Have been reading Can’t Hurt Me, the amazing life story of David Goggins. He is a retired Navy SEAL, extreme endurance athlete, accomplished ultra-marathoner and now motivational speaker (thanks Anirudh Singh for recommending this awesome book to me). To quote his personal website, David is the “only member of the U.S. Armed Forces to complete SEAL training (including two Hell Weeks), the U.S. Army Ranger School (where he graduated as Enlisted Honor Man) and Air Force Tactical Air Controller training”.
In the book, David talks about coming from an extremely disadvantaged background and an environment full of poverty, domestic violence, an abusive father, racial discrimination and learning challenges. From a stage in his life where he was extremely overweight, doing menial jobs like cleaning vermin for restaurants in graveyard shifts and essentially, not knowing why he even existed, he rose to become a Navy SEAL and in process, cleared not one, but 2 Hell Weeks. A Hell Week is the single most-toughest military training of its kind in the world, where trainees don’t sleep for an entire week, do multiple land, sea and air based exercises, in an environment where trainers try and break them at every moment to get them to quit.
David just didn’t stop at becoming a SEAL, and went on to test his mental toughness while finishing multiple ultra-marathons, ultra-triathlons and other endurance feats.
How did David do this? And what do you and I have to learn from this?
For me, this book has come at a great time. Over last year or so, as I have been trying to build Workomo from scratch, this book has led me to view these initial building years as my own (of course, a much, much, simpler version of) SEAL training. And there is something to be learnt from David here!
It’s all in the mind. All of us have limitless potential. The only reason we don’t stretch our boundaries is because we let our minds create walls of comfort, risk and certainty around us. Essentially, optimizing for survival vs shooting for becoming the best version of ourselves. The mind is our greatest enemy…and friend. When David couldn’t control his mind, he was aimless, unhealthy & unfocused. When he made his mind his best friend, he rose from weighing more than 225 lbs and not being able to run continuously for more than 10 mins, to completing 2 Hell Weeks and becoming a Navy SEAL in….less than 12 months!! For all of us either already working on big challenges, or trying to get the motivation to take on big challenges, we have to actively work on our minds first.
But how do you become mentally tough? The answer lies in a simple question — “why am I doing this?”. David Goggins shares an interesting trend from his extreme pursuits — be it during the SEAL Hell Week or during a 100 mile, 24 hour, non-stop ultra-marathon, there comes a point where the pain is too much to handle, where your mind, your body, your soul, everything is on the verge of giving up. I call it the “chasm”. At this point, a person typically asks an internal question — “why am I doing this?”. For instance, during a SEAL training chasm, a trainee starts thinking of being at home, curled up in bed, next to their partner. Or while at the 3/4th mark in an ultra-marathon, thinks of rather being at a beach, having a beer and chilling out. At the chasm, people go two ways. The ones that don’t receive a strong, fundamental and cathartic internal answer to the “why” question, quit. The others — they get an answer to the “why” question straight from their soul. To them, alternatives aren’t an option, winning this will save them, give them meaning, give virtue to their existence, maybe even keep them sane.
Interestingly, for the 2nd bucket of people, getting this answer from their soul re-energizes them. They cross the chasm and enter what is called as the “Second Wind” — a burst of fresh energy, feeling less pain, getting a new wave of intent & motivation. David mentions his second winds during ultra-marathons, where he stopped feeling ankle fractures, blisters on his feet or dislocated toe-nails, and just kept running. This second wind usually carries people to the finish line.
Another by-product of crossing the chasm. People who don’t quit, then start accepting the pain, and even enjoying it. The answer to their “why” impacts their very existence, and they know that living through this pain is probably the only way they will get closer to finding the answers they are looking for. They might never find them, but are at least trying & getting closer.
As a founder, I face cycles of steep highs and deep lows. Some days start with a panicky feeling, others are full of “what should I do now?” questions. Am sure every founder would confirm experiencing the chasm on a periodic basis, especially in the first 36 months of trying to build a company. What I have learnt from David Goggins is observing my answer to the “why am I doing this?” question. Is it coming from a deep place inside me? Is it cathartic enough? Does it have a direct impact on the meaning of my very existence? In smart people, a current state of “desire” is always there. The more important question is the source of this desire. How deep & soulful is that source is what will ultimately determine whether you quit at the chasm, or enter your second wind.
Reading about the life of David Goggins has had a big impact on the way I perceive myself, my journey as well as other startup teams, both as a founder & investor. When I see pedigreed, Ivy League founders giving up quickly at the chasm, I now have additional perspective of the “why” question and perhaps, their answer to it wasn’t strong enough. The “return-on-pain” wasn’t justified in their life math!
Relatedly, I now try to probe the “why” question much more deeply for anyone am looking to collaborate with. For teams/ companies/ individuals that have not quit at the chasm and survived, I feel there will be tremendous latent value in them. As a founder, I am now consciously training my mind to survive the chasms, while as an investor, I will proactively look for teams/ companies/ individuals with these characteristics.
If as a startup team, you are in a good market and have a demonstrated ability to survive the chasms (which also means, the answer to your “why” is cathartic enough), your probability of success is significantly higher. Become the David Goggins of your field!