Doing the Tough Stuff

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Do Hard Things turns one today. The title of the book implies one of its main messages: embrace discomfort.

When we embrace discomfort, it changes how we handle the tough stuff. A study that came out after the book was finished largely validates this sentiment. Researchers had individuals do some of the hardest things in modern society: consider political viewpoints from the opposite side of the aisle on the most controversial topics. When researchers primed subjects to go towards the discomfort, to see the feelings of anxiety as a sign they were in the right place for growth, they reported being more open and motivated to read about opposing views. They found the same results when doing other challenging things (improv comedy or journaling about a difficult moment, for example).

But embracing discomfort is just step one. That gets us beyond our common tactics of avoiding or compartmentalizing the tough stuff and pushes us to sit with the emotions, feelings, and inner dialogue that come with challenging situations. A significant part of Do Hard Things is centred around teaching people how to do this better in sport, business, and life.

But a year later, the more important message from the book is the conceptualization of toughness in society. When I started the book, I knew about the dangers of the ‘old school’ view of toughness in sport. The “Bobby Knight” model of authoritarianism, screaming, ranting, and punishing no longer worked (perhaps it never did). I saw the consequences in both performance and mental health. I saw people like Steve Kerr, Pete Carrol, and others leading the way. I wrote about and heard the same thing with elite military operators. That people’s conception of what the Army, Navy, and Air Force were doing was divorced from the ‘new school’ model of toughness they were trying to implement.

But what I slightly undervalued was that the same mis-conceptualization going on everywhere. And unlike in sport or the military, we weren’t taking sufficient steps to course correct.

Look around right now, and you might see:

  • How we’ve made individuals and groups self-defining. We’ve tied of our identities to and worshiping of people (e.g., Trumpism in politics), so much so that we can’t even have civil discourse on our most pressing problems.
  • Horrific statistics on young adults and social media, particularly among teenage girls. The pull towards a distorted view of yourself and others is partially driving this phenomenon.
  • Alarming data on young men falling behind in academics and mental health, coupled with the rise of distorted views of masculinity from influencers like Andrew Tate. Or even look towards the gap Jordan Peterson has filled. Once providing helpful Jungian psychology to the masses, he now endlessly and angrily rants about just about everything on Twitter, convincing young people the world is dangerous, gone crazy, and that one solution is an all-meat diet.
  • A return to old-school models of business, with Elon Musk torching Twitter’s workforce, and then forcing fired employees to sue the richest man in the world to get what they were contractually obligated.
  • An inability to have any sort of dialogue without succumbing to yelling, screaming, and name-calling on any slightly controversial topic.

There are two common denominators among these items. First, they traffic in fear. They convince us the world is threatening, that everyone is out to get us, and that it’s a perpetual game of us versus them, so people latch on to a political figure, influencer, or ideology as the solution to their problems. Stoke fear. Say I alone can save you. It’s no different than the old-school coach screaming at players, and saying “If you want to win, this is the only way.”

Second, they rely on what I call the Instagramification of ourselves. We overemphasize appearance instead of substance. We get fooled into thinking that the external matters more than the internal. We get locked in a comparison game on social media. We convince ourselves that the number of followers is what defines our influence. We start being a jerk online with extreme views, because it gets us more views, and makes us temporarily feel relevant and significant. In other words, we chase the delusional and fleeting, instead of the secure and lasting.

In the book, I concluded: We’ve fallen for the appearance without the substance. We’ve chosen the glitzy Instagram filter version of toughness. One that is staged, distorted, and dependent on choosing to live in a fantasy instead of embracing reality—acknowledging the struggles, the failure, the doubts, the insecurity. Real toughness is coming to terms with who we are, what we face, and making sense of and finding meaning in that struggle.

This message is even more important now than when I wrote it. Not just for success in sport or business, but for society as a whole. Real toughness is about wrestling with difficult ideas and topics instead of avoiding them. It’s about being able to have conversations with those who hold different views, without demonizing them. It’s about leading with love and care of our fellow human beings, instead of fear, hate, and a sense of tribalism. It’s leading by following the evidence and doing what’s right, instead of what will get you more votes, likes, or accolades. It’s cultivating an environment that allows people to thrive instead of utilizing fear and punishment as a way to control.

In the book, I outlined how to do this on teams and in organizations. But once again, this is even more important for society. We need to give people the opportunity for competency, connection, and autonomy so more of our lives can have genuine meaning and significance. We need to create the space for people to belong because of genuine connection, not because of mutual hatred of one another. The toughest teams take a collection of individuals with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints and allow them to come together for a common mission or goal.

As I reflect on the book a year since its release, I think this is the most important message. Yes, reconfiguring your view on toughness will help you run a little faster, handle the grind at work, or lead your team better. But more so, shifting how we see toughness, resilience, and grit pushes back on the current trend toward stoking fear and outrage in society. We get to choose how we live and lead. And how we do so will flow through our children, co-workers, teammates, and bosses. Are we falling in line with the old model, or are we trying to build people up, give them the tools to succeed, and give them the opportunity to fulfill their potential? It’s up to all of us to lead. Let’s try and be up for it.

-Steve

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