Eric Robert Greitens is a nonprofit leader, author, speaker and a United States Navy SEAL, who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a former Truman Scholar and Rhodes Scholar and the founder and former Chairman and CEO of The Mission Continues. TIME Magazine named Greitens to its 100 Most Influential People in the World in April 2013.
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Hi, I'm Eric Greitens.
I was born and raised in Missouri. Did a lot of humanitarian work around the world in college and graduate school. Joined the Navy SEALS after completing my PhD, and live in Missouri now with my wife Sheena and my seven-month old son Joshua! And I'm really excited to be releasing my new book, RESILIENCE, today. This is a book about how you can build resilience in your life.
I drew from my experience doing humanitarian work, my experiences as a Navy SEAL, and my experiences with returning veterans to create practical lessons on how you can deal with pain to create wisdom, confront fear and build courage, and move through suffering to strength.
Every one of you can build resilience in your life. And I'm excited to talk with you about the book and to answer your questions while visiting reddit HQ in New York!
Update: Thank you! This has been a lot of fun. Heading to do some more interviews, but would love to come back and answer more questions. I appreciate everybody's thoughtful questions, and thank you for your support!
A lot of Navy SEALs seem to become authors. Is writing part of the BUDS curriculum nowadays?
Writing isn't part of the curriculum, but BUD/S is a tough course!
I think that, ever since the raid against bin Laden, a lot of people have been curious about the SEAL Teams. And, I follow Admiral McRaven's advice who said:
1) It's important for people to know what SEALs do--the American people invest billions of dollars in Special Operations, and they should know that their investment creates great people dedicated to service.
At the same time:
2) All classified information needs to remain classified. It's an essential discipline, especially because we need to protect people who are still serving.
3) It's really important that we always emphasize service and humility. Every success in the SEAL teams is capable only because a team of people come together. And that team includes not only special operations personnel, but people in intelligence, logistics, training, etc. So we always have to emphasize that we are part of a team, and here to serve.
What is "Greitens for Missouri" and why has it taken in more than $200,000 in the past two weeks?
Greitens for Missouri is an exploratory committee for public office. I'm actively exploring the possibility of running for Governor.
And it's been great to be out talking with people. I think that Missouri needs and deserves strong leadership, and I think that people are looking for a new approach with innovative ideas to move our state forward.
Just recently interviewed for the Truman Scholarship. Any advice for aspiring public servants?
First, congrats! It's a great program and I wish you the best.
Try to change one life for the better. That's my best advice for people who aspire to be public servants. Often times, people who aim to serve can be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges that they face. Focus on changing one life.
If, for example, you can teach one third grader who is struggling how to read, you'll make a tremendous difference in her life, and, at the same time, you'll learn something about learning styles, about education, maybe about poverty, about effective teaching, about great schools. So, at the stage in your life, dedicate yourself to making a difference in one person's life. They'll be grateful, and you'll be stronger.
Eric, What is your PhD in?
My PhD is in Political Science. I wrote my dissertation about how international humanitarian organizations work with children in war zones.
I worked in Bosnia with families who had lost their homes, with children who had been abandoned and abused in Rwanda, with children of the street in Bolivia, and with kids who'd lost limbs to landlines in Cambodia. I learned a tremendous amount from the work about how people build resilience, and it actually informed a lot of the work that I later did with veterans coming home.
> BUD/S is a tough course!
No doubt! And even more impressive is that you served as an officer. Those spots are especially hard to get. I knew one candidate who had a letter of recommendation from Bob Gates and even he couldn't get an officer spot.
So any advice for aspiring SEAL officers?
1) Physical Fitness. I trained using a book by a guy named Stew Smith, called 12 weeks to BUD/S. It's a killer program, but if you can complete everything in that program, you'll likely make it through.
2) Study. They're looking for people who do well in school, and beyond that, think about really pushing yourself to learn in some unique way. If, for example, someone speaks fluent Arabic or Mandarin, or if someone has spent a few years living and working in an important area of the world--that kind of learning is highly valued.
3) Serve. If you want to serve in the military, they like to see that you are already serving--in your school, your community, your church, your synagogue. Make it clear that service is a lifelong habit that you've built.
4) Leadership. And keep in mind, that good leaders are not necessarily the ones who have the "title" of leader or captain or President. Leaders are people who act with courage to serve a purpose that is larger than themselves. So, find a way to lead in your life today.
Thanks for the reply!
Speaking of hills..... FROG HILL.
Ever had the honor of experiencing bringing a frog egg to the mother frog?
For those of you wondering, this is code for taking a giant rock to the top of Frog Hill--a steep hill you had to sprint up in training during 3rd phase at the Island.
It's a burning run. Legs and lungs on fire. The Instructors would time you, and you had to make it to the top to a frog statue by the cutoff time. Hence, "Frog Hill". Good Q; made me smile!
What was your mindset behind writing the books? What do you think you added to the discourse?
Resilience was born out of a phone call.
I was driving down Highway 70 late at night when my buddy Zach Walker called. Now, you have to understand that Zach--a guy from a Northern CA logging family--was one of the toughest of the tough in BUD/S. We were in the same BUD/S class, 237, and after training he went off to Afghanistan.
He came home, welcomed as a hero, and bought a concrete pumper and started his own business and was a good father to his two young kids. Then, he was hammered by hardship. His brother died. He lost his business. Then, one day he pulled into his driveway and stepped out of the truck and dropped to the ground. A sniper had an eye on his position, or so he thought. He lay there for hours, and then ran into his house. He had PTSD. He started drinking. A lot. Then he called me after he'd been arrested.
So, the Navy SEAL war hero is now the unemployed alcoholic on disability who is looking at going to jail. We talked that night, and when we got home I wrote him a letter. He wrote me back.
Resilience is a series of letters to my friend, and each letter addresses a different aspect of what it takes to build Resilience in your life.
What I hope to add to the discourse is a sense of hope. You CAN build resilience in your life. It's tough, and life will sometimes be painful, but there is a way for all of us to make it though. And, building Resilience will also lead to a lot of happiness.
what inspires you?
I'm inspired by people. And I've been fortunate to work with a number of incredible people in my life. One of the guys that I write about in Resilience is Tim Smith. Tim came home from Iraq after a rough deployment. Saw 8 of his friends killed one day; others carried off the battlefield wounded and disable. He had fairly serious PTSD when he came home.
But after he came home, he started serving again, started working with other veterans, and today he owns a business, Patriot Commercial Cleaning, and he employs 30+other veterans in his business; and he serves as a friend and mentor to them. He's become a leader in the community.
And I think that his life is also a testament to how--despite whatever obstacles we face--we can find a way to make it through and to become stronger on the other side.
(I'm also inspired by my own parents! Especially now that I have a 7 month old son! I appreciate them even more.)
What is your favorite memory from your time as a SEAL?
I have so many great memories from my time as a SEAL.
And this might sound funny, but some of my favorite memories are from Hell Week. Hell Week is considered to be the hardest week of the hardest military training in the world. The average class sleeps for a total of 2-5 hours during Hell Week, and I can remember my personal hardest moment was also one of my best memories.
We were about 72 hours in, and the instructors told us that we were going to sleep for the very first time. At this point, we were so exhausted that people would be running down the beach, stop running, and fall asleep. The instructors made us do a dip contest to see which boat crew could sleep first, and my crew lost. I was the very last person to run into the tents.
When I got in, everybody else was already asleep. I laid down on the cot, and I couldn't fall asleep. Then I started to get fearful, "What's going to happen to me if I can't sleep? We only get a few hours of sleep." Then I started to feel sorry for myself. "Why did I get the worst cot? Why did the doctors wrap my foot wrong the last time I ran through medical?"
So there was all of that fear, that worry, that self-pity. I got up, went out of the tent, and then washed some water over my head, and I said to myself, "This test isn't about you, Eric. It's about all of the people asleep in that tent right now." And as soon as I thought that, all of the doubt and self-pity left, and I went into the tent and went to sleep.
And the lesson for me, was, even in your hardest moments, you remember that there is a purpose that is larger than you. Serving others can actually make you stronger.
We call Hell Week, "The best time you never want to have again" And it certainly was for me.
I want a job in the military. I'm not sure what branch I want to join. Convince me why I should join the Navy?
Go Navy! You should join, my friend, whatever branch is best for you. I've worked with incredible soldiers and airmen and Marines, and each branch offers great opportunities. I'm glad to know that you're thinking about serving.
I would recommend that you find people who've served in each branch to talk with; they'll give you a sense for what it would be like in each service.
For me, I had a wonderful time in the Navy, and I'm proud to continue to serve in the reserves.
As a writer of a book, what advice would you give to a young person who wants to become a writer?
Here's the thing about writing--and this is true of almost anything--you get better through practice. This book, Resilience, took me 4 years to write.
There's a great phrase I often remember, "The only good writing is rewriting." It takes a lot of effort to sharpen a perfect sentence, to build a solid paragraph, to craft a quality story.
So, write with the expectation that your first words will need to be rewritten.
In Resilience, I have a whole chapter on "Beginning." We often find it hard to begin new things, but there are a lot of really practical things that you can do to help you to begin to build a new habit, to sharpen a new skill, to strengthen your character.
So write as much as you can. And be patient with yourself.
Finally, read! Read great writers, and you'll learn from them. Best of luck, Latenightsurfer.
Thank you for answering and I am glad you are able to help veterans. May I ask what your personal choice of sidearm was during your SEAL years?
We used a Sig Sauer P226. That was the standard sidearm carried by all SEALs.
What does your average day look like? How are you so productive?
I appreciate the question, memorypalace1.
I have a lot very different days, actually. Today I'm in a brand new place, here at Reddit AMA HQ--and by the way it's really cool here, and they have wonderful people on the team.
But here are a few key things that I think are important for keeping high energy and productivity:
1) Exercise. Resilience is a habit of body as much as a habit of mind and spirit, so find a way to exercise that's right for you.
2) Good people. If you can be around good people, it buoys you. In Resilience I write about the importance of friends, and how they help you.
3) Good purpose. A lot of people are overwhelmed by "How" questions. How do I ... do my homework, build a house, win a contract, ... etc. It's really important to have the right "Why". If you have a solid sense of purpose behind your efforts, you'll find a way to make it through. One of the philosophers I quote in Resilience said, "If you have the right why, you can make it through any how."
4) Good sleep. Allow yourself to rest, to recover.
5) Good Fun. Life's beautiful Enjoy it!
As a SEAL where have you been deployed? For how long?
I was deployed four times.
2003 to Afghanistan
2004 to Southeast Asia
2005 to the Horn of Africa
and 2006-2007 to Iraq.
Today I serve in the Reserves.
First I want to thank you for everything.
Loved your book "The Heart & The Fist"
When was the last time you went back to Oxford?
If so, did you try to look for you name up in the wall?
Thanks very much. I'm really glad that you enjoyed The Heart and The Fist!
I was back in Oxford in 2009. I had a great visit. I actually saw my old boxing Coach, Henry Dean. You might remember me writing about him in the book. Such a great coach!
And the names you reference--I think if I've got your question right--are the names of scholars who gave their lives in service.
It was fun to be back there. I also went out to Headington Hill--where we did our morning sprints. I remembered that is a very, very long hill. But it got us in shape for our fights! Henry was right about that.
What's more difficult: raising an infant son, writing a book, or training to be a SEAL?
Also just curious, do you say Missour-ee or Missour-uh?
Well, raising a son is certainly the most important of the three!
It's funny, actually when you go through SEAL training, part of the training is in sleep deprivation when you go through Hell Week. And I actually had a number of friends call when they knew that I was having a kid, who said, "You know that the sleep deprivation training wasn't for combat, it was to prepare you for fatherhood."
But of course each challenge is different and hard in its own way. It's one of the great things about life, is that we can take on different challenges and they all can force us to grow in a new way if we're resilient.
People in Missouri pronounce it both ways. I grew up saying Missour --ee. But Missouri --ee or Missou -uh, however people pronounce it, I'm proud to call it my home.
What was one of the biggest challenges of getting The Mission Continues up and running? How did you get initial financing?
When I started The Mission Continues in the beginning I did it by donating my combat pay from Iraq, and with the disability checks of two friends.
I was living on an air mattress in a near empty apartment. I had an idea that this was important for veterans, and that we could make a difference in their lives. In the beginning, it's tough, because you still have to build your successes. You have to prove that you can change a life for the better. But we started by focusing on changing one life. And we did. Chris Marvin was our first Fellow at The Mission Continues, and after his fellowship he went on business school and is serving veterans today through an organization called Got Your Six.
Once we were successful with one veteran, people were willing to invest in us to help another veteran. And once we had helped two, and then three, people were willing to invest in us to help five more, and then ten more. It's tough in the beginning, but you find a way to create one success, and let everything else follow.
It actually relates to one of the mental toughness techniques in Resilience called segmenting. You break a seemingly overwhelming challenge down into smaller pieces until you have something right in front of you that you can take action on.
Fear often gets to us when we are worried about the future. By finding ways to take action productively in the present, you make progress and build courage.
And that's what I did with The Mission Continues. We build it hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month, and seven years later we had something that I'm really proud of.
Dear Mr. Greitens,
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions today. I have read all of your books and am excited to read your newest one. (My copy is being shipped soon!) Thank you for your service to your country and to veterans.
My first question for you is: Were you ever in contact with military chaplains? If yes, did you find their presence valuable/beneficial?
My second question is: What can I do to help veterans?
Coffeespoons87, It's my pleasure! I appreciate your questions, and thanks very much for the kind words about the books. I hope that you enjoy Resilience when it comes.
Yes, I was in contact with military chaplains. And Yes, I do think that their presence is highly beneficial. It can be tough overseas. It can be tough in the military. And I think that having a caring, strong, chaplain who can listen and assist and provide some guidance and counsel can be immensely valuable. I am a huge fan of the military chaplain program. They work in some incredibly difficult and dangerous situations. And their presence is reassuring to those who are serving and to their families.
And thank you for asking what you can do to help veterans. I'd recommend a few great organizations. Check out, of course, The Mission Continues. I also recommend Team Rubicon and Team Red White and Blue. There are others, of course, that do wonderful work.
And beyond volunteering for or investing in a formal organization, I'd also recommend this. If you see a veteran, tell them, "Welcome Home." Let 'em know that you are glad that they are back, and that you are excited for all of the service and the leadership that they can still provide to their families, their communities, and to our country.
I appreciate you asking, and thanks for helping this great generation to come home and to continue to make a difference.
I'm planning to join the Navy when I complete medical school. I will be 30 by then. You were 27 (26?) when you started BUDS, how hard was it compared to what you think it would have been like when you were in your early 20s? And also, how do you feel about a national veteran food stipend allotment, to prevent vets from going hungry?
Norwejew, I was 26, which was, as you noted, relatively old for BUD/S. A lot of the guys in our class were 19, 20, 21, 22.
For me, I have to say that the extra years and the extra experience was helpful. When you're going through BUD/S, it's important to remember to laugh. It's important to remember to have fun. It's important to remember to take care of the people to your left and to your right.
By the time I joined the Navy I'd already been in some tough places and I'd seen how people can make it through hardship. I think that I learned from them.
In addition, being a little older gave me a chance to sometimes be a mentor to some of the younger guys in my class. I was glad to do that. They taught me a lot. Hopefully I was able to be of help to them, and one of the things that I most treasure from my time in the Navy are the relationships and friendships that I still have today.
And I'm glad to hear that you are thinking about serving!