Not long after David Goggins released his memoir, Can’t Hurt Me, it became a National bestseller. Tracing his early childhood experiences of physical abuse, poverty, and prejudice, through his struggle with obesity and depression, the book tells the story of how Goggins used mental toughness to eventually become the only man in history to complete the elite Navy Seal, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Controller training programs.
Mental toughness, it seems, is something we’d all like to get better at.
But is it just about white knuckling our way there? (After all, Goggins describes losing control of his bowels while trying to finish his first hundred-mile race, and still finishing).
Having run a few hundred-mile races of my own, I’m not so sure. Yes, it is tough, really tough, to run 100 miles. But in the metaphorical race we are all running, do we simply suck it up when things get tough and push on anyway? Is this really the only way?
There is another concept that I like to use to describe mental toughness. It’s called post-traumatic growth.
I have always liked the concept if for now other reason that it begins with the idea that there are no people alive that will make it through this life without suffering. And it also doesn’t place trauma in a strictly defined category that leaves some people out and some people in.
Instead, post-traumatic growth contends that what makes an event traumatic is a person’s perception of it. Maybe for you, a car crash is not traumatic. For me, on the other hand, it probably would be.
But probably the largest reason post-traumatic growth is compelling to me is the role it places on adversity. To begin, let me first say two things about adversity: it is neither good or bad; it will happen to us all whether we think it should or not
In post-traumatic growth, however, adversity is the catalyst that is needed for growth. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that the foundation of your house is a bit unstable. Your house is not currently falling down, but it is also not as strong as it could be. Now, your house could stay that way for many years, and you could simply ignore it. Yet, when an earthquake hits, the foundation of your house will crumble, and you will be faced to rebuild it. The result will be a stronger foundation.
Your life is just like the foundation of your house. There are many things that are probably working to some extent, but also not as strong as they could be. And you can choose to ignore those things. Maybe you’d like to be healthy, but at this point, you don’t have chest pain. Maybe you’d like to be happier in your marriage, but, at the moment, you aren’t fighting with your spouse every night. Maybe you have a dream you’d like to pursue someday, but you are also comfortable in your current job.
Many people live exactly this way, and it isn’t until the end of their life that they ever consider the things they didn’t do. (This is also why, at the end of life, people consistently report regretting the things they didn’t do more than the things they did.)
What adversity does is shake your foundation. Like when the foundation of your house crumbles underneath it, it forces you to take notice of the things in your life that are important to you.
One of the most prominent components of post-traumatic growth is the idea that when a life event forces us to come to terms with the fleeting nature of life – that any day could be our last – it also forces us to reconsider what is really important. Maybe we were pursuing a career path, that, in perspective, only looked good on paper, and didn’t really make us happy. Maybe we were collecting status, money, and material items in the hopes that it would deliver happiness on our front door just like an Amazon package, only to realize that when we take all that away, we are still left with ourselves.
Adversity is a wake-up call that we all need at some point. To stop, re-evaluate our lives, reconsider our priorities, and think about what is really important.
Mental toughness isn’t about white-knuckling our way through life. It isn’t about applying force over adversity and beating it back.
It is about knowing what adversity it for and using it to draw our attention where it is need. To ask the questions we need to ask of ourselves. To make the choices we need to make. To become the people we need to be.
This is what I call leveraging adversity, and it is what I call mental toughness.