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The Navy SEAL Sugar Cookie

The Navy SEAL Sugar Cookie

| September 15, 2021
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This fall, as our employees return to the office, our students to the classroom, our athletes to the field, many will be obsessed with perfection.

The instructor didn’t think the student’s uniform was perfectly pressed, so he forced him to the Coronado beach and gave a terse order.

The student was to run fully clothed into the surfside, drench himself from head to toe, then roll around until he was fully covered in sand. He would stay in that cold uniform the rest of the day.  

He was what the Navy SEALs refer to as a “sugar cookie,” and the point wasn’t to actually discipline him for his uniform. It was to see if he had the mental fortitude to endure seemingly unjust and brutal punishment.

“There were many a student who just couldn’t accept the fact that their efforts were in vain, that no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it went unappreciated. Those students didn’t make it through training,” U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven said in his stirring commencement address at the University of Texas years ago.

“You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform. The instructors weren’t going to allow it.”

This fall, as our employees return to the office, our students to the classroom, our athletes to the field, many will be obsessed with perfection.   

They will want to ace presentations, get A’s on challenging exams, have elite-level practices before big games.

They, like the aspiring SEALs, will have great intentions and be extremely disappointed if they come up short in any way. They may even think they’re being mistreated.

“Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie,” McRaven said. “It’s just the way life is sometimes.”

It is imperative that we as leaders remind them of this and maintain perspective around long-term success. No matter their effort or commitment level, there are times where there is little else they can actually do to achieve their desired outcomes.

They will get questions wrong, they may misspeak in an important moment or drop an easy pass at an inopportune time.

But these are the instances that are the most revealing of their character, and our judgments will be based on how they respond.

Reaching the upper echelon of what we’re striving for isn’t about persistent perfection. It frequently comes with missteps, adversity, hardships and failure — and those moments of supreme frustration are often more important than the fleeting times of triumph.

Whether we’re sales reps, teachers, coaches or executives, let’s reflect on McRaven’s words and remember that being successful in the long term is rarely about having the perfect uniform or most-crisply made bed in the short.

It’s often about how we respond when we’re covered in sand.

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