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Hit Early, Hit Hard: The Wisdom of Jack Reacher

9 min

Author's note: I recently got to check out the "Reacher" series on Amazon Prime. This was a big deal for me, for reasons that will be made clear in this essay. I could have sworn I originally published this essay in 2020, but I couldn't find any evidence of that.

So I'm going to go ahead and assume this one's new to you. If it is? It's a fun one. :-)

Want to improve your decisions?

Your standards?

Your outcomes?

Want to operate on a higher level right away?

Get instant results?

Hire a board of directors.

Here's what I mean:

You've heard me rant on and on about "mental models" and how valuable they are.

You've heard me talk about "systematically applying" these models to everything you do.


How do you actually do that?

It's really not that easy.

When you're in the moment, caught up in the rush of everyday life...

You can't exactly stop, pull out a checklist, and start cross-referencing.

So how do you actually do it?

Turns out, there's a simple and effective way of immediately applying mental models to your everyday life:

Turn people into mental models.


I guarantee you already know this.

Ever heard the phrase, "What would Jesus do?"

You've at least seen the bumper sticker.

There's a reason this question is so powerful:

It immediately brings to mind a specific philosophy and helps you imagine how to apply it.

When we ask ourselves what "Jesus" would do in a given situation, we're not trying to remember a specific anecdote or story.

It's unlikely that the Bible has a go-to passage on cyber-bullying, for example.

What we're doing is turning Jesus into a mental model and visualizing how that model applies.

We flatten the historical Jesus into a cartoon; a 2-dimensional image characterized by clearly distinguished traits.

Your cartoon of Jesus might look something like:

- Loving

- Forgiving

- Concerned with the poor and downtrodden

- Unconcerned with material possessions

It's easier to imagine how this cartoon might react in a given situation than to search the Bible for an applicable passage.

It isn't just the simplification of the mental model that makes it easy to apply...

It's imagining it in the form of a person.

We're social creatures. A whole chunk of our grey matter is dedicated to understanding and predicting the behavior of the people around us.

By anthropomorphizing abstract mental models, we make the application of those models much easier, much faster, and much more effective.

And that's where your board of directors comes in.


Imagine you had a secret team of mentors.

They could be anyone:

Family members.

Famous businesspeople.

Fictional characters.

This group of powerful men and women would convene whenever you needed them, ready to dispense wisdom.

Any question, any problem -

The best in the world would be there to help.

All you had to do is say the word.

That would be pretty powerful, right?

This is what I mean by the board of directors:

A group of people, both real and fictional, that you can call on for advice...each of whom represent traits or mental models that inspire you.

While "What would Jesus do?" is a classic, having a board of directors means we don't need to stop there.

We could ask:

What would Epictetus do?

What would Katniss Everdeen do?

What would my Dad do?

Or, to use an example from my own personal board of directors:

What would Jack Reacher do?

You probably thought I was going to lead with someone really cerebral, right?

Someone super smart, someone who's good at math or architecture or something.


Instead, I'm starting off with

Jack. None. Reacher.

(He doesn't have a middle name. Because it's more badass that way.)

Jack Reacher is a fictional character appearing in over 30 (!) novels and short stories by Lee Child.

Reacher books are the quintessential beach or airport read: fast-paced, action-packed, and most of all, fun.

Child excels at evoking the fantasy of mastery: unlimited competency in all areas.

Reacher is never afraid, never insecure, never at a loss.

He always knows what to do...and he always does it well.

Basically, he's Batman.

I've been hooked on Reacher stories since the very first one I picked up at an airport book kiosk.

They're the books I read to relax -  the books I turn to for pure, giddy enjoyment.

But Reacher has become more than just fun and fantasy for me.

In fact, it was Reacher that inspired the idea of the board of directors.

While I have literally zero experience in hand to hand combat, military operations, and the rest of the seemingly-endless list of super-cool-tough-guy skills that Reacher does...

I found that I could easily imagine what he might do in any given situation.

While I could never be Jack Reacher, I could write Jack Reacher dialogue in my head...and, if necessary, act out that script.

Jack Reacher stopped being a character...

And became a mental model.

Something I could internalize, and, in some small way, use to empower myself.

What, exactly, does someone like Jack Reacher represent in my head?


Why don't we ask him?

What would Jack Reacher do?

Always move forward. Always travel light.

Reacher is in perpetual motion. He has no fixed address. He is constantly exploring, never staying in one place for long.

Reacher hated turning back. He liked to press on, dead ahead, whatever. Everyone’s life needed an organizing principle, and relentless forward motion was Reacher’s. - Nothing To Lose

Reacher sees the civilian world as one ruled by materialism: the things that people own inevitably end up owning them.

His only belonging is a toothbrush. When his clothes get dirty, he simply buys new ones and throws the old ones away.

“You could afford to carry a small bag, I think. It wouldn’t change who you are.”
“I’m afraid it would. Unless it was empty, which would be pointless. To fill a small bag means selecting, and choosing, and evaluating. There’s no logical end to that process.
Pretty soon I would have a big bag, and then two or three. A month later I’d be like the rest of you.” - 61 Hours

Know How to Fight, But Avoid Conflict Whenever Possible

Although every Jack Reacher novel features our hero maiming, disfiguring, and murdering multiple faceless bad guys, Reacher knows that avoiding conflict is usually the best option.

You see four guys bunched on a corner waiting for you, you either run like hell in the opposite direction without hesitation, or you keep on walking without slowing down or speeding up or breaking stride. You look ahead with studied neutrality, you check their faces, you look away, like you’re saying, Is that all you got?
Truth is, it’s smarter to run.
The best fight is the one you don’t have. - Gone Tomorrow

The corollary of this idea is to always be aware of your environment. Being surprised puts you at a huge disadvantage. Put in the effort to stop, look, and listen. Most people don't.

From another bunch of guys I learned another mantra: Look, don’t see, listen, don’t hear. The more you engage, the longer you survive. - Gone Tomorrow

But When You DO Fight, Hit Early and Hit Hard.

The moment conflict becomes unavoidable, you must engage without warning or hesitation. There is no such thing as "fair" in the real world.

Reacher had pondered the experience and felt he had learned a valuable lesson. Years later during advanced army training that lesson had been reinforced. At the grand strategic level it even had a title: Overwhelming Force.
At the individual level in sweaty gyms the thugs doing the training had pointed out that gentlemen who behaved decently weren’t around to train anyone.
They were already dead.
Therefore: Hit early, hit hard. - Nothing To Lose

Once a conflict begins, you don't stop until it's over. Nothing short of removing the threat will suffice.

Enough, a person might say, if that person lived in the civilized world, the world of movies and television and fair play and decent restraint.
But Reacher didn’t live there.
He lived in a world where you don’t start fights but you sure as hell finish them, and you don’t lose them either, and he was the inheritor of generations of hard-won wisdom that said the best way to lose them was to assume they were over when they weren’t yet. - Worth Dying For
The first rule of street fighting is when you get your guy on the ground you finish him, no hesitation, no pause, no inhibition, no gentlemanly conduct. You finish him.  - Persuader

Deal With The Situation In Front Of You.

Whatever happens, Reacher deals with the here and now. It's pointless to think about what might have been, what was supposed to be, what is fair or unfair.

The only thing that exists is what's in front of you. Deal with it.

Evaluate. Long experience had taught me to evaluate and assess.
When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don’t waste time.
Don’t figure out how or why it happened.
Don’t recriminate.
Don’t figure out whose fault it is.
Don’t work out how to avoid the same mistake next time.
All of that you do later. If you survive.
First of all you evaluate. Analyze the situation. Identify the downside. Assess the upside. Plan accordingly.
Do all that and you give yourself a better chance of getting through to the other stuff later. - Killing Floor
Reacher was spending no time on regret or recrimination. No time at all.
The time for ruing mistakes and learning from them came later. As always he was focused in the present and the immediate future.
People who wasted time and energy cursing recent errors were certain losers. - Worth Dying For

Always Step Forward, Never Back.

Fear is irrational. If an event is not survivable, there's nothing to do about it. If it's survivable, spend your energy on survival.

He had learned a long time ago that some things were worth being afraid of. And some things were not. Things that he had done before and survived did not justify fear. To be afraid of a survivable thing was irrational.
And whatever else he was, Reacher knew he was a rational man. - Die Trying

Reacher's defining character trait, from the time he was a small child, is his urge to move towards a source of pain and fear. His reaction is always to move in, close the distance and get even.

"You see something scary, you should stand up and step toward it, not away from it. Instinctively, reflexively, in a raging fury.”
“Is that what you do?”
“Always.” - Echo Burning
I paused a beat. Disbelief. Then I did what I always do when someone hurts me. I stepped in, not away. - Gone Tomorrow


I like having someone like Jack Reacher in my head when I need him.

Because me, personally?

I don't like conflict.

I try to avoid it.

I try to believe the best of people.

Sometimes, I allow things to happen that I regret.

I don't always fight as hard as I should for the things I believe in.

So now, whenever I feel that tendency rising up...

Whenever I feel myself wanting to excuse the bully, or look the other way, or take the easy road...

I ask myself:

What would Jack Reacher do?

And while I'm never going to solve my problems the way that Reacher does...

His advice can help me be a better version of myself.

I can close my eyes and imagine him.

I can imagine him looking at me, over a steaming cup of black coffee.

And I can imagine him saying:


The best fight is one you don't have.

But if they won't let you avoid it? And it's important?

If it's someone or something that you care deeply about?

Don't step back.

Step in.

Hit them early.

And hit them hard.

- Dan

Cool stuff to read:


A little different this week, but I thought I'd leave you with a bit more Jack Reacher trivia...just because I love this big, violent lug so much. :-) Lee gives Reacher a huge number of "rules" that he casually sprinkles throughout his books. I enjoy keeping track of them, and thinking about what my own "rules for life" are.

Here's just a sampling of Reacher's bits of wisdom:

Get a problem, solve a problem. (My personal favorite)

Sleep when you can, so you won't need to when you can't.

First thing you do when you go into a place is look for your way out.

Don't eat before you walk into an army postmortem.

Get your retaliation in first.

If you surprise them, you don't have to hit them very hard.

Eat when you can, because you never know when your next chance will come. (My personal version of this - always use the bathroom when you have the chance.)

Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you start criticizing him you'll be a mile away and he's got to run after you in his socks.

Whenever you are choosing clothing, go with olive green or blue.

Never revive a guy who just pulled a gun on you.

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