skip to Main Content
#5. But If You Want To Change The World, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Circuses.

#5. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.

Every day during training you were challenged with multiple physical events—long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics—something designed to test your mettle.
Every event had standards—times you had to meet. If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list and at the end of the day those on the list were invited to—a “circus.”
A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics—designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit.
No one wanted a circus.
A circus meant that for that day you didn’t measure up. A circus meant more fatigue—and more fatigue meant that the following day would be more difficult—and more circuses were likely.
But at some time during SEAL training, everyone—everyone—made the circus list.
But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list. Over time those students-—who did two hours of extra calisthenics—got stronger and stronger.
The pain of the circuses built inner strength-built physical resiliency.
Life is filled with circuses.
You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core.
Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, University of Texas, 2014 Commencement Address

There are plenty of books written about failure. How you should overcome it, how you can avoid it, how you can fail forward. The bottom line that Naval Admiral McRaven makes in this part of his speech is that you have a choice in the final outcome of each failure. Let’s take a moment to break down the “F” word and how you can respond like a SEAL.

Ring Master Responsibilities

McRaven reminds us that standards were important to his organization. Having standards means that people don’t always live up to those standards. There was no pat on the back, gold star, or ribbon for participation. You met the standard or you didn’t.

The SEAL Instructors were the one holding the trainees to the SEAL standards. They ran the circus, and made sure that for those who were asked to stay behind, they knew why they were there and what they needed to do in the future to meet expectations. The instructors had the demanding job of not only identifying who didn’t perform but for letting them know and correcting them.

In the work place I see two areas where this typically plays out. First is when a manager reviews work of a reporting employee. We’ve been coached that as leaders we need to be inspiring and encouraging. Telling someone their work didn’t measure up to the standards sounds contradictory. No one wants to be “that boss”. But feedback about failing to meet expectations doesn’t have to be incongruous with being inspiring and encouraging. Here are a few tips that can help managers feel more comfortable sharing feedback about failures:

Make an agreement with your team that because you care about the goals of the group and about them achieving big things, you will always provide feedback when things don’t measure up. Let the team know you will always be the first to tell them when something didn’t go right, but you will be the first person to defend them in battle.
Be open to hearing the reasons for failure, but don’t accept excuses. Make sure your team is ready to provide you with a reason, but more importantly, an action plan to make sure there is improvement.
Find the leaders on your team who will rally the troops and engage them in helping to in force the standards. Not every conversation has to be escalated. Sometimes your best reinforcement is the peer group.


When are trying to achieve something we have never done before we have to start with small steps that allow us to achieve the mechanics. The SEALS were training to run an obstacle course, but eventually that would be a mission in enemy territory. The SEALS didn’t start with the mission, or even the obstacle course. They started with calisthenics.

Day in and day out, they repeated exercises that built the raw strength and mechanics they would need to succeed in a bigger task. The circuses allowed them to fine tune and continue to work on the skills they were falling short in. The repetition, over and over of these small exercises, while painful and tiring allowed each individual to improve their performance.

As you’re working with your team or even your own goals, what are the small exercises you can go through that will prepare you for the bigger task at hand. If you’re trying to cut expenses, how often are you reviewing your expense reports? If you’re trying to increase sales, how many times have you reached out to customers for feedback? Get yourself and your team in the habit of doing the things that allow you to complete the mission…even if it means a circus drill!

Inner Strength – Outer Resiliency

circus 2McRaven reminds us that despite all our preparation, failures will occur along our mission. The importance of the circus was not just to practice how to succeed, but practicing how to fail. Every time a SEAL was assigned to a circus they knew they had failed. The circus wasn’t fun. The circus was another two hours of pain that they didn’t want to go through. That pain reminded them they just didn’t measure up that day. They survived though.

Each time a SEAL completed a circus they learned that even in failure they were able to persevere. It wasn’t so much about being perfect. It was about making it through the circus to show up the next day and have a fresh start. This inner strength allows them to complete every mission, even when something inevitably goes wrong. These men are never phased because they know the drill continues and the next little action will allow them to move forward and change the outcome.

As we enter 2015, make a decision that you’re not going to count the number of circuses you qualified for, but the number of times you improved from the circuses you survived!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top