Lessons from the Marines - Standards for Elite Performance
The standards by which we live directly define our life outcomes. Change your standards, change your life.
If you REALLY don’t have the time or patience to absorb the full text, there is a summary recap you can skip to at the bottom, that may just be enough to help you! If you’re motivated to indulge in every paragraph, then read on and enjoy…
There were thirty or so of us Royal Marine recruits lined up in the drill shed at the Commando training centre, Devon, England. Each one of us had all of our field kit immaculately laid out ready to be inspected as punishment for having failed another inspection earlier that day. A colour-sergeant entered the drill shed and Instead of making his way to the first man, he locked eyes with a lad in the second row and starting making a bee-line for him, breaking into a huge unnerving smile.
A Royal Marine Colour-sergeant smiling at a recruit can only mean bad news for the recruit! When he reached the lad, he didn’t say a word, just pulled out a utility knife, still smiling away and deftly sliced a button off of an open shirt-pocket, chuckling away as it dropped to the ground. Button pockets being left open is a big ‘no-no’ for Marine recruits!
That was one of the kindest punishments I witnessed as a Marine recruit. A million times softer than the night that we spent repeatedly submerging ourselves in an ice-cold river before being marched several miles to a woodblock where we spent the remainder of the night crawling around on the floor through old shell-scrapes turned mud-pits until we looked like we were made from clay, and missing another entire night of sleep before starting the next day.
These were just two of countless experiences designed to make one thing abundantly clear from day one – that in the Royal Marines standards are everything and an inability to maintain them will not be tolerated. Over time I noticed two things about maintaining unusually high standards. Firstly, although it had seemed like a monumental effort at first to always have immaculate clothes, spotless fingernails and shaven face, always be 5-minutes early, every single item of clothing washed and ironed by the next day, etc, etc, after a while it just became… normal.
You can check out my video 'Changing your standards will change your life' below!
"...if our desired life outcomes, don’t match our actual life outcomes, then our standards are too low."
Secondly, once it did become normal it also became obvious how easy it actually is to completely outshine the average person. To always be on time, always well-presented, always diligent with every task. It is maintaining these key standards outside of the Marines which is the reason why I’ve heard of so many lads getting civilian corporate jobs post-military and climbing up the ranks at lightning speed ahead of their peers.
Obviously, the standards set within an organisation like the Royal Marines and the extreme systems by which they are maintained serve a very specific purpose that ultimately can mean life or death for soldiers on operations. But here’s the thing with standards for every single person in the world, not just elite infantry – they define our life outcomes.
Put another way – if our desired life outcomes, don’t match our actual life outcomes, then our standards are too low. Think about it, if your state of fitness is below where you want it, its because the standards you’ve set for fitness-training are too low. If you’re not the weight you’d ideally like to be then your standards for diet and/or activity are too low. If you’ve been chasing that promotion for the last two years and it hasn’t come through then, as much as you may not want to hear this, your standards for work or your work environment are too low.
Even if you feel your work ethic is on point but politics have gotten in the way of that promotion, at some level its still a matter of standards, whether it’s your standards of communication with the right manager, standards of actioning specific feedback from your last review or even just your standards of accepting your current role instead seeking that promotion with another employer.
So, we see then why the standards we set for ourselves matter to our state of health, performance and overall quality of life! What practical steps can we take to easily re-vamp those standards and upgrade any part of our lives that we so desire?
Understand what influences our standards and turn ‘shoulds into ‘musts’
There are two broad categories of standards – personal and environmental. Our personal standards are set by default to align with our core values. This is where we need to take some of those ‘shoulds’ and turn them into ‘musts’, for example – ‘I should be exercising at least three times per week’ needs to become ‘I must be exercising at least three times per week’. What happens here is that it goes from being something you’d like to happen but accept that it might not, to being your minimum standard – small change, big difference. It doesn’t mean you’ll never drop below that standard and it isn’t as easy as just saying it, but if you really commit to this belief and make more regular exercise one of your core values, then it will change your whole mentality towards allowing that standard to slip on a regular basis.
The second category – environmental standards – will play a HUGE influencing role towards maintaining your personal standards. These are the standards set by your friends and peers, family, senior colleagues, culture, law and any other part of your world that has it’s own standards and values that you interact with. Some of these are ‘controllables’ that you can manage, and many are not. Probably the biggest influencer here that you can largely control is your friends and peers. It’s time to get serious about which people you allow to feature in your life whose standards are likely to bring down your own.
You may have a friend whose been an absolute gem for the last twenty years, who has little to no aspiration for the things you desire and that’s fine. But don’t recruit this person as your partner in crime to get fit, find that promotion or be your wing man at social outings if they’re not the areas they excel in! Actively seek out people who you respect and whose standards surpass your own in the areas you want to flourish, make yourself accountable to them and make sure they know about it. If you do this enough times with all your goals I can guarantee your chances of success will sky-rocket!
Check out my discussion with Gareth Roriston on the value of standards
set by elite military and pro sports teams!
Key standards and the Pareto principle
The pareto principle states that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes and I’ve talked about this before very often with regards to habits, which is very closely linked with this topic. The beauty of taking the time to re-assess your standards is that you could very likely invoke huge swathes of positive changes to your life by simply changing one or two key standards.
So, the trick here is to work backwards starting with the areas you’re unhappy with and highlight the over-arching key standards relative to those disappointing outcomes. For example, if I’m unhappy with my physique, ultimately the standards that are letting me down are related to either diet or exercise or both. If I work out that I’m aiming for 4 x workouts a week and on average I’m only doing 2-3 this is a key standard that needs resetting.
The most obvious jump is to make the minimum number 3 x per week to ensure this change is realistic before pushing it up to 4 if and when that becomes possible. I may find that without drilling into the nuances of how I’m training, that this change in itself will get me great results now that my average number of workouts has gone from 2-3 to 3-4.
Same thing with diet which is easily the most commonly over-complicated element of lifestyle-improvement. Before you go down the unending rabbit hole of optimising the specific foods you eat, why not start with a key standard like ‘cut-out grains’ or ‘dessert only twice a week’. Again, this might be enough to make a significant impact. Combine it with another key standard like the number of weekly workouts and we’ve got a super-simple methodology for significant positive change that barely requires thinking about! Boom.
Build the habits that support your standards
This is so highly specific to you as an individual that it’s pretty well pointless for me to address it generically in this article. You’re going to have to do the thinking for yourself on this one and see what you can come up, and it’s going to be a case of ‘test and adjust’ but stick with it and the rewards will be yours! I spend hours on the phone with my one-to-one clients getting the info required to prescribe effective habits specifically for them so don’t think you can rush this on your own. Just try some ideas and refine over time. If the standard is 4 x workouts per week then the habit might be 2 x runs, 2 x gym sessions. See if it fits!
Consistency trumps everything, always.
Finally, a point I’ve gone over time and time again. It doesn’t matter what you plan, or what you do once, twice or every now and then. Only consistency over time will get good results! As with any part of developing your strategy you must be realistic about what you can sustain long-term. And if you’re not thinking long-term then I’m sorry to say but your quick-fix mentally has got you doomed from the start, so ditch that way of thinking and get your head in the long-game! Build a system that’s sustainable, that fulfils you, that is practical enough to accommodate your other needs so that you can adopt it as part of your ongoing lifestyle. Do this and the game is won!
Recognise the two main categories of standards and how they relate to you;
- Personal – your own set of standards aligned with your core values. Turn your ‘I should-dos’ into ‘I must-dos’ to reset your core values and then raise your standards to match them.
- Environmental – The standards of your friends and peers, family, senior colleagues, culture, laws and any other standards you interact with. Re-evaluate the people you associate with. Seek people whose standards surpass your own in the areas you want to improve and become accountable to those people.
Assess your key standards
Work backwards from the areas in your life you want to improve and highlight the key standards that are letting you down before you get into the nitty-gritty details of specific behaviours. Examples are; increasing your average number of workouts per week before changing specific exercises or cutting out entire food groups or reducing the frequency of sweet-treats before amending individual meals or calorie-tracking etc. Go by the Pareto principle on this one.
Build the habits to support your standards
Highly specific to you. Try what you think will work, test and adjust, keep doing it until you succeed!
Consistency trumps everything, always
Ensure consistency over time through sustainable changes. Be realistic about what you can adopt as a long-term lifestyle.
Dare to accomplish more.