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Why Society Loves Fake Toughness And Desperately Needs the Real Thing

“He’s strong and he’s tough.”

Who was Donald Trump talking about? Perhaps a medal of Honor recipient, or a mother who survived cancer, or a doctor who worked tirelessly on the front lines of a pandemic? No, Trump was describing Vladimir Putin. This wasn’t Trump’s first foray into calling an authoritarian tough, he once described Kim Jung Un in the same manner.

But It’s not just Trump who has this vision of what it means to be tough. Most of us share the same story. We confuse power and control, an external sense of confidence, with being tough. You can see it in how we prop up sports coaches who rely on authoritarian rule and punishment to lead. For years, we championed people like Bobby Knight for their grit and discipline, even though he got fired because he couldn’t control his emotions in front of a random teenager.

It’s in our parenting. We tell our boys, to suck it up, don’t cry, grow up, whenever they show emotions. According to a 2013 study, 81 percent of Americans thought parents were too soft on their children. We celebrate politicians with book titles that include fortitude, self-reliance, and resilience, but when it comes to acting in alignment with those values, they throw them to the wayside.

We’ve fallen for the appearance of resilience and fortitude, without the substance. We prioritize looking tough, instead of actually being. We’ve fallen for the elementary school bully version of toughness. It’s all fake. We need more real toughness.

A prominent Republican provided a definition of the real variety. “Let us have faith that right makes might, and, in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1860. It was this speech, where Lincoln laid the groundwork to combat slavery, to paint it as a moral ill.

It’s time to go back to Lincoln’s version of toughness. One not based on bluster, bravado, and the external, but a deep, resolute inner strength. He was the steady hand, showing equanimity when choosing rivals to join his presidential cabinet. He combined his steadiness with a willingness to adjust and change as he searched for the right general who could lead his country to victory before finally finding his man, Ulysses S. Grant. He had a level of humility and realism that few possess. Once saying, he had been elected president, “by a mere accident, and not through any merit.”

In 1863, when one of his generals had failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s army after a battle, he penned an angry letter, writing, “my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape– He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war– As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.” The letter didn’t make it to General Meade. Lincoln never sent it. It was found in his desk after his assassination. Lincoln was able to pause, to step back, in even the grimmest of circumstances.

Lincoln provides a blueprint for what real toughness is. Equanimity, flexibility, seeing reality, humility, emotional awareness, and control, putting your ego aside. And a driving purpose to fuel the journey. Honest Abe was, of course, human, with foibles and flaws like the rest of us. He was a man of contrasts, weeping freely, yet known for his stoicism. He was known for seeing the world as it was, through a lens of depressive realism, while at the same time engendering an endless hope that progress was near and possible. That even in the throes of the nation’s bitter conflict, that we could all come together and strive for a “more perfect union.” Optimism, pessimism, and realism all rolled into one.

It’s in those contrasts and his common humanity that his inner strength shines through. Lincoln was not a man who relied on bluster and bravado. He was a man who struggled through lifelong depression, who did not miraculously ‘overcome’ it, who even during his most heroic moments experienced doubt, anxiety, and dread, yet was able to use the discomfort life had thrust upon him to navigate the toughest periods in American history. Not through dictatorial authority, but with grit and grace. As Joshua Wolf Shrink, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, wrote, “he was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When faced with uncertainty he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension, and the courage to be alone.”

It’s time to turn back our definition of what it means to be tough. In our current society, we prop up the brazen and boisterous, providing a platform for those who scream the loudest. We promote those who are brash and overconfident, even though their work and results don’t merit the bravado. We prop up the companies who create slick-looking ads promoting values of inclusion and diversity, all while the inner workings of those companies are littered with cultures of abuse, hostility, and harassment.

All of it is a facade. False confidence, fragile egos, values that are slogans, reliance on fear-driven control. We’ve fallen for the appearance without the substance. We’ve chosen the glitzy Instagram filter version of toughness. It’s time to turn back to Lincoln’s version. In my book Do Hard Things, I discovered that Lincoln’s version aligns with the latest science, and the world’s best athletes, entrepreneurs, and soldiers. Accept reality, instead of faking confidence. Navigate discomfort instead of trying to plow through it.  Create space to respond, instead of reacting. Motivating others by fulfilling their basic needs—to feel they belong, have a sense of control, and can make progress in whatever their pursuit is— instead of through punishment and control.

Or as one research review studying hundreds of athletes and coaches concluded, “the keys’ to promoting mental toughness do not lie in this autocratic, authoritarian, or oppressive style. It appears to lie, paradoxically, with the coach’s ability to produce an environment, which emphasizes trust and inclusion, humility, and service.” In other words, the key to toughness lies in being a decent human being. We need more inner strength. Our society may depend on it.

Steve

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