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Jurgen Heitmann, 60: Expert Learner

Driven by a sense of purpose to help others, Jurgen Heitmann spent over three decades as a Special Operations officer and is now grappling with transitioning to a life that applies his purpose in new ways. The father of three discusses the importance of a beginner’s mindset and being an “expert learner,” training for growth, and rising to new challenges. A very special interview with an extraordinary person. 

How does one decelerate in one way from the very highest levels of personal and strategic risk and performance to a more mortal existence? There are always challenges in transitions from a career as we await something new to be born. Jurgen’s experience is extreme; however, his thinking, learning, and feelings in his transition are similar to many of us, which is not what I expected. Here is a family man with over three decades as a Special Operations Officer, who built, led, and innovatively shaped counter-terrorism teams and organizations at the highest levels of national security and diplomacy. 

We don’t get into details of his experiences, for obvious secrecy reasons, but he had the privilege of serving our nation for 33 years. He began his military service enlisting in the US Coast Guard for a few years before transitioning to the US Navy and becoming a naval officer within Naval Special Warfare for the rest of his career. He developed and commanded unique teams and organizations across the Special Operations community and deployed all over the world conducting specialized missions and developing unique programs focusing on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. Additionally, he had the opportunity to embed in other nations’ special operations units, as well as serving within some of our interagency organizations. Jurgen is a doer.

This reads like a resume in a Tom Clancy book. Impressed? I was. But even more so by the calm, thoughtful man that is Jurgen. This is the sort of man you want on your side; not so much for the war-fighting ability, but for his ability to make you a better person than you perhaps thought you could be.

How’s it feel to be 60?
It feels great. It feels great in the sense of, not the physiology and all the injuries over the years, but from a sense of coming back to that beginner’s mindset, being inspired by being around new and interesting communities, challenging myself in how I articulate and bridge my experiences and privileges over the years. And most importantly, it just continues to drive a sense of purpose to give back to youth and better humanity. And I think that’s a very large perspective, but it’s also been a grounded sense of authenticity and sense of purpose since I was a young kid. And I’ve always pulled that thread all the way through and will continue on to the very end.

“It’s not being the expert, but being an expert learner”

The first thing you said was beginner’s mindset. You’re 60. What about 60 brings on a beginner’s mindset?
I think in the field of Special Operations, as I reflect back on some empathy, humility, and respect, it’s not being the expert, but being an expert learner. And I know that discussion has probably come across all your different interviewees, but that sense of complex learning in not becoming the end-all expert in your field, simply because of the exponential influence and mass of information flow, data, and now AI that is available — if you can’t change your mindset to being an expert learner, living those explorer mindset principles, then you’re just going to be passed by because being the expert is long gone. It’s: how do you continue that constant growth pathway, and then how do you really open creative pathways from all different angles, in, above, around, to the greatest breadth of exposure to emphasize undiscovered opportunities vs focused on preconceived end-states.

And I think in this day and age and as we move forward, always be looking upstream; it’s exponentially going to be a more profound perspective and necessity of your need for constant learning. So that’s the other key aspect here. We have all had these amazing life experiences. The most important part of them is the sacred reflection aspect which then equates to your learning velocity or your acceleration of learning. And I think coming from a very disciplined arena, focusing on that, and being exposed within high-performing organizations with very high expectations of how you look at the edge of human potential, how do you apply that deliberate reflection intent when you step out of that space, back to your transition discussion?

Also, how do you continue that thread moving forward, that principle of learning, and that explorer’s mindset process? And if you have that explorer coming full circle here, if you humbly maintain that beginner’s mindset, you then have a creative, open mind that allows you to absorb it all, versus always constantly staying in your personal biases — though still allowing your gut experiences and intuition, especially at this age, from all those years, to be part of your decision-making process and how you define risk when you do things and are expected to lead others. So, that’s a longer answer to the question there.

“We’re always in constant transition; some just more impactful”

Let’s talk about transition. You went from a very secretive, dangerous, high-performing world to where you are today. How are you dealing with that?
This is a great question. When I think about the transition state, and now that I think about it a little bit differently with what we do and have learned with the Liminal Collective community, you talk about liminality in that transition stage. Usually, it’s defined in action through ancient rituals, by visceral shared experiences, etc. You were one person stepping into it, you go through that liminal moment and now you’re stepping out as a different person with either different roles and responsibilities in the traditional tribal sense and going through that set ritual privilege, that liminal stage of now being an agent or ambassador of an organization or a contributing tribal member or, in a traditional sense, from boyhood to manhood, or to whatever the cultural traditional experience may necessitate.

But I think especially in today’s age, and after the last few years, every human is going through transitional points, some more visceral, much more powerful, much more experiential than others, and so impactful to the humans, communities and humanity. But how do you look at that from a disciplined approach and then back to what I feel is reflecting on, that honest reflection, that self-efficacy of how you approach the unknown, how you move through these different spaces, how you positively develop yourself, the maturation of either your professional career, you as a human and how you contribute back to greater humanity? We’re always in constant transition; some just more impactful.

Now, back to your point. Right when I got out of high school, I enlisted in the Coast Guard and was a Search and Rescue swimmer up in Northern California. Could I handle the responsibility so young? But I had a deeper sense of purpose of helping others, which is why I went into the Coast Guard. That red thread of service to others has matured and been my constant over the years… and continues to be. 

“That red thread of service to others has matured and been my constant over the years… and continues to be”

As I think about transition after service in the military, it was and always will be a significant and challenging transition process that continually gets redefined. Transitioning from that professional arena, how do you remain authentic to yourself and your sense of purpose? How do you amplify that? To me, transition was always about first being authentic and accountable to your true values and constantly reflecting on what those values are; how you contribute back to that greater sense of purpose, not to just yourself. Obviously, coming from the space that I was in, it was very much based on that value because you’re not there for the glory or money, that’s for damn sure. It’s a quiet and protected space. You’re there for always giving to others, giving to your team, teammates, and developing yourself as your intrinsic priorities and expectations by others.  

But when you’re living in that experience, in that deep sense of connection with teammates at a very high level of performance expectation and known (and unknown) strategic risk and outcome, it’s amplified as the norm at a completely different level. So, how do I continue that intrinsic motivation in my life? The second critical factor of my transition was to be around people that would continue to challenge me and develop me, more than anything. Those that I deeply respect and can coach and mentor me into being better. 

How do I build that community but still adhere to the same principles in a new arena? And then the third piece in my transition phase is the humility and absolute privilege that I and others around me had the opportunities to experience. How do you dissect and give those reflections back to others? How do you bridge these unique and impactful learnings of being around such phenomenal leaders and teammates in various garden spots around the world?

Those impactful experiences of being are in such a uniquely shaped team environment, highly accelerated, doing things that normally you wouldn’t think that humans could do, and sharing that through experiential principles. It is the same cognitive load of other leaders and folks in business, entrepreneurs, same thing in sports, same thing in the creative arts, etc. How do you share that and connect? And then on the other end, your mind is blown wide open immersed in their arenas of performance. You’re learning a whole different perspective, building humility at a whole other level in respect of people that you weren’t exposed to, but all have the same principles, the same sense of discipline in their respective arenas for so many years. That’s what is exciting to me at turning 60 and still driving towards this perspective of being an explorer and a beginner. And then in addition, appropriate opportunities to share the privileges and experiences that you have had. So, you contribute to accelerating others, so that they are minimizing the hard knocks and failures you went through.

“A real challenge is: how do you share, from such an experiential perspective, but also connect?”

What are some of your personal challenges now?
I think the personal challenges for me are, one: a process to continue a disciplined lifestyle and, obviously, I’m biased through physical training and my natural environments for many years. Another is to continue to foster those deep relationships that were developed over the years. If you didn’t know, the majority of the folks in Special Operations are naturally introverts, even though you wouldn’t expect that in films, videos or books these days. But there’s this deeper sense of connection, as many of us know in certain spaces, by going through these really visceral shared experiences. And how do I keep the effort of maintaining those relationships with others and developing those in a deeper sense?

I think one of the greatest challenges, and also probably one of the greatest privileges, we all have and we know as senior leaders is, it’s always about developing, fostering and maintaining relationships, and really amplifying those relationships that lends to growth and what’s expected at our age to develop with others. And those are some of the most challenging but important aspects as the elders. So, that challenge is always there for me to build on.

A real challenge is: how do you share, from such an experiential perspective from all these years, but also connect and get a sense of belonging to new communities? And how do you articulate those experiences in an effective way and provide that impactful exposure in a respectful and humble way, with youth and folks that are extremely bright and just haven’t been exposed to that perspective yet? I’m always learning and pressure-testing myself, reflecting on how I communicate that both from my actions, body language, and then vocabulary.

“Training, for me, is a discipline process; a necessity in my life”

You use the word training. What do you mean by training? What are you training?
A deliberate process in the development of competency and you, as a performer and an individual. The critical aspect of risk and decision-making is minimizing as many assumptions as possible. Cognitive, emotional, physiology, tactical, everything. You’re always in a contingency mode. But how do you constantly train for all those? How do you train your personal ethos? How do you train to that expected leadership from others? How are leaders deeply engaged in developing, training, coaching and mentoring better leaders? It’s just not going through an academia course or education; that’s only one step. You have to then train to your education, each having a role in the process of learning. You have to pressure-test it. You have to do it in unique and experiential ways outside of your arena to anchor the learnings. So, jumping out a plane at 25,000ft at night with gear, on oxygen, things like that have had multiple reps in training my pulse, breathing. Blood pressure would be a lot lower than if I went to a comedy club and someone took me backstage and said, “Okay, you have five minutes and you’re stepping out there to perform for the audience.” And this is real! We do this at Liminal. You’re stepping out on stage, there’s a real audience there, and go.

These perceived-risk-vs-actual-risk aspects of how you train are amazing in building performance competency under pressure… all learned from my colleagues Andy and Ben. And I think that comes back to just that: training, for me, is a discipline process; a necessity in my life. It’s my meditation space. It’s something that’s been grounded in me since I was young with sport over the many years of service. It’s definitely been part of the culture that I grew up in, especially because of the powerful maritime environment. It’s extremely demanding, and there’s a bias both in our training schoolhouses, professional development and communities in Naval Special Warfare, that it’s just a very physically demanding environment to operate and survive in. And then, for me, training to me has always been defined and translated to action as discipline.

I translate that physicality now to endurance running, swimming, long-distance cycling, mobility, and work at the gym, being in the mountains and oceans, etc. All these things that keep that discipline and structure going in the training space. One, because of its physical outcome, but also, as we all know, it’s the mental perspective and cognitive development… or maintaining it at this age. We all know that just training in and of itself is probably the simplest way of developing your cognitive skills and keeping them sharp. In a general sense, that’s what training is to me and it equals discipline and continuing that disciplined lifestyle that I’ve enjoyed for so many years.

“We all know that just training in and of itself is probably the simplest way of developing your cognitive skills and keeping them sharp”

How old is your son?
Well, that one is 24 and he’s actually going through, literally this week, a Special Operations assessment and selection program. It’s interesting, that dynamic. So, it’ll be our first good race together, a long-distance SwimRun endurance race. We’ve been doing long swims off La Jolla and runs. It’s always fun to get back there and do it, but it’s obviously much more fun if you’re doing it with your son or daughter.

Absolutely. Do you have other children?
I have three boys. My youngest is 22; 24, and 26.

They’re all in the military?
No, none of them are yet. All athletes, rugby players, lacrosse players, wrestlers. It’s interesting. They’ve always been exposed to the environment; they all grew up in and around my lifestyle. I’ve let them decide how they want to utilize that opportunity, or not, in calling. I was never exposed to the military from my family; it just was a calling from service for others. And search and rescue, when I was younger, even before I got into the Coast Guard helping local cliff rescue and things like that, it’s just something that was in me. 

Tell me a little bit about climbing in the mountains. What are you doing out there? What are your sporting activities?
To me, the outdoors was my greatest natural teacher. I grew up in that environment. My parents allowed me to go out and just explore. I love the ocean, obviously, lots of ocean work, long-distance swimming in the ocean. But I also deeply love the mountains. I grew up in the Bay Area and explored Yosemite, Tahoe and other areas a lot. Skiing, backcountry skiing, camping, winter camping, all those things. Mainly, I would just do that on my own.

Through some opportunities, I really began to get into climbing, mountaineering; studying that, studying all those alpinists, how they looked at risk in an ever-changing environment that they can’t control, which is completely aligned to a warfare environment. As we always say, the biggest unknown in warfare is the human, because we’re always affecting the environment through our decisions and actions. And the environment is constantly changing around us. The norm is uncertainty and change.

“The three things you can always control in an uncontrollable, dynamic environment is your preparation, your attitude, and your effort”

One thing I loved about rock and ice climbing is, again, the discipline and aspect of fear. It’s not just the climb, but the multiple rappels after multiple pitches in 10-degree weather and ropes are all iced up and you’re frozen. All those things apply to, again, discipline in training. And the journey in and of itself and how that continues to develop me. For me, that’s an environment that gets me outdoors. It’s a challenging space, especially in the wintertime. But that’s what I really love; winter more so than the summer climbing aspects. Teaming and then just the heavy preparation part of it and then all the learning from doing it, the process and the mentorship from amazing alpinists. And I think I’ll finish with this. One of the things I’ve learned in the community, learned from friends, and want to always remember is that the three things you can always control in an uncontrollable, dynamic environment is your preparation, your attitude, and your effort.

So, when you are in an environment that’s overwhelming and constantly changing, it’s just the norm, and you already have the practice and reps to step into it. And again, I was privileged to do that from training many years in Special Operations, but still applying that outwardly now and then, still training that through cycling, climbing, long distance swimming, in the gym, yoga, all the different aspects. And finally doing that either with my family, my boys, or the community that I’m around.

What makes you laugh? What do you think is really funny? Where do you laugh?
I really laughed when I was in a team room environment. I just loved the banter, the harassment, and just the open transparency that occurs with folks you spend 24/7 with. You have to have thick skin for sure. 

It’s a different sense of respect and love of connection and belonging with such a tight group. To me, that makes me laugh and I enjoy that authentic connection with people that’s really transparent. It’s colorful, it’s not really disrespectful, though someone from the outside could think it would be.

“You just put a smile on your face when people are grinding and it just transforms people”

But it’s because of this really deep connection that you have, and again, the 80% introverts, harassing, laughing, enjoying life in some of the worst conditions that you have ever had, repetitively. And to me, like I told my son this, when it’s really, really bad, just put a smile on your face. It’s a great leadership skill, and how that draws out in thinking about others and getting positive intent without saying a word. I always do that on long bike rides with others. I’ve been supporting veterans, wounded veterans, pushing three-wheelers over the years cycling. You just put a smile on your face when people are grinding and it just transforms people. So, that’s a different perspective. But that’s what I enjoy, that laughter, that true authentic connection and harassment, even in serious situations.

But it allows you to not focus and catalog what could happen in the worst case scenario; put that in the back of your mind and lock it away for the moment. It allows you that sense of creative space to be adaptable, to be fluid in the moment. What that allows really high performers in sport is staying connected where they’re not overwhelmed with the other negative thoughts that come in.

“The number one role as a leader is to build better leaders than you”

What are the three non-negotiables in your life?
Number one is to be surrounded by good people and people that challenge me. As I reflected back, that always led to growth and a smile on my face. It enabled a unique professional pathway through my Special Operations career, but I was always thrown into challenges, unique opportunities, and impactful people that understood how to build others which emphasized the number one role as a leader is to build better leaders than you. Knowing how to adapt that constantly through change was critical. That was done by being surrounded by those people that really were of good character, good humans, obviously, but also expected your accountability and responsibility to shine through in action, not just words. So that’s number one.

Number two, respect. I know you hear this often. I look at it a little bit differently in the sense of, again, the privilege of being in a warfighting space for many, many years, unique cultural environments. You’re always in a very defensive mode in everything you do, but you learn a different sense of empathy and humility by getting exposed to these really unique experiences, very harsh environments, and where you sit in those spaces. And I always say, you just can’t step into those spaces with only a Western mindset. It just can’t be done. It’s hard to explain, it’s all those aspects. So, you have to be effective, you have to come back to that beginner’s mindset, you have to come back to that perch of empathy and humility. And that’s just not only the people we’re working with but, even more so, the enemy or the environment you’re working in. So, both people and environments. So that’s the next one: respect.

“You have to come back to that perch of empathy and humility”

And then, I think the final one is always for me, your actions have to speak louder than words, and your actions are always focused towards the outcome of the team. Now, I’m biased towards the team environment because that’s what I lived for so many years. But that’s what really drives human potential. So how are you being accountable to yourself to always support the team? I.e., development, whether it’s leadership, skill sets, competency, whatever the case may be, but always being responsible in the sense of how you support the team.

I always reflect about the sacred time we always made in conducting after-action reviews and reflection. That’s the one thing I see with many entities: they just don’t make the sacred time to reflect to develop individuals and catalog the learnings in a structured way for growth. It’s bypassed because of the opportunity cost of precious time, and I think that’s a non-negotiable for me in the sense of continuing that growth mindset. Sacred time for learning, always contributing to the team outcome, and that accountability and responsibility that you have to both develop yourself, but also your teammates. That was three, right?

Connect with Jurgen:
LinkedIn
Liminal Collective

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

2 COMMENTS

  1. An awesome article. I worked briefly with Jurgen (he will likely not remember me) on some important work long ago and far away. Although our interaction was brief, I was left with an incredibly positive impression of him and the article expertly supports many of my earliest observations. Amongst our small group who supported Jurgen in his most important work, he was by far, the most respected and inspirational leaders that we had the honor of working with. A most impressive postscript to an already superb life.

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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