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Do Our Thoughts Create Our Reality?
Reading time: 13 min.
Head with Broken Pot, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1942
The answer starts, in a way, with my nephew.
A few years ago, he was playing in a tennis tournament that would affect his ranking and likely determine whether he’d qualify for the state championship at the end of the season. In the tennis center on Chicago’s southside, my sister and I waited for his game to start. Courts and courts of teenage boys faced each other in singles and doubles matches. The whack of tennis balls hitting racquets echoed through the space. It smelled of sweat and dirty socks.
At the time, I wasn’t well. I’d spent a year going through SSRI-antidepressant withdrawal consisting of suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, hallucinations, insomnia, dizziness, paranoia, and the sensation that tiny electric shocks—brain zaps—were shooting through my skull. I could barely get out of bed. I had trouble holding a pen and couldn’t make it through the day without Klonopin. After five years of not being able to live independently—my mental illness was so severe I lived with my mother, who gave me a place and the support I needed to start to heal—I’d moved into a tiny studio apartment in the dead of winter. I’d broken my foot and couldn’t walk, walking being an integral part of how I stayed mentally and physically healthy. The running refrain in my mind was some version of I’m sick or Something is wrong or I’m broken.
But I’d managed to get myself out of my tiny studio apartment to watch my nephew play. The tennis center wasn’t packed with fans. Gathered to watch were the coaches, a few other relatives, and other players waiting to play their matches. There were no ball-boys or girls. No one to update the scorecards.
Three-quarters into the qualifying match, my nephew was losing. The other player was good. If his first serve hit the net or went out, he’d lob his second, which threw off my nephew’s rhythm. My nephew would use his shirt collar to wipe the sweat from his forehead and under his glasses. Then he’d mutter to himself in frustration.
Suddenly, he stopped muttering and regained focus. Everything came together: his serve, his backhand, his agility. He played loose and light as if he’d never had a moment’s frustration or doubt. In a volley that I didn’t realize was the final point, he won.
Before leaving the arena, my sister and I stopped to talk to his coach—an older, chubby, balding man. He gushed with enthusiasm over my nephew’s win. “Amazing. He crushed it.” He held up his phone. “This is what we listened to in the van on the way down here. And it did it.”
Onscreen was a YouTube video—black and white—of a guy wearing headphones speaking into a mic. His head was shaved. His face was acutely square and his jaw severe. He had the neck, chest, and arms of a serious weightlifter.
I asked who he was. My nephew’s coach said, “Jocko Willink. He’s why the guys won today.”
I knew nothing about “Jocko,” as he’s known, and nothing of the Jocko phenomenon. A retired Navy Seal who served in Iraq, he had published two books on leadership. (Now, he has five such books, plus a military thriller and a series of children’s books.) He ran (and still runs) a company called Echelon Front, a pseudo-military training ground for businessmen who want to lead as if they’d once been Navy Seals even though hadn’t. (The images on the website are of men seated around banquet tables in hotel conference rooms.) His passion was and is Jiu-Jitsu.
The Jocko phenomenon is partly due to the popularity of his YouTube motivational speeches and interviews, which get millions of views. But it’s mainly the result of his podcast, which has tens of millions of downloads.
Within a week, I was deep into the world of Jocko. My obsession went through the usual stages: from fascination to infatuation to fixation. I dipped in at first, catching clips of his dramatized motivational speeches on YouTube. Soon, I was listening to the full one-to-two-hour podcasts. Even sooner, I was mentioning him in conversation and thinking about his show and what he said far too often.
Each podcast episode follows one of three formats: an interview with a guest, questions from listeners, and what Jocko calls a book review but which is more like a book share. Most of his guests are incredible. The majority are soldiers or leaders who’ve experienced battles and hardships I couldn’t begin to fathom. Jocko’s three-hour interview with Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Ron Shurer, a staff sergeant who served as a medic in Afghanistan and then in the secret service and was also battling cancer, held me rapt.
But Jocko’s book reviews/book shares really drew me in. For an hour, sometimes two, Jocko read from memoirs and guides like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare. He brought in obscure manuals written by soldiers during the Civil War or World War I. In one episode, he pulled from a kamikaze pilot’s diary. On another, he went through every page of the marine evaluation forms. On another, he opened with an excerpt from Beowulf. (Jocko was an English major in college.) He discussed Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (abridged); Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning; and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
When he answered questions from listeners, Jocko was all grit. He said life was war. We had to have discipline and show leadership and take responsibility for our actions. In his gravelly voice, he told us to “crush it”—“it” being any project or task. He urged us to “get after it.”
Sitting at my desk with my broken foot iced and elevated and listening to Jocko, I felt a potential I thought was lost to me. He said that when I was broken—in body, mind, or spirit—to relish it because I was being shown the limits I needed to push. When one of his listeners emailed to say that they were struggling with something in their lives, he said, “Good.” Suicide was never an option because when you’re on your last bullet you shoot the enemy, not yourself.
He often referenced “the path,” which, not having read his books, I probably didn’t have the full picture of. From what I gathered, staying on the path meant abiding by Jocko’s mantra: “Discipline equals freedom.” In doing so, one could become an exceptional specimen of mankind. (Jocko would definitely use the term mankind, not humankind.) Becoming an exceptional specimen entailed, among other things, being ultra-aggressive, ultra-confident, and uber-in-control. There was talk of humility and about “owning” your mistakes, but that came from a place of toughness too. It meant being able to handle stress and the fight-or-flight response through training; putting yourself in difficult and even extreme situations (what psychologists refer to as exposure therapy); and learning to confront, mitigate, and/or detach, depending on what the situation called for.
No, I didn’t love everything about him. He referred to women as “girls.” He had only one woman as a guest on his show. (Jocko professed to treat men and women equally, except when it came to physical strength.) He talked way too much about Jiu-Jitsu and some of what he said came off as melodramatic. And, yes, at the end of his show, he sold Jocko-sponsored-and-made merchandise like T-shirts and krill-oil supplements and (for reasons I couldn’t begin to grasp) soap.
But during that time in my life, he served as a very abrasive balm. He had what I desperately wanted: a life without depression and anxiety. A life without mind-crushing doubt and insecurity. A life in which I might feel pain and fail but wasn’t bothered by it. A life in which I “crushed it.” A life of confidence and certainty.
All I had to do was change how I thought and what I told myself and act on those new thoughts.
Many, many people have told us that our thoughts produce our results and that we think determines how we live: the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, the early twentieth-century Serbian monk Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, the father of cognitive-behavioral therapy Aaron Beck, the self-help guru Wayne Dyer.
But we have no real proof that this is the case. No MRI or fMRI can show that yes, you were thinking this and yes, it produced that result. And even if it could, MRIs and fMRIs have been found to produce flawed, even false results. What about our emotions? How does the way we feel play into it? Even if we knew what emotions are and that they were the same for everyone, we don’t know if feelings provoke thoughts or thoughts cause feelings or both happen at the same time. Even if we knew, we have no way to measure just how many thoughts and feelings it takes to create an action and its result.
For months, I lived the Tao of Jocko. The only times his voice wasn’t piping through my earbuds was when I was writing, teaching, showering, sleeping, or in the company of others.
In a way, it worked. Telling myself to attack, push, and pursue gave me the courage to see a new psychiatrist who evened out my medications. Making myself get after it prompted me to start writing a memoir. (See Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses.) Believing that discipline equals freedom allowed me to rest my broken foot when all I wanted to do was go for a walk, which would have made it worse.
Meanwhile, my nephew continued his winning streak. Then he astounded us all by winning the conference title. I don’t know what he thought or said to himself to win all those games. All I know is that every day, he was on the court, playing. Yes, our thoughts matter, but Jocko taught me that they’re nothing without action, too.