If there’s one thing you get accustomed to in the military, it is waiting. Senior officers and enlisted alike would joke about waiting for a plane, a ship, a meal – whatever it was – it was always time to “hurry up and wait.” I once spent over 33 days waiting to do only a handful of missions. If those missions had been performed back to back with even a few hours of rest between each one, we could have condensed our submarine tour from 33 days to less than five days. But the fact is things happen, gear breaks, weather gets in the way, headquarters changes orders – waiting is fact of life. The silver lining would become my Perfect Fitness Product Innovation Strategy.
You Figure Out Quickly that You Need a Waiting Strategy
I learned this lesson early on while training for my first deployment on various submarines up and down the east coast and in the waters around Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. You figure out quickly that you need a waiting strategy – something to keep your mind from checking your watch ten thousand times or more a day. My leading “take-my-mind-off-of-waiting” strategy was sketching. Not that I was any good at it – I wasn’t and I haven’t had any formal training in it. But that didn’t matter, because I wasn’t sketching things for beauty for others to behold, I was sketching things that captured the practicality of my ideas.
I thought I might be able to earn a little extra weekend spending dollars coming up with some new ideas for the Navy.
I didn’t concoct this sketching strategy overnight – It happened when I went back to junior officer (JO) training course two years after I had graduated BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training. While at the course, we were introduced to a military program that incentivized SEALs and sailors alike to find solutions that save the Navy money, time and potentially lives. As a young JO, I could always use a little extra cash, since our $18K/yr salary didn’t get us very far. I thought I might be able to earn a little extra weekend spending dollars coming up with some new ideas for the Navy.
Sketching Out a Product Innovation Strategy – Literally
Though the monetary award (about $500 or so) was the initially catalyst for getting me thinking about new ideas, I quickly realized that it wasn’t as important as how much I enjoyed thinking about how to make something better. Over the next two years as I prepared for my deployment overseas, I brought my sketchbook with me on any trip that could be plagued with “hurry up and wait” circumstances. (To be clear, the sketchbook didn’t go on dives or jumps or to the shooting range – we’re talking about long flights and late nights on-board ships and subs.)
I just wanted an easier way to carry a pencil, a highlighter and book marker together.
The things I sketched, then and now, were all selfishly motivated. I drew things that I wanted – things that potentially fixed products that were an annoyance to me. I would spend hours asking myself, “there’s got to be a better way” to do this or make that. For example, one of my very first inventions was what I called the Book Buddy. Because my sketch book was going all over the world with me, I found it annoying that I had to carry a separate case for my pencils. Furthermore, I was also always in need of a highlighter for some of the books I brought along (I read self-help books from time to time and I’d like highlighting quotations). My solution was a circular elastic strap with a pouch on it that could fit on most size books and notepads that could carry a few pencils/pens and a highlighter while also acting as a bookmark. I used it for years.
Going from Sketch to Prototype was Rewarding and Motivating
It was such a simple product, but it made me believe I could do bigger and better inventions. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I was stumbling my way through an inventor’s process of ponder – sketch – prototype – test, repeat. By the end of my first deployment, my mind was spinning with new ideas. Everywhere I looked I started seeing things that could be improved. I would listen for the buzzwords of “this is a pain in the ass” or “why does this thing not work” or “this widget is crap.” I would hear frustrated phrases like that, and my mind would start racing with trying to identify the problem and the potential solutions.
I was stumbling my way through an inventor’s process of ponder – sketch – prototype – test, repeat.
Project Atlantis – the Next Generation of SEAL Delivery Vehicle
My grand idea came at the end of my first deployment – I called it Project Atlantis. Having spent more than my fair share of time freezing my tail off underwater – knowing full well that no third world nation would have the capabilities to detect us underwater until AT BEST a half mile away from the mouth of their harbor or ship – I started asking myself why do we have to do the entire dive underwater? Why can’t we submerge for just the last mile and not the entire 16 miles each way? One thought led to another and then another, which landed me on drawing a modified jet ski that could submerge. By the end of my deployment I was convinced that Project Atlantis could represent the next generation of SDV (SEAL Delivery Vehicle), that could go like jet skis on the surface and submerge and navigate like SDVs underwater. I had pages upon pages of notes and was confident I had answers to most of the common concerns around this new vehicle.
There was one thing I hadn’t prepared for – rejection.
Not just rejection, but full-on laughter from my senior officers. They actually thought I was joking – told me I read too many adventures of Dirk Pitt. My immediate supervisor told me “don’t even bother showing that to the CO – he’ll think you’ve lost your marbles and you get sidelined in some staff job…..stick to being an operator, Mills.” I never did show those drawings to my CO because I let my colleagues get the better of me. I was still the new guy in their eyes and I wanted to fit in. I quietly put Project Atlantis on the back burner only to bring it back to life as my senior year Entrepreneur Project at Carnegie Mellon. I even called the business plan Project Atlantis. Later that year I won an Entrepreneur award, and that plan was a major part of it.
72% of SEALs Retiring after 20 Years Were Drawing Disability
After leaving the submersible world, I entered the special operations world of SEAL Team TWO, a more traditional “running and gunning” SEAL Team. Within weeks of arriving, our platoon would be part of a Navy study to understand why there was such a high disability rate among retiring SEALs. (in 1996, 72% of SEALs retiring after 20 years were drawing disability, and the Navy wanted to reduce that number.) The SEAL profession is an inherently dangerous one, but some analyst had determined after you remove the parachuting, shooting, diving and combat related injuries, that somewhere around 40% of those disabled were disabled from physical training – i.e. working out. And my platoon would act as a “guinea pig” for exercise physiologists to follow our every movement, quite literally and test new exercises on us.
Many of their tips stuck with me and got me to dust off my sketchbook.
In the beginning, the fellas didn’t like having a few civilians watching our every move, but when these civilians started suggested some new movement patterns during our workouts – and we started seeing results – the self-imposed barriers came crumbling down. For example, every time we did sit-ups, they showed us the opposite exercise we should do to work the opposing muscle group in the lower back. We listened, they coached, and we got stronger. Many of their tips stuck with me and a few of them got me to dust off my sketchbook, re-ignite my doodling dreams, and develop my Perfect Fitness Product Innovation Strategy.
My Perfect Fitness Product Innovation Strategy
Three of their concepts got my wheels turning – adjustable weight medicine balls (at the time there was no such thing), using dumbells to perform rotating pushups and nylon straps to perform pullups with rotation. That was in 1996. It would be seven years before I finally decided to make the first idea – essentially a next generation medicine ball with adjustable weights and rotating handles and then another 3 more years before I had a product that really sold well: the Perfect Pushup. A year later after that, we brought rotating pull-up handles and adjustable height pull-up bars to market. And when I think back on it, my inventing mindset all began because I just wanted an easier way to carry a pencil, a highlighter and book marker together.
My current mission is sharing innovative ideas for building High Performance Teams. In my Navy SEAL motivational speaking engagements, I cover three main topics: leadership, team building, and high performance teams. At the end of the day, I want audiences to leave feeling inspired to achieve more than they originally thought possible. Feel free to give me a call prior to your making a decision so you can hear how I will approach your event. I look forward to hearing from you and let’s make something great together.
Onward and upward!