What I Learned About ‘Extreme Ownership’ From the U.S. Navy SEALs and Rabbi Sacks

If you had met me in graduate school, you would have thought I was the epitome of “extreme ownership”—a term coined by ex-Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin that denotes the practice of taking responsibility for everything in your world, to an extreme degree. (According to Willink and Babin in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, “Combat is reflective of life, only amplified and intensified.”) This means that you are not only responsible for the tasks you directly control, but for every element in your environment that affects whether or not your mission is successful. In order to execute this concept, you need to drop the ego, believe in the mission wholeheartedly, and prioritize your objectives in a simple, cool-headed manner so that you can decisively take action towards victory.


Before I had even heard of extreme ownership, I knew intuitively that I needed to approach my graduate studies and budding career in the Israeli security community in this manner. What I didn’t understand was that there was a fine line between performing with excellence and crippling perfectionism—a dark side, if you will, to practicing extreme ownership, when misinterpreted.


Back in 2009, I was an ambitious student doing my Masters degree in Security Intelligence at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School for Public and International Affairs, and I had a dirty little secret: I was the last student admitted into the program, given barely three weeks notice to find an apartment in a new city and show up for my first class. I had applied to several security programs near my hometown on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., but I didn’t get accepted into any of them. This knowledge that I was the runt of the litter would haunt me throughout graduate school and into the early years of my career.


To make matters worse, most of the students in the security program in Pittsburgh were already working professionals with accomplished resumes that included real life experience in the U.S. security and policymaking circles. I came in with a degree in English Literature.


Yup that’s me, first day of graduate school


To illustrate how far behind I was when I first started out in this program, I’ll tell you about the math course I had to take in the first semester: it was advanced multivariate statistics and apparently I was missing three years worth of prerequisite math courses to understand what the hell was going on in this class. When I first realized this unfortunate situation, I was tempted to drop out of the course, which likely would have led to me dropping out of the entire program. I wanted to blame the administration for not informing me of this before I was accepted into the program. In other words, my gut reaction was that I didn’t want to take responsibility.


But I did take responsibility in the end, because when I started in the security program I promised myself that I was all in to “finish the mission,” no matter what. And if I was going to be honest with myself, it was my fault for not being prepared for this math course because it had been stated in the small print that I had glossed over in the program’s syllabi before I was accepted.


So, I worked hard to pass the course. Very hard. I took advantage of the professor’s after hours and requested private tutoring. I spent hours into the night in the library reading through the prerequisite textbooks, until I fell asleep with my cheek stuck to the textbook pages.


When I passed the course with a B-, I was enormously relieved, but it was short-lived. I was mad at myself for not knowing more math, for not knowing as much as the other students. I was constantly comparing myself to them and I was coming up short. Before I knew it, I was practicing extreme ownership on steroids—that is to say, I was going beyond its cool-headed application by practically flagellating myself into exhaustion as I went on to apply nearly the same level of intensity as I had for that math course to all of my studies.


In many ways, taking extreme ownership of my academics was a clear path forward, because I definitely had A LOT to catch up on. On the other hand, I caused myself a lot of unnecessary grief by going beyond extreme responsibility to internalizing every mistake I made until I was practically buckling under the weight of my own perfectionism. I had stepped into the dark side of extreme ownership, twisting its principles.


How did I get here…?


So, what was the antidote to this unhealthy perspective? It took reading Willink and Babin’s Extreme Ownership years later (the book hadn’t come out yet when I was in grad school) mixed in with some teachings by the UK’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Navy SEALs and a rabbi? I bet you didn’t see that one coming).


In the intro to their book, Willink and Babin explain that as battlefield leaders they chose to write Extreme Ownership to share the valuable lessons they learned about success and failure in an extreme environment applied to everyday life. Their focus was less on how mistakes were made and more about how to intensely dissect them in order to learn and improve future actions. It is within this world of discipline, they believe, that individuals find true freedom. They admit it’s not an easy path, but that it is an absolute necessity for deep learning and growth.


Rabbi Sacks in a way continues this discussion in his book Essays on Ethics: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible by analyzing the difference between shame cultures versus guilt cultures—and ultimately why Jews view a guilt culture as preferable for moral growth. In shame cultures, what matters is the judgment of others; people in shame cultures are other-directed. (In today’s world, we would say such people care about their “image.”) By contrast, people in guilt cultures are inner-directed. They care about what they know about themselves in moments of absolute honesty.


In a guilt culture, what really matters is that you know you acted righteously. Alternatively, if you are actually guilty of sin, you are encouraged to acknowledge your role—without the sin permanently defining your identity. Judaism chooses this type of culture because it emphasizes acting truthfully, taking responsibility, learning from your mistakes, and setting things right—the precursor for growth.


Grow, baby, grow


Shame cultures are not only collective and conformist—they are also unforgiving. Without forgiveness, man is irredeemable; there is no second chance, no opportunity for growth. This is why Judaism rejects such a culture. We all make mistakes, but as a basic human right we should be granted the opportunity to respond to our mistakes, to make atonement, to take ownership, and ultimately to be forgiven. The negative aspects of shame culture can also be applied to how we view ourselves even without external social pressures; if we see ourselves as not worthy of forgiveness after making a mistake, we risk needlessly making ourselves irredeemable in our own eyes.


Forgiveness was the key ingredient that was missing from my extreme ownership attitude in my early security career years. I made mistakes, I rapidly took responsibility for my errors in a way that seemed honorable, but I didn’t know how to forgive myself. I let the mistakes weigh me down long after they had been corrected. I turned myself into an anxious insomniac, obsessively recounting my faults at night into the wee hours, even as I rose through the ranks in my class to graduate in the top ten percent. As my career progressed, on the outside I was looking more and more like a success story; on the inside I was exhausted, and that is frankly a poor way to live.


Ultimately, I had to learn how to internalize lessons learned without crippling myself with excessive blame. I had to understand how to take responsibility for my own actions without condemning myself to eternal damnation.


I have no doubt that if the Navy SEALs met Rabbi Sacks they would have been in agreement: by all means, be brutally honest about your actions, follow up with corrective measures, strive to become the best version of yourself possible. Just don’t beat yourself to death over your mistakes, because then there will be nothing left of you to improve upon. I’m glad to say that I’ve grown past that.


To learn more about my adventures as an American serving in the Israeli security field (along with all those fun lessons learned), check out my forthcoming memoir here.

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