Do Hard Things (2022) explodes mythologies around the popular conception of toughness. It shows how traditional markers of toughness, like putting on a brave face and pushing past pain, can actually hinder physical and mental performance outcomes in the long term. Instead, real resilience comes from listening to your body and embracing your emotions.
In the following book summary, you’ll learn how the science of toughness can help you do hard things.
Research consistently shows that tougher individuals are able to perceive stressful situations as challenges instead of threats. – Steve Magness
Introduction: Ditch outdated ideas about toughness, and cultivate true resilience.
In the popular imagination, being tough means projecting confidence, pushing through pain without complaint, and ignoring soppy emotions.
You might have even tried to adopt these strategies yourself. And you might have found . . . they didn’t work.
Perhaps you’ve projected false confidence but failed to deliver. Perhaps you’ve pushed through physical pain only to find that the more you ignored it, the more unbearable it became. Perhaps you’ve ignored emotions until they found a way to burst out – spectacularly.
Let’s get one thing straight. If something like this has ever happened to you, the problem is not that you’re not tough enough. The problem lies in society’s toxic definition of toughness. In this summary, we’ll share a new definition of toughness that’s grounded in science and psychology. What’s more, we’ll guide you through strategies for building this toughness within yourself.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- what interoception is and why you should hone yours;
- why elite-level meditators can better withstand pain; and
- how the worst trauma can lead to the most profound growth.
Toughness isn’t about projecting confidence – it’s about uncovering authenticity.
When you think of the word “tough,” who do you picture? Many people might think of a John-Wayne-type: someone who suffers silently, stoically ignores pain, and wouldn’t be caught dead talking about their feelings. But this popular image of toughness is deeply flawed. In fact, science and psychology find that stereotypically tough behaviors such as these are counterproductive to cultivating lasting resilience. It’s about time we redefined toughness!
Four key behaviors form the foundation of real resilience. Each of the next chapters will guide you through one of these behaviors. Let’s start with the first behavior. Toughness isn’t about projecting confidence; it’s about uncovering authenticity. In other words, to be tough, you need to ditch the facade.
Old school toughness is all about projecting a facade – creating an image of toughness that depends on overstating your endurance levels and capabilities. The problem? It’s demotivating when our expectations don’t match up, at least partly, with reality. So if you’ve said that learning Icelandic will take you six months max, but it’s six months in and you’re still struggling with basic grammar, you’re likely to give up. And giving up isn’t exactly “tough,” is it?
True resilience depends on being real with yourself. It might not feel tough to admit that it will take you years to pick up a new language. But when your expectations and reality overlap, you’re more likely to ultimately succeed. Being honest with yourself is what will allow you to pursue your goals relentlessly, which will improve your endurance and performance over time.
Need more convincing? A study of elementary school students found that overconfident readers often chose books way above their level of comprehension. Picture a third-grader trying to read all 607 pages of the final Harry Potter book. Unsurprisingly, those readers typically abandoned their book after the first few paragraphs. What’s more, they were unlikely to pick up another book – any book – afterward. But the readers who were realistic about their abilities? You guessed it: they steadily improved over time.
So, how can you ditch the facade and get real? Here are some simple strategies.
Set authentic goals for yourself. When you’re all about image, you set goals designed to impress other people: I’m going to run a marathon or I’m going to marry the most attractive partner I can find. But if these superficial goals don’t resonate with your actual desires, you’re unlikely to meet them.
Projecting a facade of confidence often leads to pushing away feelings of doubt or insecurity. Don’t fall into this trap! You need to listen to those insecurities. Doubts are often the brain’s way of alerting us that our expectations are overstepping our capabilities. Listening to doubt allows us to reassess, recalibrate, and set ourselves up for long-term success.
You can cultivate true confidence, not just a confident facade, with a trick called “raising the floor.” If you set an unrealistic goal – say, doing a hundred push-ups a day when you’re not in shape – and you fail to meet that goal, you have to lower the bar. Lower the bar too many times, and it’s tempting to give up on push-ups and get back to Netflix. Raising the floor, on the other hand, simply requires you to set a manageable target – perhaps even an easy target. You’ll soon find you’re exceeding your expectations of yourself.
Your body is smart. Listen to it.
According to the old-school definition, it’s “tough” to ignore your feelings and emotions. But actually, when you ignore your feelings, you’re wasting a huge opportunity to become more resilient. Think of emotions as the brain’s first line of defense. They’re giving you a signal that something is up. And the better you’re able to sit with and listen to your emotions, the tougher you’ll become.
Think of situations that typically require toughness: dealing with an unexpected diagnosis, suffering through a traumatic injury, weathering a financial crisis, a relationship breakdown, or a professional disappointment. Each of these situations brings a whole tangle of feelings and emotions with them. The better you’re able to identify and interpret these, the more likely you are to cope with the difficulties you face.
Ever heard of interoception? Basically, it’s your ability to identify and interpret emotions. And having high levels of interoception actually correlates to toughness. Elite level athletes are more likely to have finely honed interoception. So, too, are professionals in another high-stakes realm: the stock market. A study by UK psychologists uncovered that stockbrokers with higher levels of interoception performed more profitably and had more longevity than their less “touchy-feely” colleagues in a field with notoriously high levels of burnout.
Why does interoception give professionals in tough fields the edge? Well, being able to engage with and identify your emotions can also help you control them. It can even help you change them. Let’s say you’re experiencing sweaty palms. If you attribute that sensation to anxiety, you actually heighten any anxiety you may be feeling. But if you attribute it to excitement, you can actually transform a potentially negative emotion – anxiety – into a positive one. Pretty neat, right?
While we’re on the topic of listening to your body, let’s talk about the voice in your head – the one that sometimes says you’re not good enough, or you should have one last drink, or it’s raining so you should skip that jog. Should you listen to that voice?
Yes. With one caveat. But before we get into that, here’s a story that seems totally unrelated.
In 1982, a yacht on a round-the-world trip collided with a whale and immediately sank. The captain and one crewman made it to the life raft. But their distress calls went unanswered. They were in the middle of the Atlantic with limited supplies of potable water. Their survival depended on being able to ration the water, even as they endured the most extreme thirst imaginable.
Every day, the crewman – whose name was Steven Callahan – begged the captain to give him more than his ration of water. Every day, the captain held firm. Thanks to the captain, Steven Callahan survived the ordeal. And the captain? Well, he survived too. Because he was also Steven Callahan.
Steven was parched and desperate. When he tuned into his inner monologue, he heard one voice tempting him to drink more water. He knew that he wouldn’t survive if he caved to the voice that just wanted a drink. But he also knew that ignoring it would only make it grow louder. So he assigned roles to different aspects of his inner voice. The desperate crew member expressed and vented his frustration – but the stoic captain, representing Steven’s more rational voice, won out.
So what’s the caveat? You should listen to your inner voices. Don’t ignore the negative or destructive voices in your head. That will only make them louder. But don’t just stop there. Listen to the voices that are giving you good advice and authentic support. They’re there if you let yourself hear them. Once you’re tuned into your voices and are listening to what they’re saying – instead of ignoring them in an attempt to feel tough – it’s easy to make sure the right voice is talking at the right time.
Learn to respond instead of simply reacting.
As part of an experiment by the University of Wisconsin, two groups of people were subjected to a hot probe placed on the sensitive skin below the wrist. It sounds sadistic, but it was all in the name of science. See, the experiment was designed to measure how we experience pain. And while one group was selected at random, the other group consisted of elite-level meditators. Both groups gave the same rating to the intensity of the pain. But the meditators rated the experience as about three times less unpleasant than the non-meditators.
Why? Meditation, with its focus on non-judgment and being present in the moment, helps create space between a stimulus – in this case, a hot probe – and how we calibrate our response to it. The random group experienced a triple dose of unpleasantness. They didn’t just register the pain of the probe; they also clocked the discomfort of anticipating the stimulus and the automatic, negative emotional response that kicked in immediately after. By contrast, the meditators experienced the pain but were able to slow down, calm themselves, and stop reflexive habits from kicking in – in other words, they felt the feeling but could prevent a freak-out.
How can you attain this level of toughness? Well, studies show that even four days of mindfulness training can vastly improve outcomes for coping with negative stimuli. An even simpler solution? Stop trying to push through pain. Ironically, this creates a double-down effect. If you’ve ever been told to chill out when you’re incandescent with rage, you’ll know how completely useless – and even infuriating – that advice is. Yet this is a move we pull on ourselves all the time when we’re in pain.
Imagine a marathon runner whose hamstrings are burning. Maybe they’re having a panicked internal conversation: Oh no, this hurts. This is agony. Ignore it. Just push through it. But it hurts so much! This doesn’t create much space between stimulus and reaction.
A calm conversation, on the other hand, makes room for a more thoughtful response. It might sound something like this: Oh no, this hurts. That’s OK – that’s normal. Stay loose. Keep breathing. You’ve got this.
This tactic works just as well for emotional pain. From frustrating arguments with your partner to road rage, the more space you can create between stimulus and response, the more calmly and productively you’ll be able to work through issues and triggers.
Here are the key ingredients for calm internal conversations:
Acknowledge the sensation that’s triggering you. Don’t pretend you don’t feel it. Your brain will just signal more and more frantically until you really can’t ignore it.
Get to know your thought patterns – where are your thoughts going in response to a stimulus? Is there a pattern you can identify? Why do you think your thoughts always move in this direction?
Admit when you have the urge to give up, or explode. Try and use self-talk to pass through that urge. This is a high-level mental maneuver, and you won’t always accomplish it perfectly. But the more space you can create between experiencing a feeling and capitulating to the urge for a freak-out, the more likely you are to successfully navigate challenging situations.
The secret ingredient to real resilience is drive.
What separates world champions from other elite athletes? What’s the X factor that allows one smart, innovative thinker to found a company or invent a product that makes waves, while their equally smart, innovative peer makes barely a ripple? Why can some people push themselves harder, for longer, and achieve excellence beyond the average?
Even when you feel completely exhausted and at the point of collapse, you can keep going. Your brain has a vested interest in keeping you alive and healthy – it wouldn’t let you keep going until you had literally zero percent left to give. But some of us can deplete our tanks far further than others, taking them almost to empty. The reasons for this are a strong sense of motivation and drive.
Before we dig into drive, let’s take a sidebar on the topic of motivation. Edward Deci, a professor of psychology, once conducted an experiment where two groups were given blocks and asked to recreate an elaborate construction. Group A was given no incentive, but they found intrinsic motivation in completing their task well. Group B was given an extrinsic motivation – in this case, a financial reward for each construction. So, which group was more motivated? Group B, obviously . . . at least to start with. Once the financial reward was removed, they got way less motivated. Some individuals stopped building altogether.
The lesson here is that intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation. It’s also more sustainable. Extrinsic motivations can change or disappear at any time. Intrinsic motivation is steadfast. So if you want to succeed at something, tap into intrinsic motivation. And if you can’t find any? Maybe ask yourself if you’re pursuing the right goals.
Individuals with exceptional levels of drive have all found an intrinsic motivation to keep pursuing their aims. It’s that sense of unchanging purpose – a purpose connected to spirituality, intellect, community, or mission – that allows them to dig deep.
Purpose can help us overcome severe trauma. And sometimes, it is within severe trauma that we find our purpose. You may have heard of post-traumatic stress. Less well known is the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth. Individuals with post-traumatic growth experience renewed purpose and a greater appreciation of life after severe trauma. A study of POWs from the Vietnam War assessed the prisoners’ response to trauma. Counterintuitively, it showed that those who stayed in captivity the longest experienced the most growth. Their trauma was so severe that it shattered their worldview and their assumptions – in short, their facade. For some, this breakdown revealed a path to a new sense of purpose that allowed them to dig deep, persist, and survive. Now that is real toughness.
Let’s move away from toxic toughness that demands we suffer in silence, repress our feelings, and push through pain. True toughness and profound resilience come from listening to your body, acknowledging your emotions, responding thoughtfully to challenges, and finding the intrinsic drive to dig deep – even in your darkest moments.
Insights from Do Hard Things by Steve Magness
Completing a hard and worthwhile endeavor requires a high level of toughness. People associate toughness with complete confidence, brute force, and bravado. But real toughness is none of those things. Author Steve Magness has explored the science of toughness, and he’s found surprising differences between the traditional toughness maxims and the science of toughness. For starters:
Traditional toughness says, “act confident.” But the science of toughness says, “embrace reality.”
When the US army examined results from their survival training courses, they found that the soldiers who experienced doubt and expected the training to be difficult performed much better than the soldiers who thought the training would be a ‘piece of cake.’ As a wise and experienced military friend once told Steve Magness, “An ounce of doubt keeps me sharp.”
Your perseverance and toughness during the endeavor is largely determined by your expectations leading up to that endeavor. If you underestimate the challenge, you will panic when the endeavor is more demanding than you thought it would be. The key to staying tough is assuming nothing will happen as quickly or as smoothly as you hope, but with enough time and effort, you can achieve more than what most people think is possible. In other words, couple short-term pessimism with long-term optimism.
Traditional toughness says, “ignore the pain and push on.” The science of toughness says, “acknowledge the pain but maintain equanimity.”
Every challenging and worthwhile endeavor brings a heavy dose of discomfort. When discomfort strikes, the amygdala – a small region in the brain that scientists call the body’s alarm system – is activated. People who burnout have an overactivated amygdala they cannot calm down.
To avoid burning out and checking out, we must understand our internal alarms and then quickly turn those alarms down and make intelligent decisions. It’s like getting a low fuel alarm when we’re driving. The alarm provides valuable information we should act on, but if we know we have enough fuel to get to the next gas station, we don’t need the alarm to continue ringing.
Here is a three-part method to reliably return your amygdala to baseline and maintain a state of equanimity (evenness and composure in stressful situations):
- Zoom out and explain: When I get frustrated while working, I zoom out and see myself from a distance, then think, “Nathan is getting frustrated.” Explaining stressful situations to ourselves in the third person is an effective way to regulate emotion. In one study, kids who referred to themselves in the third person while working on a frustrating task were 30% better at regulating their emotions and staying on task.
- Reappraise: When we take a test, we can interpret nervousness as a sign we are not prepared for a test, or we can see it as a sign the test is important, and our body is providing us with additional energy to focus. When we reappraise, we identify ways in which discomfort is beneficial. The more we reappraise, the more likely we are to deal with discomfort in a productive manner (rather than running from it or ignoring it).
- Reassure: Experienced meditators are so good at calming themselves down after a stressful experience because they’ve spent thousands of hours observing thoughts and emotions come and go and understand that everything is temporary. We need not meditate for thousands of hours to know that discomfort is a fleeting sensation that rises and falls. If we use discomfort as a cue to tell ourselves, “This too shall pass,” we can return to a state of equanimity.
Traditional toughness says, “forget your psychological needs and just do the work.” The science of toughness says, “satisfy your psychological needs and you’ll work harder than ever.”
Humans have three psychological needs: autonomy, competency, and belonging. If you can cultivate a feeling of autonomy, competency, and belonging during a difficult endeavor, you will dramatically increase your odds of finishing that endeavor.
- Generate a feeling of autonomy by acknowledging that you always have a choice. Even if told what to do, you can choose how you think about it or choose not to do it and accept the consequences.
- Generate a feeling of competency by constantly feeling like you’re making progress. Reflect on the work you’ve completed in the past few days to get you to where you are today. Then, focus on one tiny thing you can do to continue making progress in the next 5 seconds. For a runner mid-marathon, that means reflecting on the miles she’s completed and then executing the next few steps as well as she can.
- Generate a feeling of belonging by remembering the people or mission you are struggling for. A soldier sustains mental resiliency during a grueling battle when he fights for the soldiers next to him. A solo entrepreneur deals with setback after setback when she is on a mission to improve the lives of her customers.
“When we satisfy our (psychological) needs, we are allowed to fulfill our potential, (because) our drive comes from within, so fear and pressure no longer consume us.” – Steve Magness
The most important thing to take away from all this is:
Acting tough and being tough are two different things. Moving away from flawed notions of toughness and instead listening to your body, your emotions, and your inner voice will allow you to develop the lasting resilience to overcome even the most daunting challenges.
And here’s some more actionable advice:
Take a time-out.
If you’re having trouble dealing with a negative stimulus, try and get some perspective. Ask yourself how you’ll feel about this issue in six months, or a year, or ten years. It’s a really quick way to create space around the stimulus and reframe its significance.
About the author
Steve Magness is a world-renowned expert on performance, well-being, and sustainable success. His most recent work is Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness. He is coauthor of the best-selling Peak Performance and The Passion Paradox. In his coaching practice, Steve works with executives, entrepreneurs, and athletes on their performance and mental skills. He’s served as a consultant on mental skills development for professional sports teams, including some of the top teams in professional sports.
His writing has appeared in Outside, Runner’s World, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health, and a variety of other outlets. In addition, Steve’s expertise on elite sport and performance has been featured in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Guardian, Business Insider, and ESPN The Magazine.
Steve received his undergraduate degree from the University of Houston and a graduate degree from George Mason University. He currently lives in Houston, Tx with his wife Hillary. Once upon a time, he ran a mile in 4:01 in high school, at the time the 6th fastest high school mile in US history.
Counseling, Popular Applied Psychology, Popular Psychology Personality Study, Success Self-Help, Personal Development, Leadership, Productivity, Business, Science, Mindfulness, Happiness, Sports Journalism
Table of Contents
Introduction: How We Got Toughness Wrong and Where to Go
Chapter 1 From Tough Coaches, Tough Parents, and Tough Guys to Finding Real Inner Strength 3
Chapter 2 Sink or Swim: How We Took the Wrong Lesson from the Military 23
The First Pillar of Toughness: Ditch the Facade, Embrace Reality
Chapter 3 Accept What You Are Capable Of 41
Chapter 4 True Confidence Is Quiet; Insecurity Is Loud 59
Chapter 5 Know When to Hold ‘Em and When to Fold ‘Em 85
The Second Pillar of Toughness: Listen to Your Body
Chapter 6 Your Emotions Are Messengers, Not Dictators 115
Chapter 7 Own the Voice in Your Head 139
The Third Pillar of Toughness: Respond Instead of React
Chapter 8 Keep Your Mind Steady 163
Chapter 9 Turn the Dial So You Don’t Spiral 193
The Fourth Pillar of Toughness: Transcend Discomfort
Chapter 10 Build the Foundation to Do Hard Things 229
Chapter 11 Find Meaning in Discomfort 253
From beloved performance expert and bestselling author of Peak Performance comes a revolutionary science-based new definition of toughness–one that focuses on assessing a challenge on a physiological and psychological level.
Toughness has long been held as a fundamental key to achieving peak performance. For generations, we’ve been taught toughness means bulldozing through–pushing to the point of breakdown–and that showing any sign of weakness is failure. This model of toughness has long been glorified and celebrated. But the truth is, it doesn’t work.
Steve Magness, a performance scientist who coaches Olympic athletes, now offers a new kind of toughness–real toughness–that can help anyone navigate adversity and challenge. Grounded in the latest sports science and psychology, real toughness is about paying attention to your physiological, emotional, and psychological responses (from pain to anger) and working with them to overcome a challenge. Real toughness works with our biology and psychology; fake toughness fights against them.
Real toughness is based on four core pillars which cultivate genuine inner strength:
- Pillar 1- Ditch the Façade, Embrace Reality
- Pillar 2- Listen to Your Body
- Pillar 3- Respond, Instead of React
- Pillar 4- Transcend Discomfort
Like Endure and The Talent Code, Real Toughness flips the script on what it means to be tough, pointing to new research that shows how our understanding of resilience–one that ignores discomfort–is wrong. Magness draws from mindfulness, military case studies, sports psychology, neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy to show how real toughness makes us more successful, happier, and better people.
“Steve Magness is one of the giants of modern thinking about high performance across domains. . . . Real Toughness is a crucial read for anyone who cares about delivering their best when the stakes are highest.”–Alex Hutchinson, New York Times bestselling author of Endure
“In Do Hard Things, Steve Magness beautifully and persuasively reimagines our understanding of toughness. This is a must-read for parents and coaches and anyone else looking to prepare for life’s biggest challenges.” — Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers and Talking to Strangers and host of the Revisionist History podcast
“A welcome alternative to the traditional emphasis on ‘pushing through.’ Informative and entertaining, this has the power to help readers go the extra mile.” — Publishers Weekly
“For too long, we have lauded stories of coaches and leaders who practice the ‘weed-out’ school of toughness—subject a bunch of people to something unpleasant, and those who survive must have become high performers because of it. While those stories have grown in prominence, the body of scientific research has grown in a different direction, indicating that fortitude is not a trait that magically grows under extreme duress, but rather a skill that can slowly but surely be cultivated. It is time to bring the stories in line with the research, and I think Steve Magness is perfectly positioned to do just that.” — David Epstein, New York Times bestselling author of Range and The Sports Gene
“Steve delivers a critical message for our current age of posing and performance: real toughness is not about callous bravado, but instead about the ability to navigate difficulty with grace and an unwavering focus on what matters.”
— Cal Newport, New York Times bestselling author of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism
“Steve Magness is one of the giants of modern thinking about high performance across domains, blending a broad knowledge of cutting-edge psychology with hard-earned practical experience from the world-class athletes and other experts he coaches. In his new book, he takes on an age-old question—who triumphs, and why, when the going gets tough?—and reveals that many of our cherished instincts and assumptions are wrong. A crucial read for anyone who cares about delivering their best when the stakes are highest.” — Alex Hutchinson, New York Times bestselling author of Endure
“Do Hard Things will change your mind about what it means to be tough. Steve Magness makes a beautiful and compelling case for the value of inner strength over outer strength and humility over bluster. A must read!” — Annie Duke, author of Thinking in Bets
“Steve Magness possesses an incredible range of wisdom and knowledge about the science, psychology and practical sides of sport performance. Do Hard Things is a master class in how to develop resilience, persistence and confidence under pressure.” — Christie Aschwanden, New York Times bestselling author of Good to Go
“A must-read book on a timely and timeless topic, written by the perfect person to explore what it actually means to be tough. Steve’s been thinking about these issues for years, and this book presents a fascinating and, more importantly, extremely helpful new perspective on toughness and how to build it.” — Brad Stulberg, bestselling author of The Practice of Groundedness and Peak Performance
“Steve Magness has established himself as a leading voice in performance optimization and achieving one’s personal bestness, arete as the Greek’s say. In Do Hard Things, Magness questions longstanding beliefs that toughness is developed through hubris and infallibility. What he reveals is both hopeful and reassuring. Do Hard Things is essential reading for anyone looking to cultivate inner strength in a genuine and authentic way.” — Dean Karnazes, ultramarathoner and New York Times bestselling author
“Do Hard Things is an incredibly deep and completely new approach that examines why and how people overcome the toughest situations. Explaining different stories in a very entertaining lecture for the readers, Steve Magness, one of the most recognized authors and thinkers in sports science, gives us a master class on how to develop resilience and skills to perform at our best in difficult situations.” — Kilian Jornet, author of Above the Clouds
“In Do Hard Things, Steve Magness dismantles the widely endorsed but damaging suggestion that toughness is about bulldozing your way through difficult situations. Magness’ version of toughness—”real toughness”—is more nuanced, forgiving, flexible, and learnable. Real toughness means processing stressors thoughtfully, deliberately, and with vulnerability, rather than superficially and rigidly. Do Hard Things changed how I think about stoicism and strength, both on the sports field and more broadly, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.” — Adam Alter, Professor of Marketing and Psychology, New York University Stern School of Business and New York Times bestselling author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink
“A thoughtful examination of what it really means to have the right stuff.” — Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of the TED podcast WorkLife
“We’re past the days of ‘no pain, no gain.’ Steve Magness, elite running coach and performance guru, on what toughness looks like now.” — GQ