I really wanted to dislike Jesse Itzler. But of course I couldn’t admit that to our mutual literary agent, Lisa Leshne, who was eager to drag me to a party celebrating the publication of Mr. Itzler’s new book, Living with a SEAL: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet.
The very premise of the book annoyed me: Mr. Itzler, a 40-something, incredibly successful entrepreneur, former (white) rap star, and ultra-marathoner hired a Navy SEAL to live with his family and get him into the best physical and mental shape of his life. To me, this smacked of a guy who had more dollars than sense.
But I kept my mouth shut and schlepped up to an upscale Harlem pizza joint. I figured I could grab a slice, smile politely, mumble congratulations about writing a book and actually getting a real publisher to release it, and take off. No harm, no foul, and maybe a slice of decent pizza.
But just as I was grabbing for a second slice of Neapolitan Express’s marvelous pizza, I was introduced to a 6’1” 180-pound sheet of titanium: David Goggins.
And then I met SEAL. Mr. Itzler never uses this combat-hardened warrior’s real name, and includes no identifying photo of him in the book. At first it seemed like a gimmick. Once I actually read the book, I realized the anonymity and mystery actually make sense. But just as I was grabbing for a second slice of Neapolitan Express’s marvelous pizza, I was introduced to a 6’1” 180-pound sheet of titanium: David Goggins.
I’ve known a few SEALs over the years, but they were all officers: Naval Academy or Harvard grads. Mr. Goggins is different: a self-described just-barely-through high school grad with a 1.9 GPA who recognized he wanted to better himself. And that something better meant that he had to lose 100 pounds to even take the SEAL qualifying test; he did it in two months.
We shook hands, and I mentioned that my younger son had been thinking about taking the SEAL test. Mr. Goggins looked me in the eyes – I couldn’t imagine him not staring intensely at anyone – and said something about supporting my son; that it was the mental part that was way tougher than the physical challenge. In that momentary exchange, he had somehow motivated me.
Mr. Itzler then climbed onto a chair, took a microphone, thanked all the appropriate people, and explained how the project – and then the book – had come about. Mr. Itzler and five friends had entered an ultra-marathon. The objective was to run as many miles as possible in 24-hours. Itzler and his teammates would take turns running twenty-minute legs. When they weren’t running, they relaxed with water, Gatorade, bananas, PowerBars, and massages.
The race course itself was a one-mile loop around the San Diego Zoo parking lot, and Mr. Itzler noticed a guy who was very different from all the participants: an African-American runner who had no teammates; he was running the entire 24-hour race alone, with just a folding chair, a bottle of water and a box of crackers for support. Shortly afterward, Mr. Itzler tracked him down and asked if that man — Mr. Goggins — would move in with his family for a month to train him.
Strangely, there was no formal business relationship. Mr. Goggins never asked for money – a book was never envisioned – and frankly, he thought Mr. Itzler was crazy.
Mr. Goggins had only one condition: “You do everything I say.”
Mr. Itzler agreed.
“And that means EVERYTHING.”
“I can wake you at any time; I can push you to any extreme.”
“NOTHING is off limits. NOTHING.”
Soon after, Mr. Goggins moved into Mr. Itzler’s Central Park West apartment – and neither Itzler, his wife, nor their young son ever saw life quite the same way again.
“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.”
The book is a quick read and entertaining. I still gasp at what Mr. Goggins had Mr. Itzler do each and every day; and that Mr. Itzler rose to each challenge. Their story is also surprisingly human and moving: two people from extraordinarily different backgrounds, with seemingly fundamentally different values.
Like many things I read today, I wondered if there is a lesson in it for me or for my kids. Last year, the commencement speech Admiral William McRaven – the former head SEAL and commander of Joint Special Operations Command for the entire U.S. military—gave to the graduates of the University of Texas. The most memorable part of Admiral McRaven’s message – and it was chock-full of solid, inspirational advice – was “make your bed every day.”
“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”
From David Goggins via Jesse Itzler, there was also one simple message: try to get a little better tomorrow. After reading the book, the lesson, or rule, or goal – whatever you want to call it — didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was that Itzler’s sharing this story made it believable. And for sharing that message, I couldn’t dislike Jesse Itzler.