Great Life Advice from a SEAL – Staying in Your Three Foot World

by | Aug 27, 2018

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One of the books I read in 2018 was No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL, by Mark Owen, a member of SEAL Team Six that killed Osama Bin Laden.

No Hero is a series of stories from Mark’s training and various missions, each with a worthwhile lesson. One story/lesson in the book that has had a big impact on me he calls “staying in your three-foot world.”

During SEAL training, Mark and a few other trainees went to Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas to learn rock climbing from a civilian expert climber. Mark was still afraid of heights even though he had flown in helicopters, parachuted, and engaged in all sorts of activities at great heights.

During the training, he had to climb hundreds of feet up a sheer rock face. Once he was high up he looked down, panicked, and froze. The trainer climbed up to assist him:

“Hey, man,” the trainer said in a lazy, raspy voice. “Just stay in your three-foot world.”

I was a couple of hundred feet up the rock face and I could barely think, let alone decipher his cryptic advice.

“What the hell are you talking about, bro?”

“Only focus on your three-foot world,” he said. “Focus on what you can affect. You keep looking around, and none of that can help you right now, can it?

I shook my head no.

“You’re calculating how far you’re going to fall,” the instructor said. “You’re looking down at Jeff, but he’s not going to come up and help. You’re looking out at the Strip. What are you going to do, gamble your way to the top? Don’t look at me. I’m not going to help you either. This is up to you. You’re climbing this rock. Stay in your three-foot world.”

I’ll never forget those words: “stay in your three-foot world.” 

This is a great lesson. During times of stress, pressure or worry, focus on what you can control in the moment and ignore everything else. I’ve used this lesson since I’ve learned about it* and I’ve found it incredibly powerful and helpful. Staying in your three-foot world is a useful worldview in any negative situation you encounter.  Another way to think about “staying in your three-foot world” is found in this Venn Diagram from Carl Richards:

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Source: Carl Richards. Note: A friend gave this diagram to me nicely framed and it hangs on my wall at work. It’s a great reminder.

It is human nature to worry and to focus on the “what-ifs”, but worrying almost never is productive and often the fear or panic it can induce causes us to lose sight of what actions we can take to help ourselves.

Sort of related IFOD: There Are Only Four Ways to Handle a Problem

*I first heard the three-foot world story at a presentation Mark made a few years ago. It was compelling to hear him tell the story first person and all the ways he has applied it since then. Also – “Mark Owen” is a pseudonym.

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