Fake toughness is easy to spot. 

It’s the guy picking a fight at your local gym. The anonymous poster acting like a hard ass on message boards. The bully at school. The executive who masks his own insecurity by yelling at his subordinates. The strength coach that works her athletes so hard that they frequently get injured or sick. The person who hates the “other” because that’s a lot easier than facing their own pain and suffering.

It’s good to know what toughness is not. But it’s even better to know what it is.

Understanding true toughness isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It’s the first step to practicing and teaching it. This is both timely and imperative. It’s obvious that society is filled with so much fake toughness—the outcomes of which are often disastrous. We could use a good dose of the real thing. I’d say we’re desperate for it.

Defining real toughness was the topic of the last Performance Path discussion group, a monthly meeting of individuals who are committed to the path of performance and wellbeing. Here is what we came up with:

Toughness is experiencing something that is subjectively distressing, leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take a thoughtful action that aligns with your core values.

This means that the practice of toughness requires a few things, all of which are interrelated:

  • Knowing what you value.
  • Being with discomfort instead of immediately reacting. 
  • Taking into account what is happening around you, but not being unduly influenced by external pressures.
  • Paying attention to the path of least resistance and asking yourself, “Is this what I really want?” before going down it.
  • Not asking for help when you don’t need it but asking for it when you do

Since toughness means opening up to what is happening instead of shutting down, a tough person is constantly growing. Perhaps this explains why toughness is often associated with strength.

And yet doing hard things—be it 100 burpees, a silent meditation retreat, or racing a marathon—for the sake of doing hard things isn’t in and of itself toughness. It’s simply training to be with discomfort and act in alignment with your core values. Can you be present in challenging times? Can keep going? Can you love? Can you show compassion? Can you realize when you are beyond your limits and ask for help?

Tons of pushups and big muscles are nice. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying them. But here’s the thing: eventually you’ll get old. The kind of toughness that lasts is an inside game. It’s not about having a big body. It’s about having a big heart and mind.



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