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in: Career & Wealth, Leadership, Podcast

• Last updated: September 9, 2021

Podcast #738: The Character Traits That Drive Optimal Performance

Why do some people who look can’t-miss high-achievers on paper end up floundering in life, while those who can seem like underdogs end up flourishing?

When my guest noticed this phenomenon while being involved in the selection process of veteran SEALs for a specialized command, it led him to the discovery that beneath more obvious skills are hidden drivers of performance, which he calls attributes. His name is Rich Diviney, and he’s a retired Navy SEAL commander and the author of The Attributes: 25 Hidden Drivers of Optimal Performance. Today on the show, Rich discusses the difference between skills and attributes and how the latter can’t be taught, but can be developed. We then talk about the difference between peak and optimal performance, before turning to the attributes which drive the latter. We get into a discussion of the components of grit, the difference between discipline and self-discipline, why you should become something of a humble narcissist, and much more. We end our conversation with how to figure out the attributes you are and aren’t strong in, and which you need for getting where you want to go.

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Read the Transcript!

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Now, why do some people who look like can’t-miss, high achievers on paper end up floundering in life, while those who could seem like underdogs end up flourishing? When my guest noticed this phenomenon while being involved in the selection process of veteran SEALs for a specialized command. It led him to the discovery that beneath more obvious skills are hidden drivers of performance, which he calls attributes. His name is Rich Diviney, and he’s a retired Navy SEAL Commander and the author of The Attributes: 25 Hidden Drivers of Optimal Performance.

Today on the show, Rich discusses the difference between skills and attributes and how the latter can’t be taught, but can be developed. We then talk about the difference between optimal and peak performance, before turning to the attributes, which drive the latter. We get into a discussion of the components of grit, the difference between discipline and self-discipline, why you should become something of a humble narcissist, and much more. And we end our conversation with how to figure out the attributes you are and aren’t strong in, and which you need for getting to where you wanna go. After the show’s over check out our show notes at

Brett McKay: Alright, Rich Diviney, welcome to the show.

Rich Diviney: Thanks for having me, I’m excited to be here.

Brett McKay: So you got a book out called Attributes. We’re gonna delve deep into this today. And this is based on your experience as a Navy SEAL and also someone who’s trained Navy SEALs and other special operators. And you start out the book talking about how this idea of attributes really hit home to you. When you were training a seasoned Navy SEAL in close-quarter combat, and he was having a hard time with it.

Rich Diviney: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And you couldn’t figure out why, ’cause it’s like on paper, this guy looks like he should’ve gotten this. But then you had this real, like this epiphany that, “I was looking at the wrong thing.” So walk us through that story. And how did this lead you to this idea of what you call attributes?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, and so the training we were running was for a specialized command. And so it was a separate selection and assessment training course where seasoned and experienced SEALs would apply and then come to this particular course, and then we’d put them through a nine-month selection process. And we were getting, even in that, about a 50% attrition rate, so 50% of the guys were not making it. And these, again, these are experienced guys. And up until that point, before I took over training, we did not have, as a command, any real good explanations as to why. And obviously, it was bothering us because we’d wanna articulate it, but it was also detrimental because we weren’t able to tell the candidates why. The things like, “You couldn’t shoot very well,” or, “You couldn’t jump.” These are all experienced guys, so it didn’t make sense.

So I was tasked with trying to find a better way to articulate it. And what I recognized in this course was that we were actually looking at the wrong things. We were looking at performance in the wrong way. And of course, close-quarter combat, which really, for your listeners, is the act of going into and clearing a room or a building and several rooms, and it’s what you have to do when you’re trying to find a bad guy, or rescue a hostage, or something like that. And it’s a very dynamic, fast-paced, active and dangerous environment. And so you have to be very specific about the way you conduct yourself, conduct your weapons, handling, move, communicate. But it also requires a whole different set of qualities; the ability to think fast, recognize, adapt, be resilient.

And so ultimately, it made me have to deconstruct performance, which is something that I actually found I really liked to do and say, “Okay, what’s the difference between performance?” And ultimately, it gave me the insight to separate these things: Skills, which are these learned qualities that tell us how to do something; and attributes, which are these innate qualities which really describe and inform the way we show up. And so that was the impetus. And in doing so, we were able to conduct the same training we were always conducting, but explain performance in a much different, much deeper way.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so you mean you couldn’t tell that guy, if he’s having a hard time, “Well, you’re doing this wrong.” He was probably doing the skilled part right, he was doing… But there was something underlying that, that was causing him to not be able to display that skill.

Rich Diviney: That’s correct. And it’s not even the… It was more that they weren’t able to do the skills correctly or the way we needed them to do the skills; yet, they were skills that almost every SEAL has, right? [chuckle] So it was just a weird situation in saying, “Hey, you couldn’t do this, but the reason why is not necessarily because you can’t do the skill. It was because we’re looking for these other qualities that inform the way you do the skill.” And the way I would describe that is shooting is a skill.

Let me just back up here, a skill is not inherent to our nature, so we’re not born with the ability to drive a car, or ride a bike, or shoot a gun. So you can teach those things, you can be taught those things. And skills also direct our behavior in known and specific environments. So here’s how and when to drive a car, or how and when to shoot a gun. And they’re very easily seen, which means they’re very easy to measure and score and put stats around. Attributes are different, they’re inherent to our nature and they’re harder to see. So we’re all born with levels of adaptability, resilience, and situation awareness. And of course, they develop over time and experience, but you can see levels of these things in small children. And instead of directing or dictating behavior, attributes inform behavior.

So for example, my son’s levels of resilience and perseverance informed the way he showed up when he was learning the skill of riding a bike, and he was falling off a dozen times doing so. So they inform our behavior. And because they’re hidden, they’re difficult to see. They’re most visible in stress, challenge and uncertainty when the environment becomes unknown and uncertain because in an unknown environment, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to apply a known skill. And so in separating that, what we recognize is that you can teach people skills, but you can’t necessarily teach people attributes.

And in this environment of CQC, sure, we could teach a guy how to shoot a gun and hit a target. But what we couldn’t necessarily teach is how to run into a room and rapidly assess the environment within milliseconds, understand who’s bad and who’s not, and then put a precise bullet where the bullet need to go, all happening within milliseconds. And so you start to… We were in an environment where attributes became very, very important, and everybody who’s showing up to the training had the skills, but we just needed to see those skills conducted at a level where the attributes were predominant.

Brett McKay: And one thing you argued in the book, that whole thing about focusing on attributes is about getting improved performance quality.

Rich Diviney: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And you make this distinction in performance between performing optimally and peak performance. I think most people, they go, you had to go for peak performance, but you make this case, “Well, maybe sometimes, but usually not.” What’s the difference between optimum and peak performance?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, optimum performance just gives us a much broader way to look at performance holistically. I mean peak is great, but what people have to understand about peak is this: It’s an apex, that’s all it is. And from any apex, all you can go is down. And peak often has to be prepared for and scheduled and planned. The pro football player spends his entire week planning and preparing so that he may peak for three hours on Sunday. And so when you think about performance, SEALs, and I think this applies to life, but SEALs really, people always say, “Well, SEALs are the best-performing peak performers.” And I say, “Well, that’s not really true because SEALs are more optimal performers.” Optimal performance tells us that and recognizes the fact that well, it means, “How I can do the very best I can in the moment, whatever the best looks like in that moment?” So sometimes, that looks like peak performance. It’s like, “Okay, everything’s clicking, there’s flow states, it’s awesome.” But sometimes, the best we can do in the moment is like, “I am head down. I’m grinding it out, I’m taking step-by-step. That’s all I got. It’s ugly, it’s dirty, it’s gritty, but that’s all I got.” And that is optimal performance as well.

And so looking at performance from the optimal aspect allows us to do a couple things. It allows us to both, well first, pat ourselves on the back when we’re just grinding it out. And it’s dirty, and it’s ugly, and it’s gritty, and it doesn’t feel that good, but we’re just moving, which by the way, is how a lot of SEAL missions go. We sometimes finish missions and we’ll be like, “Man! That was really ugly. I mean we get the job done, but that was not pretty at all, right?” We were doing the best we could in the moment with what we had. But more importantly, it also allows us to modulate our energy as we move through our experience, our day, or whatever it is because I don’t need to be peak when I’m driving to the grocery store. I can modulate my energy down and be almost in a recovery mode if I want to. And so if we think about performance much more broadly in the optimal sense, it allows us to understand how to effectively move throughout our day, and then it gives us the opportunity to also peak on demand ’cause I’m saving up my energy or I’m charging my battery when I need to so that when peak is required, I peak. So there’s nothing wrong with peak performance; it’s just only one aspect of performance. I think optical performance speaks to the entire broad sense of performance, overall.

Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s dig into these attributes that allow us to perform optimally. In the book, you highlight, it’s 22 attributes, and you organize them into groups. First group is grit attributes, then there’s mental acuity attributes, drive attributes, leadership attributes, and team ability. We’ll start with grit.

Rich Diviney: Yeah.

Brett McKay: How do you define grit, broadly? And then what attributes make up grit? And the other question is: Can you develop… So we talked about attributes being innate. This would be a good chance to say, “Well, can we also develop these?” So let’s start there: What’s grit, and what are the grit attributes?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, grit is… So people, a lot of people think of grit as it’s own attribute. It’s really not; it’s a combination of things. And so grit speaks to our ability to push through and charge through acute challenges and obstacles. And what it is, is a combination of things that allow us to do that, that are baked and catalyzed. And so the grit attributes are four, there are four attributes. It’s courage, it’s perseverance, it’s adaptability, and it’s resilience. Those four things, blended and catalyzed, make up grit. The result of those things is in fact grit, your ability to push through. And so again, we don’t have to have high levels of all of them, but all of them have to exist if someone is going to consider themselves gritty, per se. [chuckle] But again, grit really speaks to that more acute challenge and stress; whereas, moving, I’ll skip over the mental acuity just for a second, but the drive attributes, on the other hand, speak to our ability to set and pursue and achieve these long-term-type goals. So drive speaks to more of the long-term-type goal; whereas, grit is more acute.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig deep into some of these grit attributes.

Rich Diviney: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Take perseverance, for example. What does that look like? And is it possible to develop that? And if so, what can you do to develop it?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, so let me answer that second part first because we can develop any attribute that we want to; we just can’t do it the same way that we can do a skill. And a good way, a good kind of the back of the envelope test to determine whether or not it’s an attribute or a skill, because they get conflated all the time, is to ask yourself, “Can I teach it, or can it be taught?” If the answer is yes, it’s probably a skill. If the answer is no, it’s probably an attribute. So like I gave the example: I could take you out to the range, if you wanna say, you said, “Rich, I wanna learn how to shoot a pistol and hit a bullseye every time.” Well, I could take you out to the range and do that. I could teach you how to do that within a couple hours. That’s a skill. Or you could say, “Hey, Rich, I wanna learn how to be more patient,” or, “Be more adaptable.” Well, I can’t teach you that. So to develop an attribute, it takes self-motivation and it takes self-direction, and it takes a willingness for that individual to step into, deliberately step into environments that test and tease and develop that specific tribute. So if someone wants to develop their adaptability, they must deliberately find environments where their adaptability is tested so they can develop it. So that’s one thing.

Perseverance is a great one. And perseverance was fun to write about because what I found is that it’s a combination, in fact, of what I call sub-attributes. And now, we’re getting a little bit complicated, but it’s a combination of three things. It’s a combination of persistence, tenacity and it’s fortitude. And the reason why I had to combine those three, and they’re not separate, is because persistence and tenacity are in fact two different things. Persistence is the ability to charge forth on solving a problem with a solution and just keep doing it, keep at it over and over and over again until it works. Another way to describe this is the stonecutter approach. The stonecutter taps that rock, and after 99 taps, hasn’t seen anything; and on that 100th tap, the rock breaks. That’s persistence.

Tenacity is different. Tenacity is the ability to try something, and if it doesn’t work, move on to something else and try something else. So the car mechanic is tenacious, “I’m gonna try that. I’m gonna check the belts. If it’s not that, I’ll check the spark plugs. And if it’s not that, I’ll check the carburetor.” So if a stonecutter, for example, were tenacious, that stone would never get carved or cut. Whereas, if the mechanic were persistence, your bill would probably run up and you’d never get the problem solved. So perseverance, overall, needs to be a combination or balance of the two. We have to understand what we’re trying to do and understand what’s gonna work in that situation. And then fortitude really is the mental toughness to be able to modulate between the two and push through. And so it’s a combination of all three.

And if someone is looking to develop their perseverance, the recommendation I would give them would be, “Okay, first, understand where do you fall on the scale of persistence and tenacity. You may be someone who’s very persistent, but not enough tenacity, or vice versa. And then of course, where’s your fortitude to balance that all out?” Those who are very, very impatient tends to be a little bit higher on the tenacity scale. Whereas, those who are very, very patient tend to be higher on the persistence. But we all know success requires a balance of the two because depending on what you’re doing, it might modulate and shift.

Brett McKay: What would be an example of something you could do to put yourself in so you could work on these attributes, this perseverance?

Rich Diviney: Well, yeah, so that’s a great question, and it’s a tough one to answer just because it’s highly subjective because those challenges that I consider challenges as Rich Diviney are gonna be different than the ones that you, as Brett, consider challenges, or some other person. So as someone who wants to practice perseverance, the recommendation is: Find tough stuff to do. [chuckle] Now, tough is gonna be subjective to you. Tough stuff for me is gonna look differently than tough stuff for someone who has never even been in the military, for example. But I think that’s the key, is you have to… Especially when it comes to perseverance, you have to find tough stuff that requires you to persevere through. The good news/bad news is that life is gonna throw those things at you no matter what, whether or not you go and look for them. So you can certainly look for tough stuff, but also, don’t discount the stuff that just happens to us in life because life is rife with stuff that requires perseverance.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the mental acuity attributes. What are those? And then how do they work together?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, mental acuity are the four attributes that describe how our brain understands and processes the world. And out of all the attributes, those are probably the four that are the most connected because you can’t really just use one and not use the other because it’s really a sequence. And so it starts with situational awareness, and this is how we absorb all of the information that’s coming into our systems. And when we get about 11 million bits of information per second through all of our five senses, our conscious mind, however, frontal lobe, could really only process about 2,500 bits per second. So there’s a massive amount of deselection going on without us knowing. Something as simple as no one who’s listening to this is noticing the feeling on the bottom of their feet until I just said that. [chuckle] So we’re deselecting a bunch of stuff.

But situational awareness is what we’re noticing. And those with higher situational awareness, you could call a little bit more vigilant. Vigilance is another way to describe this, where you’re able to notice things that are in your environment that maybe other people tend to not notice. I’m the guy who walks through the city streets in New York, and I notice the dark alleys, and I notice the people spaces and where their hands are, and I notice the traffic coming from both directions, and I’m looking… So I’m constantly vigilant, in some cases, hyper vigilant, which is sometimes bad because it can add a lot of stress in the system. But that’s situational awareness, so how we’re taking information in.

Then it comes to compartmentalization. Once we have that information in our system, in our brains, how are we then assessing it in terms of how it’s relevant to our current goal? From that assessment, how we’re prioritizing that information, so what are those things that I need to focus on first? And then focus, what am I focusing in on first? So that compartmentalization is a three-step process that happens pretty darn quickly, but it’s still happening. We’re doing that assessment. Those who are really, really good at compartmentalizing can do that pretty rapidly in dynamic environments and constantly maintain awareness of what they need to switch to. So compartmentalization is obviously a very, very necessary skill for a Navy SEAL, for example. You have to be able to block out what doesn’t matter and only focus on what matters. And this includes if the environment or if there are miserable things about the environment that do not have anything to do with your current objective or goal, you’re able to block that out and move past it.

Then comes task switching, which is really ultimately what people think of as multitasking. But multitasking, as we know, is really a myth. We can’t really focus consciously on one thing or more than one thing at a time. A great example would be driving a car and listening to a podcast. Most people will say, “Well, I can do that,” but it doesn’t count if you’ve relegated that activity, whatever you’re doing, to your unconscious. We’re able to drive a car and listen to a podcast because we don’t have to think about driving a car. However, if we’re driving a car, listening to a podcast, and someone swerves in front of us and we have to swerve out of the way and do some evasive maneuvers, it’s guaranteed that you’re gonna have to rewind that last 15 seconds of the podcast ’cause your brain just switched. So that’s task switching.

And those people who are pretty good at or high on task switching can very effectively hop mentally between contexts and categories. They can go from, really quite simply, they can go from an email, to a phone call, to a text message, to a conversation, and they can make those hops pretty efficiently and it doesn’t really screw them up. And then there are people who really can’t. It’s tough when they’re in something and they get pulled away, it’s tough for them to get back in. So again, no judgment, it’s really where you fall. And then learnability is your ability to absorb and process all that information and learn it and metabolize it in a way that you can then affect it in your future behavior. So those people who are high on learnability are those folks who, you tell them something one time, or you show them something one time and they got it, right? [chuckle] It’s like, “Man, they just have it, and they don’t have to repeat it,” whereas I am actually in fact a little lower on learnability, which means I find myself making the same mistakes one or two times before I actually learn. So I’ve had to adjust my learning process to account for that because I’m lower on learnability. So that’s how those four break out, and they definitely work together.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think the mental acuity attributes really highlights the idea that this is not something that you can teach. All that stuff, I was thinking, the only way you can learn that is just experiencing highly fluid, complex, uncertain environments, and you’re gonna learn how to be mentally acute on-the-fly, as you go through that experience.

Rich Diviney: You’re absolutely correct. And it’s fun if you pick those environments. Again, it’s subjective, but driving in traffic is an environment where you’re testing your mental attributes, right? I used the example on the book of running through an airport trying to find your gate, that’s another way. Or I also used the subway. I love the New York City subways ’cause it exercises all of my mental acuity attributes when I’m on it, and trying to find where I’m going, and the platforms and the stops, and things like that. So yeah, it’s absolutely something that someone has to do for themselves, although we can also, such as SEAL training, choose professions or environments where the environment just hyper-develops that stuff.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

 And now back to the show. Let’s talk about the drive attributes. You’ve got self-efficacy, discipline, then you’ve got open-mindedness, cunning, and then narcissism. We’ll talk about that. That’s interesting. So you don’t think of that as a positive attribute.

Rich Diviney: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But I’d like to dig deep in the discipline, ’cause I thought this is really interesting. You, in the discipline section, you make this distinction between discipline and self-discipline.

Rich Diviney: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: What’s the difference? And why is it important to make that distinction?

Rich Diviney: Well, it is another fun thing about writing a book, it causes a lot of introspection, [chuckle] which it did for me. And I recognized that when I was talking about discipline and beginning to write about it, I was talking about the ability to kind of project and map out, and then move towards and achieve long-term goals. The discipline to be able to hit the wickets that are required to achieve a long-term goal, of which I have a lot of. I’ve been able to achieve a bunch of neat audacious goals in my life. The self-disciple though, I don’t have a lot of. [chuckle] And I said, “Okay, why is that?” And what I recognized is that self-discipline, it speaks to those pursuits that we can engage in on that the external world has no say in and has no bearing on. So an example would be, I wanna eat better and get in shape, work out, right? Well, I can decide that, anybody can decide that, and the external world, has no say as to whether or not you achieve that goal. It’s all on you, right? You can decide to eat better and then go to Vegas, go to a Vegas buffet.

The buffet is not gonna throw bad food at you. It’s all on you to do that. So that’s self-discipline. And there are people who are very high on self-discipline are able to effect those goals, and it’s something that they’re really good at. Oftentimes, it requires a routine that someone can kind of do. So you’ll find the highly self-disciplined people usually have highly structured and routinized endeavors on a daily basis, whereas the lower self-disciplined people like myself, I’m much more like, “Yeah, I’ll just kind of figure it out as we go.” [laughter] I don’t have that, right? Now, discipline overall, it means, “Can I achieve this goal that the external world does have a say in?” I mean that’s writing a book, it’s becoming a Navy SEAL, starting a podcast. The achievement of those goals, it’s getting to a certain position in your company or whatever.

The achievement of that goal, the external world has a say in, and so to have overall discipline is going to require flexibility and adaptability and some of those other attributes that allow you to kind of move and shake and not get seduced by the highs and not get crushed by the lows. And so obviously, the best combo is to have both, both self-discipline and discipline, and be a little in the higher end on both. But we’ve all seen people who are very, very highly self-disciplined, but they can’t… And when it comes to their lives overall, they can’t accomplish long-term goals at all. And then we’ve seen the opposite, we’ve seen people who are very, very good at accomplishing long-term audacious goals, but in terms of their personal lives, they’re not self-disciplined at all. So best to look at it as a combo and see where you stand on either and maybe work on either one or both.

Brett McKay: This made me think of, as I was reading your book, not to… As I was reading this book, I was also ready another book to get ready for a podcast about Jake McNiece and the Filthy Thirteen from World War II. So yeah, there’s this demolition squad part of the 101, and these guys had no self-discipline, like none. They didn’t like to salute, they didn’t like to do formation, they were just dirty, filthy, gross, drunk all the time, getting in fights. So they had no self-discipline, but they had a lot of discipline. Like you’d give them a job that seemed impossible, they would get it done some way or another.

Rich Diviney: Yeah, yeah, that’s a great example. And again, you could say some Spec Ops units and the SEALs have been accused of that, in fact, almost exactly that, it’s like kind of gritty, dirty, don’t salute, kind of the lower-grooming standards, but when the job comes down, they will get the job done and they will be disciplined in their pursuit of getting that done, and they will adapt. And again, if you are someone who’s highly self-disciplined, it probably means that you really like routine, and you really like structure, and if you find that you’re someone like that and you’re suffering from lower discipline, it’s probably because in the pursuit of any long-term goal that the external world has a say in, that you are going to be thrown off of your routine. You’re gonna be thrown off structure. You’re going to have to just adapt. There are gonna be certain times where you can’t get that work out in at the time that you wanted to, you’re not gonna be able to get that meal, you’re not gonna be able to sleep when you need to sleep. And so, again, I think it’s an understanding. I’m really interested in articulating this stuff so people can start to understand and de-construct their own performance and see where they fall on this stuff, so they can say, “It’s not about working on this whole big thing. I can actually just work on these two, one or two pieces, and I’m gonna be okay.” But yeah, it’s a great example.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about narcissism a little bit.

Rich Diviney: Sure.

Brett McKay: How is that a positive attribute? ‘Cause typically we think of narcissism as negative.

Rich Diviney: Yeah, it trends towards the negative, especially when you start getting in the higher levels, but the reason why I kind of had to add it into the drive category is because when we think about why we set audacious goals, there’s a little bit of a narcissistic tendency that comes in with that. Narcissism is really basically the desire to be adored and feel special and stand out and be recognized. That’s what it is, right? And every human being has a desire at some level to have that happen at least once or twice. And the interest in this is not actually just philosophical, it’s neurological. When we’re babies, when we’re infants and we’re getting paid attention to and adored by our parents or other adults, we’re getting bursts of three very powerful chemicals; dopamine, which is a powerful neurotransmitter, which means, “Keep doing this, this is good,” we’re getting serotonin, which is another powerful neurotransmitter that promotes this feeling of safety and bonding, and then oxytocin, which is a hormone known as the love hormone, again, a bonding chemical connecting human beings. We’re getting all three of those when we’re getting paid attention to. And that’s as infants, that doesn’t change when we’re adults, right?

There’s a reason why we want to feel special once in a while. There’s a reason why we want to feel recognized. And so there’s a little bit of narcissism in that. And I kind of joke, and my buddies and I joke about this, why did we all become Navy SEALs at 18 or 22 years old? Sure, we were all patriots, sure, we love our country and we wanted to serve our country, but it’s also ’cause we wanted to be badasses, right? We wanted to see if we could do it, see if we could do something that very few people do. That’s a little bit of a hint of narcissism speaking. And so the idea is, of course, too much narcissism is bad, and the DSM-5, which is kind of like the psychology bible, will outline, I think it’s nine criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, and if you read those nine things, I think if you have five or more, you have the disorder. And so I was reading through these nine things and of course, I didn’t have five or more, and I’m not even sure I had all of each one, but there were certain things I read, I was like, “Well, I’m sometimes like that. I sometimes feel that way.”

And so I had to really kind of, again, introspect and be honest with myself about the fact that sometimes we set and move towards audacious goals because of a little bit of narcissism in us. And so if you metabolize it correctly, it can be an incredible driver, and that’s why I wrote about it as an attribute.

Brett McKay: Right. People always say, you can’t wanna be president of the United States unless you’re a little bit of a narcissist.

Rich Diviney: Totally, totally.

Brett McKay: Right. So talk about leadership attributes. That includes things like empathy, selflessness, authenticity, decisiveness, and accountability. And the one that really spoke to me, I think it’s interesting, I’m sure you get this all the time, as people read your book, they’re like, “That one spoke to me more than the other ones.”

Rich Diviney: Yeah.

Brett McKay: The decisiveness one spoke to me for some reason. In that section, you make the distinction between being able to make a good decision and being decisive. What’s that distinction?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, the distinction is speed and efficiency. Decisiveness is really an external expression of our mental acuity attributes, [chuckle] and more specifically, I guess compartmentalization. It’s our ability to kind of assess information, prioritize how that information kind of falls into place, and then focus, make a decision on something and focus. Decisiveness is the external expression, it’s now you’re dealing with things that are coming at you and one’s ability to say, “Okay, out of what’s going on and the information that I have, how could I make and begin to act on a decision?” And again, the decision-making process is something that all leaders need, but long, protracted, lengthy decision-making processes often don’t necessarily feel as leader-like, as someone who has the ability to say, “Okay, I have this information, it’s enough that I feel like we have what we need, and I’m not reckless, and I’m going to charge forth.” And it’s kind of this 80-20 rule. We used to say some of these targets, if we can get at least a percentage of information on the target that gives us enough to say, “Okay, let’s go check it out,” we’re gonna go. And we would never ever get 100%, ever.

And 80% was actually a good thing. [chuckle] Sometimes it’d be 50% or 60%. But what is that percentage of information that allows you to just feel comfortable enough to say, “Okay, that’s all I need, I’m not being reckless, I’m gonna make a decision and I’m gonna push forth”? And again, we have to remember when it comes to decisiveness, a decision can be final but not permanent. The decisive person understands that when I make a decision, I’m gonna act on it. It’s a final decision, which means I’m going to act on it and move congruently to what I just decided. However, if as I implement that decision I start moving forward I find that it was the wrong decision, or there’s a different better way, it’s not permanent, I can change, I can make another decision, which takes a little bit of accountability as well. I think decisiveness and accountability actually work in tandem when they’re working properly.

Brett McKay: Any examples from military history where you think indecisiveness cost a military unit?

Rich Diviney: Well, in the book, I talk about Stalin who, when the Nazis were invading. Stalin had all the proper clues. In fact, he had spies who told him exactly when the Nazis were going to invade Russia, and he chose to ignore that. And when it in fact happened, he locked himself away in his house for several days. And so the commanders in the frontlines were just completely almost neutered in their ability to do anything about it because, again, in that environment, they were afraid to do something that perhaps would looked unfavorably at by Stalin himself. So they were neutered in their ability to do anything. And that indecisiveness caused the German army to make advances that were unheard of for that size of the unit when the Russians were so overwhelmingly better prepared and bigger and more and better equipped, but the Germans literally came within several 100 miles of Moscow before it was really the winter [chuckle] that stopped them. So that’s a great example in history, indecisiveness almost costing a nation.

Brett McKay: So team-ability attributes, move on to that, you include integrity, conscientiousness, humility, and humor. Let’s talk about humility. This is coming from a SEAL, and I think most people when they think of SEALs, they think of these sort of hard-charging guys with swagger and beards, but you note that the best SEALs are usually the most humble SEALs. So what does swaggering SEAL humility look like?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, it looks like something that almost is unnoticeable. I always say the most dangerous SEAL you’ve ever met is the guy you’ve met and you never knew you met, because it’s unassuming and it’s not really visible. I think there’s a lot of SEAL stuff out there and SEAL mythology, and even some SEALs out there who are very, at least in image and the way they portray themselves, they kind of speak to that kind of, “Oh yeah, that’s what a Navy SEAL looks like,” but I’m telling you that most SEALs, they look like regular people. [chuckle] They’re not necessarily easy to pick out. And I think that’s where the humility begins. But I think any SEAL, regardless if you look like one or don’t, every SEAL recognizes how humility is absolutely necessary.

And the reason why you recognize that, and it’s something you learn at buzz from day one, is that you as a SEAL place yourself into environments that will immediately humble you if you are not already humble. The ocean is a perfect example. The ocean will kill you. It doesn’t matter how good of a swimmer you are, it doesn’t matter what your background, it will kill you if you turn your back on it. It’s that powerful. You don’t screw around with the ocean. Same thing with mother nature in any environment, but also in combat. Listen, in Africa, there are bad guys who give guns to nine-year-olds, and a nine-year-old firing a bullet that hits a Navy SEAL who might have 10 or 15 years’ experience, that bullet, if placed properly, is going to kill that guy. And so the environments that you’re in in SEAL life, whether it be the ocean or the mountains or in combat where one bullet fired in the right way by anybody can kill you, is immediately humbling. I think most SEALs recognize that, and that’s how I found at least the guys I was around for most of the time and most of my career conducted themselves.

Brett McKay: And as you said in this section, there’s a sweet spot. You don’t wanna be too humble ’cause then you become sort of a doormat, but then you don’t wanna be… Again ’cause you need some of that narcissism to have drive.

Rich Diviney: Yeah, you need some bravado. The problem with humility is it comes with a little bit of a stigma. And where that stigma comes from, people could debate, but sometimes people think of humbleness or humility as weakness or, “I’m gonna bow my head and give in,” or whatever, and it’s not. The humility properly… Well, I guess I should say, yeah, humble… Any one of these attributes Brett, taken to either extreme is bad. So too much of anything is bad and too little of anything is bad. So on all of these, you wanna find a sweet spot. That’s the optimal place. And it’s no different for humility. Too much humility to the point where like, “Oh no, bowing your head,” and you’re just almost a limp noodle is bad. There’s a humility that says, I think the healthy humility is the humility that says, “I’m confident with my capability and my skill, but I always have something to learn. There’s people who can always teach me new things, so I always have my ears open, and I’m not arrogant about it.”

So it’s kind of that proper humility is confidence versus arrogance. That’s what it is. Because again, confidence is, “I know I can do this, and knowing that I also know I have a lot to learn,” whereas arrogance is externally focused, it’s, “I am better than you.” [chuckle] And as soon as you start saying that, you’ve closed your mind to additional learning and you have lost your humility.

Brett McKay: I know our podcast listeners get tired of me saying this, ’cause I usually bring it up in every episode, but this sounds like Aristotle. This is the idea of the golden mean and finding the… The virtue is finding that middle spot between two vices, essentially.

Rich Diviney: Yeah, yeah. I’ve had several friends who’ve read the book and I’ve talked to about the book and they were like, “Hey, this goes all the way back to Aristotle,” and they’ve sent me a lot of Aristotle stuff, so I’ve started to dig through that. But you’re absolutely right. This is stuff that… Yeah, it was cool writing about it because the stuff that we’ve actually been talking about for thousands of years, these qualities, and I think this is just a different way to look at them and explain them and articulate them, so people can actually say, “Okay, this is how this makes sense for me.”

Brett McKay: So you have a few attributes at the end of the book that didn’t really fit in to any of the four categories. And you’ve mentioned some of them throughout our conversation. One is patience and impatience, and then I think competitiveness was another attribute. Tell us how those attributes play in with the rest of these attributes.

Rich Diviney: Yeah, well, the reason why I couldn’t fit them into the categories is because they didn’t match up in terms of what I just said, in terms of if you’re really low or really high, it’s kind of bad. In other words, they didn’t really have a sweet spot because there are people who are very impatient and they’re highly successful. There are also people who are very patient and they’re highly successful. And same thing with competitiveness and non-competitiveness. And the other one was fear of rejection versus insouciance to what people think. And so the way this works is, let’s just say competitiveness, ’cause it’s one that was interesting to look at, it’s assumed by most people that competitiveness is a absolutely necessary attribute for success. And I don’t disagree with that, but what I do disagree with is in the implied corollary which is that non-competitiveness doesn’t work. Non-competitiveness can also be very, very instrumental to high levels of success.

And the reason why I know this is because I am not a competitive person and I never was. I used to play sports in high school and I was in fact the captain of my lacrosse team in high school, and it never really bothered me or moved me either way when we won or lost. I loved the game and I loved the sport and I loved the teamwork and I loved the intricacies, but winning or losing, I was like, “Okay.” It didn’t really bother me. And I thought that’d be a hindrance when I went to SEAL training, ’cause I was like, “Man, this might be bad,” but what I recognized when I got to SEAL training is that the Navy SEALs, as does most, if not all, high-performing teams, recognize and honor both polarities, because both polarities are necessary. The competitive mind looks at a problem, a situation, an environment, and immediately begins to place rules and conditions around what they’re seeing, and then asks the question, “How can I win in this environment based on these rules and conditions?” That’s very, very powerful. It’s a very, very powerful thing to be able to do.

But the non-competitive mind might look at the same situation and say, “Okay, I don’t care about the rules. [chuckle] As far as I’m concerned, there are no rules. I don’t really want to go down the line on this one. How do we find a way that completely goes around it or does something different?” That also can be a very powerful success mechanism. And in the SEAL teams, especially when we’re looking at complex operations, “Here’s a mission, we have to accomplish this mission,” it’s really beneficial to have both polarities on the team because, one, we’ll look at it as it happens, “What are the rules around here? How can we win? What might be the best way?” And the other minds are saying, “Okay, what’s a way we can think about this completely differently?” And so all teams will benefit from both polarities, which is why I put them in the chapter where I talk about these others.

Brett McKay: And so how do you figure out what your attributes are? So we’ve talked about all of them. Is it just a matter of self-reflection, or do you need a third party to sort of triangulate? ‘Cause then you might think, “Well, I’m gritty, I’ve got grit,” but really, you don’t. So what does that look like figuring out what your attributes that you have?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, it can come in different forms. So there has to be some introspection, but it has to be honest introspection. And one of the ways we can do that is to look back at those times in our lives where we were inside of challenge, uncertainty, and stress and autopsy how we performed. “The environment was changing around me and it was outside my control, it felt really hard and bad.” Well, that might give a clue as to your adaptability levels. Your adaptability might be a little bit lower. So that’s one place is to autopsy. Our loved ones who know us very well, or our teammates who we’ve been through shared challenge with can help us, can help us distinguish those. And then just throwing ourselves into new challenging environments, we can start to distinguish.

 The key is to know that, first of all, we all have all of the attributes. Okay, the difference in all of us and each one of us is really the extent to which we have each one, right? So I talk about adaptability as the example. If 10 is high and one is low, I’m probably a level eight on adaptability, which means when the environment changes around me outside of my control, I am pretty good. It’s very easy for me to do go with the flow and flex, right? Someone else might be a level three, which means if the same thing happens to them, it’s difficult for them to go with the flow and flex. They’re still adaptable, it’s just difficult, right? So if we were to line all these attributes up on a wall like dimmer switches, all of our dimmer switches would be at different positions, and that if we connect the dots, all of our lines would look differently. And so this is the first thing we have to recognize.

The second thing we have to recognize is that we don’t have to have the perfect amount of all the attributes, in fact, that’s impossible, okay. And there’s no judgment to where we fall on that scale. But then the specific niches we’re in require certain attributes and others don’t. The stand-up comic doesn’t necessarily need to have a lot of the leadership attributes ’cause it’s a pretty self-directed profession. And I would say something specifically like empathy, if the stand-up comic is a little bit lower in empathy, that’s probably a good thing, because too much empathy is gonna affect his routine. How can you find the funny at a funeral if you’re too empathetic, right? So the idea is to start thinking about this in a way like, “How do I show up?” In reading the book, you get a sense of what these attributes mean.

I know on the website, we’ve developed an assessment tool that allows someone to go in and get a score as to where they fall on the grit attributes, the mental acuity attributes, and the drive attributes, so they can kind of see as compared to a big data pool that we got information from where they fall on adaptability or situation awareness. But then to take those scores and say, “Okay, what does that mean and how does that fit into my true experience? Does that make sense? Does it not make sense?” And do that diligence. And the idea, I guess, ultimately, the way to think about this is that as human beings, we’re all humans, but we’re kind of like automobiles, some of us are Jeeps, some of us are Ferraris, and some of us are SUVs, right? But there’s no judgment there, ’cause the Jeep can do things the Ferrari can’t do, and the Ferrari can do things the Jeep can’t do. And it behooves us to lift our hood and figure out what our engine looks like, because we may in fact be a Jeep that’s trying to run on a Ferrari track, or we might be a Ferrari that’s trying to run on a Jeep track.

And again, if that’s our choice, there’s nothing wrong with that. We might say, “You know what, actually I wanna take my Jeep and get to on a Jeep track.” But even if you’re a Jeep that wants to run on a Ferrari track, what that allows you to do is say, “Okay, as a Jeep running on a Ferrari track, what are those attributes that I need to now actively develop so I can be a better Jeep running on this Ferrari track?” And I think that’s the real power of being able to start to understand and deconstruct this for yourself.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it helps you figure out your fit. And going back to that guy you were training at the very beginning of the… When we talked about the very beginning of the podcast, at first, when he got rejected, he was really bummed, but later on he figured out… But then afterwards you told him like, “Here’s what you’re lacking.”

Rich Diviney: Right.

Brett McKay: But you’re also like, “Here’s what you have. Here are the attributes you do have. Find something within the organization that fits that.” And he did that, and he had a really flourishing, fulfilling career.

Rich Diviney: That’s right. Yeah. And just that knowledge allows you to just tweak yourself. ‘Cause again, even in the performance enhancement space, there are so many different tweaks and techniques and gimmicks to enhance performance that are out there, and some of them are phenomenal, some of them are probably not that good, but if you pick the wrong thing, they don’t all work for all people, right? If you try to put a nitric oxide booster on a Jeep engine, it’s probably not gonna go very well. So you have to, just by understanding your own system, you can in fact also start to understand what’s out there that can help you improve your system, and that’s important too.

Brett McKay: Well, Rich, it’s been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Rich Diviney: Yeah, so the best place is, which is the website where you can get the book. You can also take that free assessment tool, you can see where you stand on that. And then we have some workbooks on there that if people wanna develop specific attributes, they can grab a workbook and develop attributes. Yeah. And then there you can find the Instagram handle that I have for The Attributes, for Rich Diviney and LinkedIn and Twitter and things like that. So that’s probably the best one-stop shop for all things Attributes,

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Rich Diviney, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Rich Diviney: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure to be here, so I appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Rich Diviney. He’s the author of the book, The Attributes. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about the book at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you would like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up and use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, that helps us out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.