As a new officer at my first SEAL Team, I told the Master Chief that it made me uncomfortable when he called me "sir".
He literally had more years in combat than I had months as a SEAL.
He chuckled and smiled, understanding, and stopped me in my fucking tracks:
"I don't call you 'sir' out of respect for you, as a person, sir," he said.
"Don't get me wrong, you're a smart young man with a lot of potential, but that's not why I call you 'sir' - I call you 'sir' to remind you who you need to become."
It hit me so hard the room froze while I processed the bomb he just dropped on me.
Elegant, and obvious once you know where to look, but no less effective for knowing it's there: honorific determinism. A real-world example of the Pigmalion Effect in practice.
A magical incantation to make me better, disguised as respect. Impossible to reject, impossible to shrug off, impossible to ignore.
Every time someone calls you 'sir' they're looking, waiting, evaluating. Waiting for you to rise to it and fill in the respect behind the word.
A decade later I'm a Troop Commander of a badass new capability in the SEAL Teams, building one-off tactical technology for covert and clandestine ops.
The best job I've ever had.
✅ Working with the highest quality people I've ever met
✅ Incredible chain of command
✅ Given the freedom to go fast, do stuff, and get wins?
✅ Work in a warehouse on the Pacific and wear short shorts all day?
💪🏼 Oh, hell yes.
At some point one of my guys says "shit, we gotta start callin' you Super Dave."
And it stuck. Somehow.
Within months literally even the Commodore was calling me Super Dave.
At first it made me a little uncomfortable, but I made my peace with it when I remembered what Master Chief Lewis told me back in my first week at SEAL Team TWO. It's a reminder of who they need me to be. I had to earn it every day alongside my Trident.
Just because they meant the respect that came with the nickname doesn't make the cognominal determinism any less effective. Every time they said it, it drove me to live up to the name. And I couldn't help it.
Obviously I am just a man and I've failed to live up to my own standards plenty of times, but man if I didn't try my best regardless.
"Good morning Super" was like a magical incantation for my mindset. It still is. When people call me that it means I have to earn that respect. And when I talk to the guys who still call me Super I can still feel myself needing to be better.
My time going by Super Dave is in the past - outside the ocassional happy reunion with old friends - and I do miss it. But it's not really a nickname you can carry with you outside of its original context.
Just like you can't take your favorite hamster and put him in an aquarium with your favorite fish. Well, unless you're a fucking monster.
But I will never forget the lesson Master Chief Lewis taught me nearly 15 years ago. We should never underestimate the subtle power of the language we choose.
Two years ago a friend, Jason Snyder (@cognazor) wrote this:
and in the conversation that followed, he challenged me to accept compliments without deflecting (and immediately followed the challenge by testing me).
And Jason was right. The chicken coop I built is pretty great.
And Jason was right about the larger point too.
By deflecting compliments not only was I trying to "escape from the discomfort of being worthy", but I was also disarming their words to my own detriment. I was telling them not to call me "sir" or "super" - I was depriving them of the power to make me better. And I was depriving myself of the growth.
So now I accept compliments. Graciously and with humility, but also gratitude.
But the biggest thing I've learned from this whole little arc is that the power of a few words can be profound. And words are free. So why not use them to help other people?
This is why I give so many compliments now. All sincere, but I don't hold back even in situations most people are uncomfortable with.
- I will walk across a bar to tell a dude his moustache is fucking awesome.
- I will tell my friends about times I think of them and do better because of their example.
- I will pull coworkers aside and tell them when something they did impresses me.
- And, best of all, I will stop my kids a second and acknowledge when they do something kind or thoughtful or clever or, really, anything I appreciate about them in the moment.
My life has only gotten better for this.
I read this line from a poem somewhere on twitter (can you help me find it, friends?) that went something like:
If you love someone and you don't tell them, you are stealing from them.
And that, I think, has become one of my central guiding principles for how I want to live my life. Earnestly appreciative of other people.
Because it turns out that these words of ours, they're magic.