David Goggins wasn’t born tough. He made himself tough through mental toughness training.
Goggins grew up in an abusive household where he, his brother, and his mother were physically and emotionally abused by David’s father. When he was eight, David and his mother left his father to start a new life. However, major damage had already been done, and more hardships were on the way.
At an age when most kids are just having fun, David was suffering from toxic stress. This led to an uncontrollable stutter and severe social anxiety, among other mental and physical problems.
It didn’t help that he was black and living in an area where the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence. His days and nights were filled with racist slurs and threats.
Embarrassed about his learning challenges, he survived by cheating, but it eventually caught up with him. He found himself on the verge of not graduating high school.
During his senior year, he got motivated with a dream to join the Air Force. He focused strictly on working out, playing basketball, and studying. In a six-month period, he went from having a fourth-grade reading level to that of a senior in high school. He eventually enlisted in the Air Force.
However, his struggles were not over. Four years later, he found himself discharged from the Air Force, nearly 300 pounds, and working a graveyard shift as an exterminator. “I was a would-be warrior turned cockroach sniper on the graveyard shift. Just another zombie selling his time on earth, going through the motions,” he writes in his riveting memoir titled Can’t Hurt Me; Master Your Mind And Defy The Odds.
Few people, including David, would have predicted then (or earlier in his life) that he would eventually become the icon that he is today. He became the only person to ever finish elite training as a Navy SEAL, U.S. Army Ranger, and Air Force tactical controller. Outside of his distinguished military career, he has also completed more than 60 ultra-marathons, triathlons, and ultra-triathlons.
Unlike most endurance athletes, he doesn’t just run, bike, and swim though. He has bench-pressed over 400 pounds, and he also set a former Guinness world record by completing 4,030 pull-ups in seventeen hours. That’s not a typo!
So, how did this man go from a depressed, obese exterminator to a relentless, world-class warrior?
He put himself through extreme mental toughness training. He “callused” his mind by stepping out of his comfort zone repeatedly. It started with a short run, and it ramped up from there.
He pushed himself beyond his limits over and over and over. Rather than feel sorry for himself and his past, he used pain to his advantage. He embraced discomfort and used it as a vehicle to get stronger- physically and mentally.
“Doing things- even small things- that make you uncomfortable will help make you strong. The more often you get uncomfortable the stronger you’ll become,” he writes in Can’t Hurt Me.
The Danger of Comfort
Today’s world is engineered to make us as comfortable as possible. Just look around your house for a few simple examples.
We have remote controls, so that we don’t have to get up to change the channel. We spend the majority of each day in climate-controlled rooms. We have microwaves, so that we don’t have to wait for the oven to heat something up.
Speaking of the microwave, most of them even have an “Express Cook” button that allows you to nuke something for 60 seconds by touching one button. It would apparently be too much effort to touch four buttons by pushing “time cook,” then “6,” then “0,” and then “start.”
The main problem with all this comfort is that makes us lazier and weaker- physically and mentally. You don’t grow when you are comfortable or when life is easy. You only grow when you are uncomfortable or when life is difficult.
Thinking that more comfort is the key to more happiness, many people unfortunately spend all or most of each day seeking comfort.
What about you? How often do you voluntarily do something that is difficult? How much of your day is uncomfortable by choice? How often do you take the path of most resistance?
Mental toughness training is all about voluntarily doing things that are difficult and uncomfortable.
Few people want to do the training required to become a Navy Seal or an ultra-marathoner. That’s fine. The problem is that many people move too far in the opposite direction. Too much comfort is a recipe for becoming weak- physically and mentally.
Life Lessons from David Goggins
Regardless of your situation and your aspirations, there are many powerful life lessons from the incredible story of David Goggins. One of the main ones is that toughness is a choice.
Toughness is not inborn. It’s built over time through mental toughness training. You become what you repeat.
Your current level of toughness is merely the result of your past decisions and actions. Your future level of toughness will be the result of your decisions and actions from this day forward.
Every decision and action moves you closer or further from becoming your strongest self. Goggins believes that most of us only tap into 40% of our true capabilities. He calls this the 40% Rule.
There is one reason why he has maximized much more (if not all) of his potential since his days as an exterminator. He has repeatedly embraced discomfort, engaged in mental toughness training, and chosen the path of most resistance.
Without knowing his story, the average person would look at his achievements and assume he was born with super-human strength, discipline, and mental toughness. In reality, he trained himself to become a warrior.
How to improve your mental toughness
You can’t just visualize or pep-talk your way into becoming tougher. There are no shortcuts.
The only way to become tougher is to get out of your comfort zone more often. Here is one practical way to get started. Walk through a typical day in your life, and identify at least one new way to make each day a bit less comfortable. This behavior need not be big or time-consuming. Here are five potential examples:
- Get up 10-15 minutes earlier than usual
- Drink your coffee black (instead of with sugar or cream)
- Do an exercise that you dislike (instead of only doing those that you enjoy)
- Start or end each shower with ice-cold water (instead of only using hot water)
- Eat or drink a healthy product that tastes gross (instead of only consuming things that taste great)
The goal is to train your mind not to run away from discomfort, but to actually embrace and even run toward discomfort. As you voluntarily add more discomfort to your life, a few things will happen.
First, you will realize that you can handle much more than you previously thought. You will recognize that many of the limits that you had placed on yourself were artificial. You will also notice that many things are not as bad as you had made them out to be.
Secondly, your comfort zone will expand. You will start taking on more challenges and bigger challenges. You will also approach these pursuits with more enthusiasm and confidence, which will make you more likely to succeed, too.
Lastly, you might even start to enjoy and look forward to something that was previously uncomfortable. That’s your cue to step out of your comfort zone again and add on another uncomfortable behavior.
Why do mental toughness training?
No matter who you are or what you want to achieve, you will face unpleasant or painful situations that will test your resilience and mental toughness. If you aren’t actively training yourself to be ready for these situations, you will be more likely to give up too easily or buckle under pressure. Or, even worse, you might not even put yourself into a difficult, but worthwhile situation in the first place. By training yourself to be mentally tough, you will be ready when inevitable challenges arise.
To be clear, you can form stronger habits without experiencing much discomfort. For example, if you want to get healthier, you don’t need to force yourself to endure tedious exercise or unappetizing foods. You could get healthier by focusing on exercises and foods that you enjoy.
Mental toughness training is pursued for a different purpose. It’s not done to make you healthier, although that is often a side effect. Mental toughness training is done to make you tougher. As a result, it must be uncomfortable and not enjoyable. The only way to become tougher is by doing things that are not easy or fun.
Summary and final thoughts
David Goggins overcame physical abuse, poverty, and prejudice to become a warrior. Mental toughness training transformed him from a depressed, obese exterminator into a U.S. Armed Forces icon and a world-class athlete.
Toughness is not inborn. It’s developed (or not developed) through your habits. You become what you repeat.
If you want to take your career and life to a higher level, look for some ways to make your life less comfortable. Take the path of most resistance. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the bestselling author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Before writing Work Stronger, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area, and he has competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.