Rekindle the Lost Virtue of Toughness

If you want to be healthy, you must first learn to be tough.

Over the past few decades, toughness has gotten a bad rap. It has been caricatured as an archaic, grumpy old man, and correlated with anger, pessimism, and grumblings about “back in my day.” It’s often equated with styles of upbringing that are emotionally distant and lack compassion. More evolved humans, we are told, are kinder, softer, gentler creatures.

Over the past few decades, toughness has gotten a bad rap. It has been caricatured as an archaic, grumpy old man, and correlated with anger, pessimism, and grumblings about “back in my day.” It’s often equated with styles of upbringing that are emotionally distant and lack compassion. More evolved humans, we are told, are kinder, softer, gentler creatures.

Sure, there is a subset of society that gravitates towards Jocko Willink quotes and mud runs. We love to watch Clint Eastwood exude toughness on the screen, even as we eschew it in our personal lives.

But the tools we use to shape our society—schools, P.E., youth sports, parenting, popular psychology, and modern media—promote a very different perspective. We are given a billion messages a day that we are victims of our circumstances, who would flourish if only coddled just right. We just need a better pillow, a better pill to manage our physical or emotional pain, or a better car to underline our social standing. Our problems, we are told, need external solutions, rather than internal fortitude to overcome.

Your Grandma Thinks You’re a Wuss

It is easy in a culture that denigrates toughness and self-reliance to become consumed with self-pity. We have a ready-made list of reasons to justify why we act the way we do, and how our circumstances have stripped us of the capacity to do what we know we should.

Bill Maher astutely noted the underpinnings of this shift:

“Feelings are more important than facts. Sensitivity is more important than truth. … And safety is more important than fun.”

These are the dogmas of modern society. While they are rooted in good intentions, they’ve had terrible repercussions, most notably the elimination of the ingredients necessary to create toughness and resilience. Growth requires discomfort, which means the removal of struggle cripples people’s ability to develop.

Fifty years ago, my grandmother had to sleep outside during the summers because the Texas heat made the indoors a stifling, muggy hot box. Believe me, I love that I can escape indoors to 70° temperatures in the summer, that I can take a warm shower when it’s freezing outside, and that I don’t wake up wondering where I’ll get my next meal. But the cost of all our modern comfort and convenience is that we’ve lost the ability to handle anything that isn’t comfortable or convenient.

The Social Eradication of Toughness

Our inoculation against toughness starts at an early age. Parents, in a misguided attempt to create fairness, instead remove any semblance of challenge from their children’s lives. In the name of safety and protecting tiny egos, we eliminate almost every beneficial element from P.E. We don’t keep score, we hand out trophies to everyone, and we discourage anyone from standing out based on their own merit or effort.

Not only do we aggressively eliminate discomfort, we use pop culture to promote self-pity and blaming others for our problems. Every Disney show seems to feature kids who are mad at their parents, and ends with the insensitive caregivers realizing the error of their ways and apologizing. Last year, Netflix released the extremely popular 13 Reasons Why, in which a girl who committed suicide leaves tapes explaining why it was everyone else’s fault. The subtext of suicide justification and reinforcement of privileged, adolescent self-pity was appalling and irresponsible, especially with teen suicide rates on the rise.

The messages we send kids are training them to feel every perceived slight as an existential crisis, and to expect constant comfort, entertainment, and instant, effortless solutions to their problems.

Toughness Is Required for Health

The costs of this approach are not just that I have to listen to more whining when I teach freshmen to front squat. We have created entire generations of deeply self-interested humans who cannot achieve fulfillment because they are not able to stomach the difficulty necessary to reach it. We are an increasingly feckless, weak-minded population, who believes that they are morally entitled to comforts.

The cost of a culture that devalues toughness is a people unwilling to persist through the physical discomforts of exercise or nutritional discipline, and thus face the far more painful life of poor health and unrealized dreams. The cost of not valuing toughness is an entire population that is not mentally or physically healthy.

By valuing toughness, we have the opportunity to help our youth develop the qualities necessary to overcome future obstacles, rather than training learned helplessness: the expectation that others will solve their problems.

Physical toughness is a prerequisite for health because exercise and proper diet often induce a degree of discomfort. For those unexposed to this, it can be overwhelming, but experience lessens how much you notice it, if at all. Over time, you will grow in your ability to handle and even enjoy discomfort.

Mental toughness precludes selfishness and self-pity and orients you toward solving problems instead. It is not pessimism and lack of empathy for others; on the contrary, it gives the opportunity for empathy. When we stop wallowing in our own problems, we increase our ability to understand and sense the needs and struggles of others.

Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest multi-sport athlete of all time, grew up as a Native American in a time of institutional and social racism that we can’t begin to comprehend today. Representing the United States in the 1912 Olympics, he awoke on competition day to find his shoes had been stolen. Thorpe and his coach found two mismatched shoes in the garbage. He wore an extra sock under one shoe that was a size too big and proceeded to win two gold medals. It would have been perfectly justifiable for him to spend the day bitter and angry about the opportunity that had been stolen from him. Instead, in a most courageous, disciplined manner, he stayed focused on the objective, innovated, adapted, and overcame.

Cultivate Toughness by Owning Discomfort

If you’re going to get tough in the middle of a world that encourages the opposite, you face an uphill battle. The food industry, the media, and the pharmaceutical industry all conspire brilliantly to addict you to increasing comfort. To combat them, you need to practice habits that create greater discipline and opportunities for discomfort.

I believe the key to the development and appropriate use of toughness lies in stoic optimism, as popularized by Ryan Holiday. Stoic philosophy is the belief that every moment develops us, refining us for greater personal realization. It teaches that the resolution of each challenge will only happen if we seize the opportunity presented within it. The great philosopher Seneca sums this up best when he asserts:

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”

Our developmental systems should create this mindset. They should make people so mentally resilient that they can focus on objectives despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

Now that I’ve convinced you that toughness is a virtue, what actions can you take? I recommend committing to one of these habits. Once it becomes automatic, consider adding another.

  • Work out daily upon waking, even if it’s just mobility work. Consider grease-the-groove-style training for this.
  • Intermittent fasting. Start by skipping breakfast, and don’t overeat at the next meal. You will be surprised by how this shifts your perception of hunger.
  • Cold showers are a simple way to increase your ability to face discomfort. They also come with a host of side benefits, including reduced muscle soreness.
  • Meditate. It is the antidote to the stress and anxiety of our accelerated 21st century lives. A true game changer if added on a daily basis.

Leave a Comment