anyway, in the gym they’ll be doing something and I’ll make it harder. Everybody else moans and he’s like, “Yeah.” That can make all the difference, that idea. I guess from my perspective, it’s not this macho thing that I can suffer more than anybody else, it’s that you kind of know it’s coming and you’re suspicious when it’s not there. When it does come, you kind of welcome it. You embrace it as a companion, as part of the journey that we all are on and just work through it. One of the things that I kind of personally life with is I’m kind of a pessimist. I heard this one time that the good thing about being a pessimist is you’re either right or pleasantly surprised. I kind of like that sometimes as I think about things I’m going through.

Brett McKay: Another element of being a quiet professional you talk about is this idea of gratitude. Why do you think it’s important for quiet professionals to develop gratitude? How does that help them develop that craftsman mentality, that they should be striving for?

Rob Shaul: I’m still developing my thoughts on gratitude, but a couple things really come to mind when I think about how gratitude can help us on this journey. The first is that when things are not going well, being able to take a step back and identify and think and acknowledge the things that are good can really help put the situation in perspective, and can help the person come to some peace, or give them a sense of solace. What gratitude can do is it can give you perspective. Most things are never as bad as our mind makes them out to be. The second thing that gratitude can do is when you purposely take the time to identify those great things in your life, it can really help you live in the present. I think that is so important and such a challenge for everybody.

I think it has been for all time to be able to live in the present, and enjoy that, and be enthusiastic, and understand how beautiful and incredible life is, and the wonderful people you have in your life, and how blessed you are to have your job, or your occupation and doing something you love, or live in a place you love. It can again, just give you this idea, or it can really help you to live in the present. When we talk about gratitude, most of the time you hear about gratitude and it’s something you’re supposed to do almost in a negative way. But as I think about it and experienced it, it’s really … being grateful is another gift to myself. It helps me be more peaceful. It helps put things in perspective. And it helps me live in the present.

Brett McKay: Well Rob, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your quiet professional idea that you’re fleshing out here?

Rob Shaul: Yeah, I just have the essay and the original essay and the breakouts that go deeper into the individual elements just at my website at Or you can probably search just, “What does it mean to be a quiet professional,” and it’ll probably come up on Google.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Rob Shaul, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Rob Shaul: Brett, again thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Rob Shaul. He’s the founder and President of Mountain Tactical Institute. You can check out what they do over there at Mountain Tactical at and make sure to check out his essays, What It Means To Be a Quiet Professional. Just look for Google, “What does it mean to be a quiet professional?” They’ll have a link to all the different attributes we talked about and he fleshes them out even more. Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, 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 If you enjoyed the podcast, and got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider telling a friend or a family member about the show if you think they’d get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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