Make Your Mark: Pushing Limits of Human Performance with Chris Diaz

Blog, Make Your Mark | 09/15/2020

“Remember: the struggle to be the best version of yourself is the ultimate fight worth striving for.” – Chris Diaz, Make Your Mark talk.

Our Make Your Mark series, powered by the NFL, showcases the global impact of the Tillman Scholars who are writing the story of a better future. In these videos, they share their works of humble leadership and service across both public and private sectors.

In his talk, originally presented at the 2016 Pat Tillman Leadership Summit, 2013 Tillman Scholar Christopher Diaz discusses the power of mindfulness and how people can use it as a tool to push themselves past their limits, doubts and fears.

As a clinical psychologist, Christopher challenges audiences to look at the science from a different perspective. “Psychology is so much more than fixing problems, more than treating illness,” he argues. He believes that people can lean on psychological principles to get the best out of life and stay grounded in the present.

He details the time spent with Paralympians, special operators, and high-level executives in his work. Through these interactions, he observed three skills they utilize in their lives to allow them to strive, which he implores others to adopt: Be here now. Embrace fear. Pretend to become.

Watch the full talk and read the transcript below.


I’m obsessed with human performance and the science of the mind — and you should be, too — because understanding how this three-pound organ works to trick us to solve problems and ultimately to keep us alive is the key to fulfilling your potential. I want to learn how we can get the most out of life with thought in action, with psychological principles. Because psychology is so much more than fixing problems, more than treating illness. We need to have this conversation to break the stigma around mental health, change the perception about what it means to go talk to the shrink. I want to change how you think about psychology.

My talk today will be on the new uncharted territory in this field, the other side of the continuum only now being fully embraced by the military professional sports and the c-suite. In my own service in the United States Navy, there’s so much focus on treating the very real issues around post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. I, however, was drawn to the mechanisms of change that allow the good to become the best. You see, all around me, I see fellow sailors and Marines go off to the special programs, like BUD/S to become a SEAL or Basic Reconnaissance Course to become a MARSOC Marine. I apologize if this image brings terrible flashbacks for some of the audience members.

You see, my obsession grew from needing to understand what was it that allows so precious few to complete this mission. How did they get through some of the most daunting physical and mental challenges the military’s ever devised? I knew it had to be more than physical capabilities, so what was going on here [points to head] in between the ears, where it really mattered most? In my pursuit, I realized that that would end up being my life’s purpose because these individuals are people just like you and I. So my purpose would be fulfilled by becoming a clinical psychologist, even though I had no idea what that actually meant. And truth be told, had I realized then how long I would have to be in school, I most likely would not be on this stage talking to you here today; yet, here I am. 

In my work, I’ve gotten to spend time with Paralympians, special operators and high-level executives. I gained a unique perspective about what abilities they utilize in their life to allow them to strive. Here are some skills that you can use today to allow you to push the limits in your life.

Be. Here. Now.

“No such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as downtime. All you have is lifetime. GO!” Now, you may be wondering what famous Buddhist monk or ancient philosopher penned this quote. You may be surprised to know that the actual author is none other than punk-rocker Henry Rollins. Now, while you may not consider Mr. Rollins as a mindfulness master, the sentiment of this idea is all about being in the present, and that’s exactly what mindfulness is.

You see, training yourself to draw focused attention in an open, non-judgmental way is truly the only way that you can really get the most out of life. “Exceptional” happens in the present, and the research is clear. Mindfulness practitioners have been shown to have better relationships, better emotional regulation, greater ability to sustain focus, improved immune function, and faster processing speed. There’s an experimental study going on right now that’s showing mindful practitioners can actually levitate. Okay, that last one’s not true at all, but I promise the other ones are.

So how do you incorporate mindfulness practice in your life? Does this mean that you need to move to Tibet and spend 20 hours a day sitting in the lowest position chanting? I hope not. How do you make it work in your life wherever you are? Now, I’d like to try something with you. Many of you have flown from far away to be here today. I’d like to ask you all to please sit up in your chair is nice and straight. Now ground your feet really firmly on the ground. Really allow yourself to be where you are here in this time of space. Now look down at your feet, and take a deep breath in. Slowly exhale. Really be where your feet are. That’s it! You all just completed a mindfulness exercise, and you’re on your way to the path of enlightenment.

Embrace fear.

Now, I’m sure many of you have heard how important it is to do something every single day that scares you, but why is that? What is it about fear that triggers the alarm system off in our brain, and what does fear look like in your life? Well in my life, fear looks a little like

this. [Audience laughs.] My first skydive jump. I’d like to draw your attention to the flared nostrils, the tense shoulders, and the sheer panic on my face. Now, what’s going on in my head is my amygdala, that part of the brain where emotions are processed, is sending signals to my body that say, “You are about to die.” [Audience laughs.] But you don’t let your thoughts and feelings control your actions. You can actually embrace fear and change pathways to mitigate those feelings. You see, in this photo, there’s another thing that you’ll see. The jumpmaster who’s made this plunge 20,000 times has created those new pathways in his own life, so the look on his face is pure joy. Now, maybe skydiving isn’t how you get your kicks, and although I highly recommend it, I understand. Maybe for you, talking to a stranger, trying a new food, or going to travel to an unknown destination is all you need. Whatever you do, don’t let your amygdala control you.

Pretend to become.

Now, please think back to when you were growing up and you were first learning how to ride a bicycle. What were you doing as you fell and got back up and fell down again before finally balance and technique and training took over and you could ride? You are pretending to know how to ride a bicycle. How does any great new feat get accomplished unless you first pretend to know how? I’ll let you in on a little secret. Right now, I’m pretending to know how to deliver a compelling case to 400 audience members. In this room full of highly accomplished individuals you may be feeling like you don’t belong. That’s called “the imposter syndrome.” You see, it’s experienced by high achievers the world over and is defined as the inability to properly assimilate accomplishments and this anxiety that exists of being exposed as a fraud. I’m here to tell you that you do belong. Don’t let self-doubt stop you from fully embracing the numerous opportunities that I’m sure will come your way. The only way you’ll be able to make your mark in this world is if you pretend to know how. Many of you in this room have the necessary experience to do very that very thing.

Psychology has taught us so much about how to get the best out of life, but we’ll never have it all figured out. There’s so much yet we have to learn, but these skills will help you on your path. Remember: the struggle to be the best version of yourself is the ultimate fight worth striving for.

Thank you for sharing this moment with me.