Joe De Sena is obsessed with discomfort like few people on the planet.
He’s the founder of Spartan Races, a series of obstacle races ranging from a few miles for beginners to grueling marathon distances for elite athletes.
He’s known for doing hundreds of burpees every day and pushing people to their absolute limits in the world’s toughest race called Death Race.
Embracing discomfort has transformed Joe’s life. He went from an overweight, unhealthy Wall Street trader to an elite endurance athlete. In the meantime, he also started a big family and became a successful entrepreneur with multiple businesses in various industries.
Joe has raced in hundreds of some of the world’s toughest endurance races. For example, in one year alone he completed FIFTY ultra events and FOURTEEN Ironman triathlons.
In his book 10 Rules for Resilience: Mental Toughness for Families, he shares the principles he uses to cultivate mental resilience as a core value in his family.
Don’t let the subtitle deter you from reading the book if you don’t have children, though. The book focuses on lessons for adults as they are the ones who set the right example for their kids (and anyone else in their lives).
In today’s article we’ll focus on general thoughts and lessons on discomfort from the book. In the second part to be published next week we’ll cover lessons on leading yourself and others through embracing discomfort.
Choose Your Hard
I know the truth: Everything is hard. Life is hard. Health is hard. Burpees are hard. Eating right is hard. Honesty is hard. Integrity is hard. Changing habits is hard. Parenting is hard. Because my job puts me in such close contact with people who are desperate to transform their lives, I also have the unique privilege of seeing what else is hard: Obesity is hard. Depression and anxiety are hard. Complacency is hard. Mediocrity is hard.
I tell everyone, Choose your hard.
There’s a common saying that if you don’t make time for your wellness, you’ll be forced to make time for your illness.
Likewise, if you don’t make space for discomfort in your life right now, you’ll be forced to make time for it later.
For example, when you’re pushing your body during a tough workout, after recovery it bounces back stronger. Your body is antifragile, meaning it gets stronger as it faces stress.
If you skip the discomfort of a hard workout, you aren’t merely failing to keep your body in shape. You’re depriving it of an opportunity to grow stronger. This means it’ll be less resilient when facing stress in the future. Consider these problems:
- back pain,
- stiff joints,
- being out of breath,
- heart disease,
- low self-esteem.
All these can be to a large extent remedied with voluntary discomfort today.
Think of discomfort as delayed gratification. Pushing yourself voluntarily today will strengthen your ability to withstand future unexpected stress.
True Resilience Welcomes New Challenges
I’m here to tell you that resilience is as pure a character trait as they come—you can’t buy it, and you don’t stumble on it. It takes work. You know it when you’ve got it. I’m talking about immediately accessible, survival-of-the-fittest, endure-the-pain-and-power-through, adapt-and-respond resilience, the kind you need to protect your health and your family and to stay calm when the world goes to shit. I call it “true resilience.”
Resilience is the ability to respond to some kind of adversity as if the adversity didn’t happen. It’s the ability to press on. Picture an athlete running one hundred miles on dirt trails. At mile 50, the trail is suddenly covered in fresh snow. The resilient runner runs directly into the snowy path and keeps running as if nothing has changed, head down, arms swinging, stride never missing a beat. Despite this new element, this adversity, the runner presses on. What I’m proposing to you in this book is the concept of true resilience, which is the ability to not only walk through adversity but to use it to grow. True resilience looks similar to resilience—our runner is still running directly into the snowy path without missing a beat. But with true resilience, the snow is a welcome sight. The runner sees the snow as an opportunity for growth and uses this new challenge as training for mental toughness and fortitude. The runner stomps through, at full speed, and emerges stronger and tougher than before.
How do you react when you’re voluntarily struggling and the circumstances become even harder? If you wish for the problems to go away, you may be missing out on growth opportunities. If, on the other hand, you welcome the new challenges, congratulations—you’re espousing true resilience.
As I ponder on this quote, it reminds me of my last ruck march. Its second half turned out to be much more difficult than I had expected. My back and neck protested. I was growing impatient and wanted it to be over.
In hindsight, my attitude was embarrassing. It wasn’t so bad to warrant such a weak response from me. I managed to keep up my target pace and complete the march but I wasn’t satisfied with myself.
Why? Because when the unexpected challenges appeared, instead of welcoming them or using humor like Ross Edgley, I grumbled.
When voluntarily embracing discomfort, we should be appreciative of new challenges. Why would we protest when gifted with a chance to strengthen even more?
Discomfort Is One of the Most Rewarding Things in Life
So many of us wake up in our thirties or forties realizing we don’t recognize ourselves or how we got so sensitive and fragile. We’re bored, fatigued, and anxious, but we recognize we have every possible comfort at our fingertips. How is this possible? Whenever I ask someone new to Spartan to tell me the last time they felt alive, they almost always recount an experience when they worked really hard for something. Why, when we reflect on tough experiences, do they seem like the happiest times of our life? Because we were stretching, growing, and feeling all of the pain that comes with discomfort. It’s true that challenge is invigorating for humans. Discomfort is like oxygen. True resilience is the reward on the other side that keeps us coming back for more.
When we expand our limits and emerge victorious, we enjoy deep contentment. Michael Easter argues the same point in his book The Comfort Crisis.
There’s a reason why so many men are attracted to movies about adventures and challenges. They speak to a part of us that craves risk and what comes with it, the feeling of being alive.
We love challenges. But sadly, some men only watch them on their screens instead of subjecting themselves to them in the real world.
Instead of watching movies to get an artificial boost, wouldn’t it make more sense to engineer such feelings in our everyday lives?
Such experiences don’t have to be elaborate. Misogis can take just a few hours to complete. Easier challenges can take even less, yet still give us a feeling of accomplishment.
Inertia will make you hate your life. Always have new challenges in life. They reinvigorate us because they make us grow and get better.
Separating What’s Difficult From What’s Desperate
I see the push and pull between difficult and desperate in action at Spartan when new racers, both adults and kids, come to the farm to train for the first time. Most of these new athletes genuinely have no idea what they are capable of, so at some point in the middle of a training session, their brain starts telling them things that aren’t true. They give up at the point of “difficult”—way, way, way before they get to the point of “desperate.” I have no doubt that they think their situation is desperate. Their brains are saying, It’s impossible. I can’t do this. But the truth is, it’s only difficult. How can you tell the difference?
When that struggle begins between brain and body, the newbie I’m working with tends to walk sort of timidly over to me. I’ve seen it a hundred times, and I know exactly how this conversation is going to go. They will say, “I quit. I can’t. I’m done.” I’ll say, “Okay, you can go. But try this first. Turn off that voice in your brain and for the next five minutes just put your head down and put one foot in front of the other. Do that, and if you want to quit afterward, fine.”
It sounds simple, and we’ve all heard it a thousand times. But many miss the key takeaway: separating what’s difficult from what’s desperate—telling yourself, This isn’t desperate. I’m not dying. I’m just doing something difficult with my body. That’s how you start to determine the difference—if you can put one foot in front of the other and maintain that separation, then believe me, you can keep going.
When I train freediving with my coach, our main focus is to prolong a dive through relaxation. If I head to the surface immediately after the first urge to breathe, I’m failing to push my limits. My instructor then tells me to stay with my discomfort a little longer. I practice this through counting a few more seconds or a few more kicks before I let myself head back.
Easy to do in theory, much harder to do it in practice when your mind plays tricks on you underwater.
The point of this exercise is to differentiate between what’s difficult and desperate. On the surface, I know I want to push more. But underwater, logic doesn’t work so well.
Your brain can be extremely persuasive after you feel the first urge to breathe. You’ll be convinced that you don’t have much oxygen left. In reality, after that first urge, you still have a lot of time before you get your first diaphragm contractions. And when you feel them, you’re roughly at 50% oxygen! (The contractions are caused by too much CO2, not too little oxygen).
That’s one of the reasons why I find freediving so interesting as a tool to explore your limits. It helps you realize that the brain sends you panicky signals well before anything bad is going to happen. You know that logically, yet in the moment the anxiety sets in, if you don’t detach yourself from it, you’re done.
Joe De Sena understands this behavior from his obstacle racing experience. When you’re about to surrender, he knows there’s still a LOT more you can give before hitting your true limits.
Don’t let your brain dictate where your limits lie. Your initial instincts are often wrong.
Refuse to react to your first urge to give up. Spend a little more time with discomfort. In some situations this will be just a few seconds, in some it will be a minute or two, and in some it may mean lasting hours or even days more than you thought possible.
Constantly Raise the Bar for Yourself
The strength of your personal resilience and the strength of your self-imposed limitations are directly proportional. You can measure resilience by measuring limitations. Let’s take a triathlete, for example. Suppose this athlete practices swimming only in a temperature-controlled pool in a gym.
The race arrives and the requirement is miles of swimming in open water in a lake or a bay. The water is dark and murky. There is a psychological element to swimming with a vast and deep stretch of natural water below. The water is freezing and constricts the athlete’s muscles. And then there are other elements, like smell, wind, waves, and weather. The limitations of a perfectly constructed, crystal-clear swimming pool impact the athlete’s mental and physical toughness in the open water.
I still commend this athlete for endurance training in a swimming pool, don’t get me wrong. But if you want true resilience, the ability to survive whatever life throws at you, you have to get uncomfortable eventually. You have to trust that you can get out of the swimming pool and into the lake. Then you have to get out of the lake and jump into the ocean. Raising the bar for yourself is where you get the best return on investment.
It’s easy to get complacent with our training, whether it’s physical training or mental effort. Instead of constantly raising the bar for ourselves, we decide to stay at a level that’s comfortable for us.
If you always feel comfortable when pursuing your goals, you’re limiting your growth.
Imagine that you’re learning a new language and practice only with easy, fun, gamified language learning software. A day comes when you travel to a country where your target language is spoken. Surprise! You can’t understand anything. The software might have been fun but it didn’t prepare you for the real world. Your studying experience lacked discomfort.
When I used to rock climb more regularly, I saw such comfort-seeking behavior often.
In climbing, you have different types of holds. Jugs are easy to grab open holds everybody loves. Pinches are holds you pinch with your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other. Slopers are round bulges that require you to rely on friction. Pockets are holes in the rock where sometimes only one finger fits. Crimps are tiny edges you can barely grab. And so on.
Most climbers have their favorite types of holds and holds they despise. To be a good climber, you need to let go of your preferences and be versatile.
But in an indoor gym where I trained, some climbers avoided routes with holds they didn’t like. For example, they preferred easy jugs and pinches and avoided hard technical routes with crimps and pockets. When they later climbed outdoors, they faced a nasty surprise: natural rock faces aren’t as easy to read and feature all kinds of holds.
Are you that type of a person or do you seek out to train in circumstances where you can face your weaknesses?
Get Rid of the “Participation Award” Mindset
When we talk about participation awards, we’re almost always talking about kids. However, I’m more amazed at how regularly I’m faced with adults who have the “participation award” mindset. Don’t believe me? Does any of this sound familiar?
I worked a full day, so I deserve to watch a few hours of Netflix when I get home instead of engaging with my family or friends or working on a hobby that might help me grow into the person I want to be one day.
I was super productive in that meeting, so I deserve to pick up Chick-fil-A on the way home instead of making myself a nutritious meal and investing in my health.
I put in over forty hours of work this week, so I deserve to do nothing on the weekend except watch movies and sleep in.
I ran a mile this morning, so I deserve that doughnut for breakfast.
I did a Spartan race last year, so I don’t need to do one this year. I don’t need to try to beat my time for a personal best.
It doesn’t matter what we use as justification—our workday, our morning workout, past accomplishments—it’s the justification itself that is the problem.
Your mental justifications and rationalizations have the full force of a participation trophy. The justification of “I did this, so I get that” leads to a mindset of entitlement every time and is keeping you from true resilience. The most accomplished people I know, the ones with an abundance of true resilience, refuse to rest on their laurels. It doesn’t even occur to them that they “earned” something because, the truth is, the struggle is the reward.
If you give yourself an award because you pushed your limits, you’re saying that you need to get something in return for your suffering.
But the discomfort IS the reward.
It forges you into a stronger, better person. That’s your reward! It’s not the treat you give yourself afterward. (Ironically, these awards often cancel out the effects of the hard things you did before them.)
Consider how many men go for a run only to “reward” themselves with a peanut butter energy bar or a chocolate shake that provides more calories than they burned exercising.
Consider how many men achieve something in their lives only to proclaim that since they’ve done it once, they “deserve” not to push themselves anymore.
Consider how many men buy a new car as a reward for saving money only to be broke again.
By all means, reward yourself for a rare big accomplishment but don’t do it for your daily grind activities. The daily grind IS the reward. A reward for getting a reward is a little bit excessive, don’t you think?
Free Yourself of the Bullshit
Whenever I work out with someone who is coming to the gym for the first time or returning after spending a few years (or decades!) not working out, one thing happens without fail: that person typically arrives for the first day in brand-new workout clothes, looking like a human Nike advertisement. They will literally be ripping the price tags off their new REI or Lululemon gear as they walk in the door. They will have a high-tech water bottle and clean shoes. They will think they’ve come “prepared” and “ready for anything,” but do you know what I see when I look at all that stuff? Yep. I see bullshit.
The stuff you buy does not define you. I see it all the time, a faulty investment in gear because some people believe it will help them achieve their goals faster, when in reality it’s principles like commitment, hard work, and accountability that get you across the finish line. This is one of the first obstacles you need to confront on a path to resilience. Looking the part does not make you the part. You’re trying to expedite progress without doing the work, and it’s bullshit.
Our bullshit is the stuff we intentionally put between our current unsatisfying and overly comfortable life and the fulfilling and uncomfortable life we want. Excuses, high expectations, pursuit of perfection—we plant them right in the gap between where we are and where we want to be, and we give them permission to block us. Let me free you of that bullshit once and for all. You don’t need a new pair of tennis shoes to start doing burpees today and continue every day for the rest of your life. Heck, do them barefoot in the grass in your underwear for all I care. You don’t even need a dumbbell to start doing bicep curls—grab a book or a bottle of water and do it. You don’t need a new laptop to write a book. You don’t need the latest and greatest painting supplies to learn to paint. When the urge creeps in to replace the real work with the bullshit stuff, notice it. And then call yourself up to live your life bullshit-free. This is the necessary next step to finding true resilience. You cannot weather tough storms in life if your bullshit is running the show.
This excuse is so common it’s not even funny anymore.
I can’t go on a run because I don’t have running shoes.
I can’t study because I don’t have money to buy this expensive course.
I can’t start a business because I don’t have a new laptop.
Whatever external requirement follows your “I can’t,” it’s usually bullshit.
When I started rucking, I borrowed a small backpack and put a kettlebell I had inside it. The kettlebell rubbed and bounced against my back, so next time I wrapped it into a bath towel. That’s how I did my first sessions.
There was no need for a proper rucking backpack or plates. Over time, I improved my system and bought a sandbag filler made of steel balls. But when starting out, you don’t have to optimize everything.
Meanwhile, I know someone who stopped running in the winter because he doesn’t have proper “winter running” shoes. I also know someone who wanted to learn photography but claimed he needed professional equipment first. They let their bullshit prevent them from improving their lives.
Be honest with yourself. Bullshit is for the weak procrastinators and superficial show-offs. You want to be strong, so don’t wait for perfect gear and perfect conditions before you try something new.
Change Your Frame of Reference
Whenever I’m finding it tough to get disciplined or persevere, I think of someone who has it harder than I do. And then I say their name out loud, picturing them in my mind. I think of that guy stuck in solitary confinement for a crime he didn’t commit. Or a veteran with a missing limb who shows up to training sessions with a smile. That allows me to suddenly see my world in a new way. What a gift it is to have two arms. What a gift it is to be free in my house surrounded by family.
My advice is to come up with a go-to person to call to mind, someone you can reference when the going gets tough, when you don’t want to do those last ten burpees. You can think of them and remember that your sacrifice is nothing compared to theirs. Together, those sacrifices make the world a better place for everyone.
One of the reasons why I read books by people who faced extreme hardships in life is because I want to change my frame of reference.
If you read about a veteran who spent several painful years recovering from war wounds, what is your little voluntary discomfort in comparison to his experiences?
If you see an athlete scaling a huge mountain despite physical handicaps, how can you complain that the weather is too hot and you sweat too much during your two-hour run?
If you hear about a person who became an influential scientist despite traumatic childhood, how can you not grit your teeth and bear your own hardships?
Don’t let the struggle and sacrifice of other people go to waste. Use it to inspire yourself to get better.
Build True Resilience in Nature
One of the most well-known tasks in the adult Death Race is chopping wood. Newcomers will scoff at the chore before they start, whispering about how they thought the race was going to be hard and snickering over the menial task. Twenty minutes in, we lose about a quarter of our contestants; after an hour, we’ve lost over half. You would think that something as primal as chopping wood would be easy, but when you’re in it and your forearms are burning so bad you can’t possibly imagine lifting the ax again, it’s a different story. And this is one of the best things about nature—you don’t have to look far if you want to be challenged. Some of the most primal activities can teach you the most essential life lessons. Want an exercise in patience? Try lighting a fire without flint. Want delayed gratification? Try building a shelter that can withstand the rain using only dead branches, and sleep in it during a rainstorm. Need some courage? Have a friend lead you into the woods blindfolded, and try to find your way home. Nature has everything you need to build true resilience; you just have to be willing.
As a big fan of nature, I was happy to hear that Joe De Sena finds so much inspiration in it. He believes that an outdoor workout is always better than an indoor one and likes posing nature-based challenges.
Many men living in urban environments are disconnected from real, raw nature. But as convenient as exploring our limits in urban settings can be, nature can provide incredible options to expand our comfort zones.
We can practice suffering by exposing ourselves to cold or hot conditions outside.
We can practice courage by exploring the wilderness.
We can practice discomfort by letting go of modern conveniences.
If you want to challenge yourself, there’s no need to go to a temperature-controlled gym. Head out to the nearby wilderness area and reconnect with your wild part.
Nature provides us with many challenges to grow our mental resilience. And the best part is that it requires little investment other than time and willingness.
Questions to Ponder
1. Which hard do you choose through your everyday decisions? Is it voluntary discomfort today or more damaging consequences later?
2. Do you welcome unexpected challenges as growth opportunities?
3. When was the last time you felt reinvigorated through embracing discomfort?
4. In the areas of life where you push yourself, how can you practice differentiating what’s difficult from what’s desperate?
5. Do you constantly raise the bar for yourself or stick with things you find comfortable?
6. How often do you reward yourself for your discomfort thinking that you “deserve” it?
7. Do you postpone action in life because you need to get proper gear? Why not start with what you have?
8. Who can serve as an inspirational example to change your frame of reference when you’re struggling?
9. How often do you practice discomfort in a natural setting?
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