#15: Developing Mental and Physical Toughness. Observations From “Living With a SEAL” by Jesse Itzler (Part 1)
Before becoming an icon of mental toughness and personal transformation, David Goggins kept to himself. Very few people knew about his accomplishments, his crazy workout routine, and unbelievable stories of mental resilience.
Jesse Itzler, a multimillionaire entrepreneur, saw David for the first time during David’s first 100-mile run in San Diego (the one where Goggins ran on broken feet and suffered from kidney failure). Itzler participated in the race as a member of a well-prepared six-member relay team. David ran alone.
Fascinated by Goggins’s unbelievable performance, Jesse tracked him down and invited David to live with him for 31 days and train him.
The book Living With a SEAL: 31 Days Training With the Toughest Man on the Planet recounts December of 2010 when Jesse Itzler shared almost every waking hour with David Goggins. (In the book, David is referred to as SEAL because he requested anonymity).
As a successful entrepreneur and marathoner, Jesse wasn’t a complete stranger to pushing his limits. Yet, the contrast between him and David couldn’t have been any more pronounced. The result is a fascinating, hilarious, and educational story portraying the difference between a “normal” guy and David Goggins (make sure to check out the first part of my notes from David’s autobiography Can’t Hurt Me).
In today’s issue, the first of three articles covering my notes from Jesse Itzler’s story, we’ll talk about what Jesse learned from David about developing mental and physical toughness.
(Side note: if you want even more lessons from David Goggins, I created a list of the best podcast interviews with David Goggins.)
Control Your Mind
“It’s fourteen degrees outside,” I say.
“To you it’s fourteen degrees ’cause you’re telling yourself it’s fourteen degrees!”
“No. It really is. It’s fourteen degrees. Like that’s the real actual temperature outside. It says so on my computer.”
SEAL pauses for a moment like I may have disappointed him. “On your computer, huh?”
He begins to laugh, but it’s a haunting laugh, like the Count on Sesame Street.
“The temperature is what you think it is, bro, not what your computer thinks it is. If you think it’s fourteen degrees, then it’s fourteen degrees. Personally, I’m looking at it like it’s in the mid-fifties.”
Rather than argue—after all, we’re still just getting to know each other—I just say: “Got it.”
“You ever spent any time in freezing water, Jesse?” SEAL asks.
I’m thinking to myself, Like on purpose? But I respond with a “no.”
“Well, is it freezing? OR is your mind just saying it’s freezing? Which is it?” He laughs again. “Control your mind, Jesse.”
“Got it.” (I’m going to have to put that on the to-do list: Control mind.)
“Exactly. Enjoy this shit. If you want it to be seventy and sunny… it’s seventy and sunny. Just run. The elements are in your mind. I don’t ever check the temperature when I run. Who gives a fuck what the temperature on the computer says? The computer isn’t out there running, is it?”
The first interaction between Jesse and David already uncovered the difference in how they approached adverse conditions.
The only things Goggins wore for their first run in 14 degree Fahrenheit weather (-10 degrees Celsius) were shorts, a t-shirt, and a knit hat. To Jesse’s shock, the only piece of clothing David requested were gloves.
Underdressing for the weather as a way to practice voluntary discomfort can be a useful exercise. But it doesn’t mean that tough men must run in shorts and a t-shirt when it’s 14 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
What I find more valuable in this conversation is how David approaches the weather conditions. For him, it’s not what the computer says that’s important but what his mind says. Because he controls his mind, he can, to at least some extent, control how his body perceives the temperature outside.
In the quote David asks Jesse if he ever spent time in freezing water to which he replies that he didn’t. I did spend time in freezing water on many occasions. That’s when I learned how important controlling the mind is.
The coldest water I’ve ever spent time in (in swim trunks only) was a lake with a temperature of 37 Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius). And let me tell you: if you don’t enter such cold water with the right mind, you won’t be able to submerge your body, let alone spend even a minute out there (my max was 3 minutes).
Of course, your mind alone won’t save you from frostbite if you go too far. But it can help you keep going when you feel cold on a chilly morning run, when you’re taking a cold shower, or when you’re taking a cold plunge.
In the later part of the conversation not quoted above, Jesse asks David how to handle the heat. He replies:
“In extreme heat, it’s a totally different mind-set, bro. You have to get medieval. Embrace it! Grind it out. Think about how others are suffering. Enjoy the pain.”
The underlying principle for the heat is still the same: instead of complaining about the conditions, control your mind and refocus on something else.
David likes to focus on his pain or the pain of his competitors. You may decide to focus on something else that works for you, for example running along the white line. The heat, similar to the cold, first gets to your mind, so control it.
We can’t control the weather but we can control our response to it. Use your mind to help you keep going instead of complaining about the conditions.
Do You Have a Shitty-Ass Attitude?
“Give me ten. All the way down and all the way up. Let’s see where your pull-up game is at.”
I jump up and grab the bar and pull my two hundred pounds of body weight up until my chin is over the bar. “One.”
I go down. When I get to number eight, I start kicking my legs around frantically to try to get some momentum. I need to get my chin over this damn bar, but I can’t. I drop to the floor. SEAL tells me to take a forty-five-second break and do it again.
Forty-five seconds later I jump back up and grab the bar. I’ve never been good at doing pull-ups. In fact, I hate doing them. Somehow I manage to squeak out six more before I drop back to the ground. This time I think for good. SEAL tells me to take another forty-five seconds and then do it again.
Another forty-five seconds go by and this time I’m able to get three solid pull-ups in before I drop to the ground. Each time I’m dropping, my legs give out a little more. That’s seventeen pull-ups. I’m done. I’m literally maxed out. I don’t think I have ever done seventeen pull-ups so fast, or ever, for that matter. I grab my left bicep with my right hand and my right bicep with my left hand and squeeze. It feels like there are nails in my biceps.
“Seventeen! Cool, that’s my max number. I didn’t think I could even do that. Amazing! Let’s head back upstairs.”
As I start to look up, SEAL is staring at me with a blank expression… deadpan. “We’re going to stay here until you do a hundred.”
“I can’t do a hundred. That’s impossible,” I say.
“You better find a way,” he says to me like a father might tell his son to clean his bedroom. “You got a shitty-ass attitude.”
I do one and drop to the floor.
I walk around the gym trying to delay the inevitable. My arms sag at my sides and SEAL watches me. I can’t procrastinate any longer. I return to the pull-up bar. I do another one and drop to the ground. I take another lap around the gym and I’m back to the pull-up bar. I drop. Lap… Pull-up… Drop… Lap… Pull-up… Drop…
Ninety minutes later I’m on ninety-seven.
Training is definitely under way.
I needed to share the pull-up story in its entirety to demonstrate how Jesse’s approach to effort in life differed from David.
For Jesse, doing his max pull-ups meant three sets separated by a 45-second break. For David, Jesse hadn’t even started yet.
I love the contrast during the last part of the conversation. Jesse, satisfied with his 17 pull-ups, is ready to head back home. In his mind, he pushed his limits to the maximum already.
But in David’s mind, you don’t hit your limits so quickly. Jesse’s attitude is shitty-ass because he stops when he’s tired, not when he’s truly finished. In this moment, David Goggins highlights how differently they’re wired.
The only reason why David enjoys such peak performance and is one of the best endurance athletes is because he knows that pain unlocks another level of accomplishment (side note: it doesn’t mean to seek injuries or be irresponsible; rather, it’s the pain of pushing your limits).
David Goggins broke the world record in pull-ups because he didn’t have Jesse’s limiting outlook on life. David had two failed attempts before he completed his pull-up challenge but he didn’t stop before he was truly finished.
At first, Jesse doesn’t even believe he can do 100 pull-ups in a single workout. The notion is impossible. 90 minutes later, Jesse finishes his workout, having completed 100 pull-ups in a single session.
Such lessons are what turn regular people into beasts like David Goggins. We can experience them only when we pursue voluntary discomfort.
You prove to yourself that you’re capable of way more if you refuse to quit when things get tough and explore the outer limits of what’s possible.
Out of all the stories shared in the book, I found this story one of the most inspiring. David trained himself to such high level of physical excellence because he changed his definition of what maximum effort is.
Be honest with yourself. Is your attitude shitty-ass, too, or are you giving it maximum effort when pushing yourself to your limits?
The Best Two-Word Answer to Adversity
I found out SEAL once entered a race where you could either run for twenty-four or forty-eight hours. Shocker: SEAL signed up for the forty-eight-hour one. At around the twenty-three-hour mark, he’d run approximately 130 miles, but he’d also torn his quad. He asked the race officials if they could just clock him out at twenty-four hours. When he was told they couldn’t do that, he said, “ROGER THAT,” asked for a roll of tape, and wrapped his quad. He walked (limped) on a torn quad for the last twenty-four hours to finish the race and complete the entire forty-eight hours.
“When you think you’re done, you’re only at forty percent of what your body is capable of doing. That’s just the limit that we put on ourselves.”
The two words “Roger that” summarize David’s mental resilience. Any regular person suffering from a serious injury would immediately withdraw from the race or protest the race officials’ decision not to let him shorten the race.
David treated his run like a mission. Torn quad or not, the job needed to be done. If he couldn’t clock out at 24 hours, he needed to find a way to complete the remainder of the race. He found a way to keep going and completed it.
Does it mean we ignore injuries and risk permanent physical damage? I don’t think so. Even David didn’t keep running despite a torn quad. He walked after taping it to provide extra support.
The lesson is that often when it feels like you’re done (including when you’re suffering from an injury), you can still do so much more.
While running a marathon, perhaps you can’t run anymore but you can still limp your way to the finish line.
While doing as many push-ups as you can, perhaps you can’t do regular push-ups anymore but you can still do knee push-ups.
While learning a foreign language, perhaps you can’t memorize new words anymore but you can spend another hour listening to a podcast in your target language.
At the time of writing this, I’ve been dealing with a rotator cuff injury for several weeks. My physical therapist told me I need to let it fully recover or it will get worse. It’s frustrating because just raising my arm above my head triggers the pain.
My only sensible option is to say “roger that” and figure out ways to train that don’t involve the shoulder much. Right now, it’s primarily MMA workouts focused on kicks, with some safe range of motion punches thrown in.
I could have used this injury as an excuse to call it quits and stop all workouts until I recover. But not being able to use my shoulder much doesn’t mean I can’t use my lower body. As frustrating as the injury is, I can still choose to keep improving.
The wrong interpretation of the 40% rule would be to keep working out despite the injury, thus making it worse and worse—and eventually having to take even more time off to recover from it.
Do say “roger that” but figure out how to keep going in a smart way that won’t jeopardize your future with a permanent injury.
What It’s Like to Train Goggins Style
It’s our third run of the day. I’ve previously done some two-a-days while training for long races or to try to get in fast shape, but three-a-days is new territory, especially at this intensity. And especially at my age. And really especially at 8:45 p.m. at night.
One and a half miles into our six-mile run, SEAL talks for the first time.
“No. I don’t feel well,” I say as I keep pace.
“Fuck, yeah,” he celebrates. “Now you’re seeing what it’s like to train, Jesse. I hope you enjoy this shit.” He begins to laugh, which soon becomes an all-out cackle. “You look like a pile of spilt fuck,” he says.
As with many quotes I’ll share from the book, I’m including it here to portray David Goggins’s mentality and approach to training. This attitude is definitely not for everyone. But it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, even if we don’t adapt it 100% in our lives.
For David Goggins, real training begins when it sucks. It’s when you feel unwell but still keep going that you begin to train your mind, too. Anything before may train your muscles but it doesn’t train your mental toughness that much.
It’s the brain that is Goggins’s superpower, not his muscles. A weak-minded musclehead will lose against a weaker physically but strong-minded person who can power through the worst shit. Of course, it’s best to have both the muscle and the mind but it’s the mind that dictates our limits first.
Exceptional men are obsessed about what they do, often to the point of training just a hair breadth’s from breaking down. The difference between them and regular people is that they practice this deep discomfort so often that they’re able to withstand the pressure that would crush an average guy.
This is what we at the Discomfort Club pursue as well. Whether it’s an endurance sport, weightlifting, gymnastics, raising funds for a non-profit, learning physics, studying Japanese, or building a business, we want to push ourselves as far as we can take it so that we can become exceptional, too.
Enjoy the Pain
As he makes his way in, SEAL is walking like he’s stepping on broken glass. He’s limping and in obvious pain. He’s not wearing any shoes, and his toes are really messed up. SEAL is missing the toenail on his right big toe, and he has a few blisters that look like his toes swallowed giant red grapes. OUCH.
“Man… that looks bad. You gotta do something for it,” I say.
“Nah, I’m just gonna sit on the couch and enjoy the pain,” he says. “I earned it. Now I’m going to enjoy it.” He starts to laugh to himself.
At first I thought that maybe he wanted to impress me and create this crazy persona. Like overplay some of this stuff for effect. But now as I look at his battered feet, I realize that there is no overplaying this kind of thing. There is no effect. He really means it. He really wants to enjoy the pain.
So many men today embrace only one aspect of life: the stuff that’s pleasant, comfortable, and enjoyable. David Goggins voluntarily chooses to embrace the less fun side, too, including pain.
Many would consider his behavior masochistic. But there’s one key difference between a masochist and David Goggins: a masochist enjoys pain for the sake of pain, while David Goggins embraces pain that fuels his personal transformation. He doesn’t hurt himself because he likes it. He hurts himself as a side effect of exploring his limits.
David knows that his extreme feats sometimes require suffering extreme pain. Instead of running away from it, he welcomes it, treating it like a trophy for his efforts. “I earned it so I’m going to enjoy it.”
What if instead of complaining about soreness or any temporary pain after a workout we welcomed it as a reminder of how hard we pushed ourselves?
Note that it doesn’t mean to judge the intensity of each workout by the soreness or pain it causes. Pushing yourself to the absolute limits every time wouldn’t be a sustainable long-term strategy. Rather, it means that when soreness or pain does come, we change how we look at it. It’s not a punishment for what we did. It’s a reminder of what we did.
Some level of suffering is inextricably linked with most accomplishments in life. It’s not a bad thing, in the same way as we need both sun and rain or fullness and hunger.
Learn How to Fight Through Pain
SEAL returns to the apartment holding his hands up to show me his palms. They look like he fell off his bike and braced his fall with his hands. They’re battered.
“I knocked out my pull-ups.”
“How many you get?”
“I did five pull-ups on the minute for two hours.”
“You just did six hundred pull-ups? Just now? Just like that?”
“Roger that. So go fuck your bullshit shoulders,” he says. “Whatever you got going on, someone else has more pain. You gotta learn how to fight through it. No matter what it is… Think about someone else and take a suck-shit pill.”
I think he means a suck-it-up pill, but I don’t question him. “Suck-shit pill” sounds good to me!
A day after doing 484 push-ups Jesse’s shoulders hurt so much he couldn’t even lift his cell phone. As he worked, David headed for what he called a “quick” workout which ended up being 600 pull-ups performed during two hours (side note: that was still a super short workout compared to his final attempt that made him break the world record in pull-ups—that took him 17 hours).
David’s lesson was to show Jesse that his complaints are bullshit. Jesse’s shoulders hurt but whatever he got going on, there was someone else who suffered more.
I recently saw a video of a man performing dips with a heavy chain draped around his neck. But it’s not the exercise that’s impressive but the fact that during this workout he was celebrating 7 years on dialysis.
Talk about a perspective shift.
Whatever bullshit soreness you feel in your shoulders, what’s that compared to someone crushing it with failing kidneys?
Take a “suck-shit-pill” and fight through your pain. Chances are that no matter how terrible it is, it’s still incomparable to the pain suffered by many other people on the planet.
Respect the Basics
SEAL believes push-ups are the single best exercise for strength. He also believes proper form is the key. You get more out of ten push-ups the right way than thirty done improperly.
You don’t need any fancy equipment to improve your physical toughness if you go with the basics. The exercises that David worked on with Jesse mostly included running, push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, with some different exercises thrown in for variety every now and then.
Even if you’re a barbell guy or don’t lift at all, it’s valuable to at least occasionally go back to the fundamental bodyweight exercises.
David Goggins is a fan of simple exercises with a caveat that you focus on the proper form at all times. It takes self-discipline to do things right instead of banging out as many reps as possible.
Besides injury prevention, the point of sticking to proper form is to pursue excellence in everything we do. Don’t ignore that: push your physical limits safely and intelligently.
I’m wearing the vest. It weighs as much as a safe. SEAL pushes my son in the stroller next to us.
I go two and a half miles wearing the vest. It takes thirty-one minutes. I’ve been on a thousand runs in my day. I’ve run eighteen New York City marathons in a row. I’ve done ultra-marathons of a hundred miles. This is one of the most brutal runs of my life. No question.
I pull over every hundred yards and drop to my knees and adjust the vest. I try to shift the weight to save my shoulders. The heft kills me. I shift again. It doesn’t help. People in the park are starting to stare. They want to know what the fuck is wrong with me. They also want to know what the fuck two grown men in weight vests are doing pushing a baby stroller in twenty degrees.
I wish I knew… I wish I knew…
At this point I’m out of options; the shifting provides no temporary relief anymore. I’m done.
“What the hell are we doing? This is ridiculous. Can’t you see this is killing me?”
“Relax, Jesse, you need to know that everything ends. Just do this shit and it will end.”
With his response, David Goggins exemplifies Stoicism. Whatever shitty thing we’re dealing with, it will eventually end. This is the essence of emotional control that Ancient Stoics emphasized so much. Life is easier when we stay in control of our emotional responses.
Whether it’s running a long distance, doing a high-rep squat session, studying for a tough exam or fasting for three days, it all ends.
What if instead of complaining we reminded ourselves of the transient nature of everything in life? Wouldn’t it be easier to bear hardships through buckling down rather than through griping about them?
Mental Toughness Is Rare
The tougher the conditions, the more I like my odds.
Mental toughness is a rare attribute compared to pure physical performance.
This is why David Goggins likes his odds more when the conditions are tough: he knows that people who are strong physically don’t necessarily have his mental strength.
He excels while others stumble because he trains not only his body but also, if not primarily, his mind. He does things that suck, and he does them as often as he can.
It reminds me of Ross Edgley’s wintering. To prepare for his swim around Great Britain, he swam non-stop for 48 hours, battling torturous sleep deprivation. He needed to test his mental limits so that when he would be doing the real thing he would know how to handle it.
Imagine a swimmer who swims only in a warm, calm indoor swimming pool and a swimmer who trains in the ocean.
Both sign up for an open water race.
The pool swimmer is a better athlete: he has more endurance, strength, and swims faster. He even has a coach who keeps tweaking his form to get every possible advantage.
The open water swimmer doesn’t have the same physical abilities. He can’t rely on predictable conditions, the ocean isn’t always nice and warm, and he doesn’t have a coach.
Purely from the athletic point of view, the swimming pool swimmer is better. But during the open water race in uncontrollable, difficult conditions, it’s the latter swimmer who will excel and win.
He wintered himself through long hours swimming in a cold, choppy ocean. He got used to the swell, low visibility, wildlife around him, and the unpredictability of the environment. Meanwhile, the other swimmer might have pushed his physical limits but he didn’t strengthen his mind.
In the same way, David Goggins likes his odds more when competing because he doesn’t neglect training his mind. He voluntarily does things that suck so that when he encounters them during a tough ultra race, it’s like meeting an old friend, not an unwelcome surprise.
Questions to Ponder
1. In challenging weather conditions, do you listen to the forecast or to your mind?
2. Have you ever tested where your true limits are? Or do you call it quits after average effort like Jesse did, thinking you did your best?
3. When you find yourself in challenging situations, do you say “roger that” and find a way to keep going or do you give up immediately?
4. Do you occasionally train to the point of feeling unwell to train your mental toughness?
5. When you feel pain after completing a challenge, do you embrace it as a reminder of your triumph?
6. When dealing with muscle soreness, do you use it as an excuse not to work out? Have you ever considered the pain other people face to remind yourself that yours is not such a big deal as you think it is?
7. Do you at least occasionally train the basic bodyweight exercises? How strict are you with your form when performing them?
8. When you’re dealing with overwhelming suffering, are you able to remind yourself that everything eventually ends or do you let the emotion overpower you? What if you decided to “just do this shit” instead of wasting your energy having a fit?
9. Do you pay the same attention to training your mental toughness as to your physical preparation?
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