Train Toughness Before It’s Too Late

Should we be teaching toughness training instead of sensitivity training?

“Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

In 1914, World War 1 began. The glorious war that was to be over by Christmas turned into the bloodiest four years the world had ever seen (up until then, anyway).

“Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

In 1914, World War 1 began. The glorious war that was to be over by Christmas turned into the bloodiest four years the world had ever seen (up until then, anyway).

In 1918, the Spanish Flu hit, killing about 50 million people. A testament to nature’s capacity for cruelty, this disease proved most deadly to children under five and young adults between 20 and 40.

The 1920s brought a brief reprieve for many people, but life soon turned upside down again when the largest global depression in history hit.

The Great Depression crashed economies across the globe.

In the United States, unemployment exceeded 24%, and half the population lived under the poverty line.

To make matters worse, two years into the depression, America’s Great Plains region fell under a decade-long drought, the Dust Bowl, which forced farmers to abandon their land in search of better opportunities.

In 1939, World War II began. About 75 million people died, and citizens across the United States were forced to ration everything from gas to meat to ensure an ample supply for the war effort.

I could go on about the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and mandatory military conscription, but you get the point.

These were some trying decades. The year 2020 was certainly rough, but compared to the 30-year suckfest that our ancestors were entering a century ago, this past year has been almost mild, generally speaking. Not to diminish anyone’s trials, but it is humbling to compare our challenges to those of our ancestors.

Living through the early and mid-twentieth century required a degree of toughness, contribution, and fortitude uncommon today.

Is Abundance Insulating Us From Happiness?

Still, I don’t know that we are entirely better off. Obviously, not having loved ones die is preferable to the alternative, and we don’t want to reinstate a military draft just for the hell of it.

In many respects, it is a wonderful thing that we can afford to raise children:

  • Who can’t run a mile in under 10-minutes
  • Who meltdown when asked to mow the lawn on a hot day
  • Who think Instagram posts count as civic engagement
  • Who are traumatized by microaggressions

We’ve never had that option before.

But given the high level of angst that characterizes modernity, it’s worth considering whether our comfortable abundance is insulating us from something essential to our happiness.

When the sociologist, Glen Elder, looked at longitudinal data on people who went through the chaos of the early 20th Century, he came to a startling conclusion.

People who faced their first significant adversity in their teens and twenties grew stronger.

Whether fighting in World War II or leaving their dust-choked farm searching for a new life, these great challenges were a formative experience that empowered them throughout their lives.

However, when people faced their first significant adversities after age 30, they were more likely to break down as a consequence.

They were less resilient and less capable of growing.

People Are More Resilient Than You Think

The implication seems to be that if we want people to thrive, we must begin gradually building their capacity for withstanding hardship from a young age. In a time when sensitivity training abounds, perhaps we should be more focused on training toughness.

“My dear child, I do not worry about the bleakness of life. I worry about the bleakness of having no challenges in life.”

– Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Letter to my Unborn Daughter.

In my upcoming book, Setting the Bar: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Era of Distraction, Dependency, and Entitlement, I argue that the modern cultural and youth development paradigm has fallen deeply out of balance.

There is a sense today among parents, educators, and most adults that their role is to provide and protect infinitely.

Adults are always there—chauffeuring, mediating, and patrolling the environment to ensure that it is as safe as possible. Parents are riddled with guilt about the potential traumas they may have invited upon their children and anxious to solve all of Junior’s problems so he doesn’t have to deal with unfairness or hurt feelings.

But this ethos is based upon a faulty presumption of human frailty.

As the psychologist Dan Gilbert explains in his book, Stumbling on Happiness:

“For at least a century, psychologists have assumed that terrible events—such as having a loved one die or becoming the victim of a violent crime—must have a powerful, devastating, and enduring impact on those who experience them…. But recent research suggests that the conventional wisdom is wrong, that the absence of grief is quite normal, and that rather than being the fragile flowers that a century of psychologists has made us out to be, most people are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma.”

The Self-Esteem Movement Led to More Fragility

After decades of researching the self-esteem movement, psychologist Roy Baumeister and his team found that our culture’s emphasis on showing children unconditional positive regard was more likely to create a sense of individual superiority and entitlement than a golden age of mental wellness.

As Baumeister and his team state:1

“Sadly, over time, unconditional positive regard has taken the form of suggesting that parents and teachers should never criticize children and indeed should praise children even for mediocre or trivial accomplishments, or just for being themselves. Always praising and never criticizing may feel good to everyone concerned, but the data we have reviewed do not show that such an approach will produce desirable outcomes.”1

The self-esteem movement helped eliminate many of the standards and social pressure that help societies compel more fulfilling behavior. For example, rope climbing and physical standards were pushed out of P.E.

Such expectations might have propelled more students towards a genuine sense of confidence and capability and empowered them to pursue more physical pursuits as adults.

Over and over, the well-meaning desire to protect kids from ever feeling bad about themselves left them less capable and more fragile.

Even more, by leading youth to believe that adults should be protecting their feelings and taking responsibility for their safety, we establish impossible expectations that set kids up for future angst.

Expectations Determine Our Response to Adversity

  • When people expect to avoid hardships, each pain is magnified.
  • When they expect to live without ever having to exert themselves, exercise seems brutal.
  • When they expect others to solve their problems for them, there is never a reason to take responsibility and always someone to blame when pains inevitably come.

But, when overcoming adversity is an expectation established early in life, people thrive even through hardships.

As Elder explains, “Events do not have meaning in themselves. Those meanings are derived from the interactions between people, groups, and the experience itself. Kids who went through challenging experiences usually came out rather well.”

We need stress to grow.

Stress improves us and makes us more capable of overcoming similar or greater future adversities. This makes us what author Nassim Taleb has called Antifragile—not just resilient like a bulletproof vest, but made stronger by resistance and harmed by its persistent absence.

This is more the case for humans than most species. Humans have acclimated to an infinite number of environments because we are born far less developed than other mammals. Stressors tell us how to grow to thrive.

The effort to eliminate stressors renders humans incapable.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be wary of too much resistance. There is nothing beneficial about car wrecks, child abuse, or chronic stress. A subset of crotchety older men and sports-crazed parents have made a mockery of toughness and helped fuel our current societal over-correction.

The best path always lies in the nuance. As with all training, there should be a progression, variety, and rest.

Taleb explains this best:

For instance, having an intense emotional shock from seeing a snake coming out of my keyboard or a vampire entering my room, followed by a period of soothing safety… long enough for me to regain control of my emotions, would be beneficial for my health, provided of course that I manage to overcome the snake or vampire after an arduous, hopefully, heroic fight and have a picture taken next to the dead predator. Such a stressor would be certainly better than the mild but continuous stress of a boss, mortgage, tax problems, guilt over procrastinating with one’s tax return, exam pressures, chores, emails to answer, forms to complete, daily commutes—things that make you feel trapped in life. In other words, the pressures brought about by civilization. In fact, neurobiologists show that the former type of stressor is necessary, the second harmful, for one’s health.

The fact that adolescents will still typically get stronger despite trainers who insist on archaic more is better training is a testament to the power of puberty and the fantastic resilience of our youth.

We can withstand a lot, and we may have to at some point.

But optimally, we would balance genuine care for people with an understanding that thriving requires toughness. It is great to enjoy the luxuries of modern living as long as we also have the wisdom to make hardship a consistent feature of life.

Toughness Training

In 1940, 130 Harvard sophomores were subjected to the Harvard Treadmill Test as part of a battery that sought to determine what qualities helped people live better lives.

Subjects were put on a steep treadmill at an uncomfortably fast pace and told to stay on for five minutes. The majority lasted four minutes or less.

The researchers meant to assess the “…extent to which a subject is willing to push himself or has a tendency to quit before the punishment becomes too severe.”

They hypothesized that those who stayed on longer would live more successful and fulfilling lives.

After tracking the participants over the coming decades, researchers found that the amount of time a 20-year-old would spend on a treadmill was an excellent predictor of their future life success.

Those who lasted longer tended to have better jobs, better marriages, better relationships, less substance abuse, and, of course, better health.

The capacity to withstand physical discomfort translated to a higher quality of life:

Winston Churchill famously said that “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities… because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

Courage may come first, but toughness is a close second.

Like courage, toughness is a prerequisite to the most admirable behavior. It underlies the self-denial that precedes most fulfilling endeavors.

There are many different forms of toughness, but the best place to start is through physical training. The physical world is a microcosm of life, which can teach impossible lessons through words.

A few ideas to begin training toughness today:

  • Work out: If you are already a consistent exerciser, add a gut check workout once every week or every other week. If you already do, try getting outside of your comfort zone by trying something hard and different. If you don’t exercise consistently, you’ll want to make it easy to start but commit fully. Exercise is the place to start building toughness. As the Harvard Treadmill Test demonstrated, an ability to endure physical discomfort is a prerequisite of health and happiness.
  • Meditate: Despite its reputation, there is nothing tougher than sitting in place without succumbing to distraction. And meditation has immense benefits ranging from better focus to lower blood pressure and better mental health. I credit meditation with helping me overcome a form of OCD called Pure O.
  • Cold Shower: Plenty of health benefits, but, most importantly, it builds a mental edge. When you can start every day by willingly entering the harsh cold, then you can will yourself into whatever else you need doing.
  • Intermittent Fasting: Hunger was once an inevitable part of daily living. It is a luxury always to have food around. Pick a day each week where you extend the time between last night’s dinner and today’s first meal. Shoot for 17 hours. This would have once seemed impossible to me, but now I routinely work out in a fasted state, and most days, I only eat two meals—lunch and dinner.

Justin Lind and I have begun holding bi-annual 48-hour fasts for our IHD Membership group. The IHD Membership is a group for people interested in self-development and committed to creating a structured pursuit of better living practices.

We will be kicking it off with another 48 hour fast this July.

And for more specific recommendations for training and assessing the different toughness components, I’ve put together a battery of tests.

Regardless of whether you jump into these challenges or you take a more moderate approach, the point is to remember that we need a little discomfort to thrive. It is time we all remember that toughness is a virtue.

By committing to cultivating it, we can enhance our lives and our communities.


1. Baumeister, Roy F., Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs. “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4, no. 1 (May 2003): 1–44.

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