Cultivate Mindset like a Marine

Mindset – The Key to the Kill House

In 1992, I didn’t learn how to cultivate a desired mindset at a wellness retreat, sitting around a bunch of crosslegged participants intending to achieve a greater level of consciousness.  I was taught it prior to entering a “Kill House” (aka Shoot House, or Tire House), where I would be immersed into a controlled state of chaos, surrounded by live-fire rounds passing within feet of my body. 

This was called CQB, Close Quarters Battle.  Today, the term “mindset” is sexy and tossed around as a buzzword with little substance or understanding of how to truly cultivate it.  You can’t get there with thoughts alone.  It’s a state of being that can’t be leisurely achieved with just words of affirmation.  True mindset is a frame of mind, a mental attitude that takes hold once you pair thoughts with repetitive experiences, equaling an internal program that will run in the background of your subconscious. Once rooted, it will permeate and affect everything you do.  You’ll be able to call on it like a superpower or watch it automatically trigger by an event or external stimuli.  It’s the same mindset that not only allows those young CQB Marines to enter such a chaotic environment, but also thrive in it. 

Let’s Start with a Bang

circa 1992 – Quantico VA. CQB Instructors perch on top to assess students.

At the tender age of 22, I had just reached my new unit and was quickly assigned to what was called the “Assault Element”, or “CQB Section”.  The purpose of this group was to master room-to-room fighting skills for missions that called for the recovery of an asset or conducting a rescue.  There were other elements or sections a new team member could be assigned to, i.e. Snipers, High-Risk Protection, etc.  After I was assigned, the next step was to get over to the Battalion Training Center and attend the Basic CQB Course (Close Quarters Battle).  As day-1 students, we were chomping at the bit to dive into this new training environment and get to work tossing flashbangs and engaging targets with our MP5 submachine guns.  We would spend the next 30 days honing advanced marksmanship skills and practicing room-clearing tactics in a training structure known as a “Kill House”, amongst other names.  Back then, this was usually a fairly crude live-fire structure made of old tires (hence the nickname “Tire House”) stacked on top of each other, then filled with sand to create walls that would absorb the bullets.  As training tools go, a live-fire kill house is very kinetic and dangerous. Nowadays, you rarely hear them referred to as “Kill Houses”, and would most likely hear the term, “Shoot House”. Additionally, these structures have evolved into sophisticated and hi-tech buildings made from AR500 steel with an outer rubber covering that helps absorb ricochets.  But let’s slow down for a second and discuss why a shoot house is necessary. 

Getting Surgical

The instructors were well aware that much goes into taking an infantry-trained Marine and converting them from a blunt force tool into a surgical instrument. Being an expert shooter on the static rifle range was not the same as placing surgical hits on target while moving, and while having to quickly discriminate between threats and friendlies as they appear in your sector of fire, then throttling back and forth on your output of violence.  Over the next 4-weeks of this basic course, the instructors would sere the fundamentals into our minds of dominating the space, eliminating the threats, and controlling the environment. 


The words “speed, surprise, and violence of action” were repeated over and over to remind us of what our actions should consist of in order to save lives and accomplish the mission.  However, all of this was practically worthless without a proper mindset.  So how did the instructors regulate this?  As we sat in a classroom inside the training facility in Virginia, peppered with an array of training ranges and structures, and anxiously wanting to put bullets down range, we expected to receive a safety brief then get into some really cool advanced training.  However, to my surprise, the first class was something called “Mindset”. 


“How b-o-r-i-n-g”, I thought to myself.  Soon, the instructor introduced himself, then recited the following quote by heart, “The sword is more important than the shield, and skill is more important than either.  The final weapon is the brain.  All else is supplemental.”  Just like that, my 30+ year journey to understanding and controlling my subconscious programming had begun.  Ironically, it was not long before I was back at the Battalion’s Training Center as one of those CQB Instructors, teaching that very same mindset class to others.  This new enlightenment and greater level of consciousness would not only serve me well in a CQB environment, it would aid me in every aspect of my professional and personal life going forward. 

Thriving in Chaos

Back at the CQB Course, Instructors were committed to ensuring we were in the right state of mind before sending us into the chaotic environment that is the live-fire shoot house.  Chaos is the loss of order, which can easily metastasize on any battlefield or instance of conflict. In battle, the fog of war and other stressors in such a toxic environment can cost lives and jeopardize the mission. So, cultivating a mindset and using other tools, like stress inoculation, are key to acclimating before ever setting foot on the battlefield. Many years later, when I worked at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC) in Jordan, a 200 million dollar facility, we stress inoculated warriors using a state-of-the-art shoot house. It was complete with cameras for after-action reviews (critiquing training), and advanced technology that could incorporate sights, sounds and smells of the battlefield.

circa 2009 – KASOTC’s 5-Story CQB Shoot House – The Evolution from the Tire House

CQB Instructors then and now, knew that manufacturing experiences repetitively, even simulated ones, was a sure way to tapping into the subconscious mind where the programs live. It’s no wonder the instructors followed such a strict philosophy. Even CQB in a training environment was filled to the brim with danger.  A chaotic cocktail with everything from deadly high-velocity projectiles, ricochets, explosive breaches, flashbangs, and the occasional trip over a piece of furniture. It’s literally a fast-paced, initiative-based symphony where each team member is keying their next move off of the team members around them. Where one misstep, one lapse in focus, can send you or a team member to a tragic ending. Highlighting why producing individuals who can thrive in an environment that would consume most others is so vital. But it begs the question, “How can I use this philosophy to improve my life?”

Think – Do – Become

Marines reconfigure a ballistic wall inside a shoot house

We can cultivate the mindset we want in much the same way we improve at a sport or talent…practice a lot. When people talk about mindset, they are essentially speaking to a state of being. If you want to embody a strong mindset that will help you overcome adversity, but you currently spend a lot of time just complaining about your misfortunes, then we are looking at two totally different states of being. To become one, you must dismantle the other. The trick here will be hacking into your operating system, the subconscious.

Think about it. If you really take a self-inventory and discover that you’re always feeling like life has been unfair to you, that you often blame others for the catastrophes in your life, or generally have an excuse as to why you always get the proverbial “short end of the stick”, then you are programmed with a mindset that will help you achieve more of the same. Your subconscious will automatically shape the environment to ensure you receive exactly what you have programmed it for, misfortune.

When people decide they want to change, want to stop being unhappy, get more fit, lose weight, or just want to be a better person, they often get no further than the “thinking” part. They think about what that new life would be like, they try to pretend they are happy, and may feel some momentary motivation. However, their body fights back. The body says, “What’s wrong with you?” That’s not how we roll, knock it off and let’s get back to our comfort zone.” Then it’s right back to the same old you.

So how do we override this? We must first THINK (generate new thoughts), then DO (generate new experiences), then REPEAT…a lot. Then we become that in which we seek, a new state of being. You may be saying, “How am I supposed to go out into the world and generate all these experiences?” In a word, “artificially.”

Day Dreaming 2.0

As a little kid in school, my grades were a train wreck. Mostly due to my constant daydreaming in class. Playing realistic (at least I thought they were) scenarios in my head of being a Marine, being a policeman, being in the movies, and yes…being a ninja. The point is, I was essentially performing mental rehearsals, over and over again. Armed with years of artificial experiences, I entered Marine Corps Boot Camp in a very good headspace. I always think of the brain in two parts, the conscious mind (thinking brain) and the subconscious mind (the programs). Your brain is made up of neurons that communicate with each other by electrical changes.

Firing & Wiring

When we do something, these neurons fire, and if that action is repeated over and over, those neurons wire, or lock-in. Think of the phrase, “hardwiring the brain.” The best time to fire and wire these new connections is when your brain is in a wave pattern between full consciousness, and deep sleep, known as “Theta”. Both hypnotists and therapists will try to lure their patients into Theta, where they can have a straight line to the programming, the operating system.

Kids between approximately 2 and 7 years of age live their existence in this state of Theta That is the time when they are in a fantasy-like world when anything external is having a significant influence on what habits and programming they will develop. Repeatedly tell a 5-year-old that he or she is worthless, and they will likely grow up to become an adult captive to the limiting self-worth program you helped create for them. Fortunately, we can also give that child a constant diet of love, support, and discipline so they are equipped with programming that sets them up for joy and success.

Change your programming
The Game Plan

Finding Theta

So, we will use this model to achieve that new state of being we are searching for. Let’s try to get into that Theta wave pattern, then manufacture some very vivid “experiences”. You heard me. We are going to daydream, but in a very detailed and structured way, then we are going to do it again, day after day. With that, we will summon up and spark those emotions and feelings that we believe should accompany such visuals. Our subconscious does not know the difference between a “real-life” experience, and one we artificially create.

For example, as that young Marine embarking on the CQB Course. I would find a dark and quiet place to relax, then vividly imagine myself in “the stack”, ready to make entry into a building. I would envision myself closely against the Marine in front of me as we waited for the breach, the smell of his Nomex flight suit, the cracking radio transmissions in my headset, the heftiness of my submachine gun resting in my hands. Suddenly, the explosive breach vaporizes the door, then slipping into the dark hole left in its place as several weapon lights begin to illuminate the interior space. I feel my heart rate elevated, but controlled. I hear controlled pairs of submachine gun fire from my teammates’ weapons, the smell of gun powder fills the room as I bark commands after sweeping my sector of fire.

I would continue this mental rehearsal until I had cleared the entire imagined structure. In the end, my subconscious tucked that away as an experience. Ready to be reinforced with more mental rehearsals. In short, I was living the future before I experienced it in the real world. Do that to your mind, and it will have no choice but to ensure you behave that way when the same stimuli are in play. In other words, you have achieved muscle memory and the proper mindset to accompany it.

My Name is Inigo Montoya

“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya; you killed my father; prepare to die.”  Hopefully, you remember this iconic line from the popular 1987 movie, “The Princess Bride”. If you haven’t seen it, assemble your kids, pets, plants, or whoever you watch movies with, and get ready for a movie-streaming delight. The Princess Bride is a classic film with colorful characters, including one played by Andre The Giant. Actor Mandy Patinkin plays a lovable character named Inigo Montoya, who is committed to avenging his father.

As a young boy, Inigo was helpless as he witnessed his father murdered by the six-fingered man. Throughout the movie, and his life, Inigo recites this line repeatedly, as what he plans to say to his father’s killer once they meet again. I’ve always imagined Inigo relaxed, performing mental rehearsals of that sword fight with his arch-nemesis, programming his subconscious for the future. In the movie when they finally meet, even in Patinkin’s performance, you feel Inigo is almost on automatic pilot. Wounded and stumbling, his subconscious is driving his body to perform the same behavior practiced over and over in those mental rehearsals.

The Mindset of Inigo Montoya


CQB, like shoot houses, has evolved a lot since the 90s. Back then, we rarely wore more than a skateboard helmet to protect our head, we inserted heavy ceramic strike plates in the front and back of our body armor and even carried smaller caliber weapons, just to name a few things. After wars spanning decades, our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have far improved the equipment, weapons, and tactics since those old days. Additionally, they have evolved the way they train, stress inoculate and build mental strength.

Similar to the military, we must evolve in our own personal and professional lives. Faced with our own constant war of distractions and seemingly endless stressors, it’s important to frequently visit our subconscious and mentally rehearse that state of being we wish to embody. It just doesn’t make sense to run Windows 95 on your computer in the modern-day. So make sure you continually upgrade your most important computer the way you would on the one you watch endless cat videos with. Just remember, when you find yourself caught in a loop of unhappiness, channel your inner Inigo Montoya, and find a quiet place to farm those preferred experiences that will soon shape your new reality.

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