David Goggins: Unlocking the iron will

You are running your first ultra marathon. You are 70 miles into a 100 mile race. All the small bones in your feet are broken. You have a couple of stress fractures. Do you continue the race?

What if you have a heart defect and your atrial septum reduces your endurance? Ok lets go one step ahead: what if your kidney stops functioning and you start peeing blood?

David Goggins experienced that. And yet he finished the race. What gave him this superhuman mental fortitude?

From rock bottom to being the world’s best endurance athlete

Goggins was not a born athlete. He came from an abusive home. He was bullied a lot as a kid. He developed a stutter. By the age of 24, he was extremely obese. He ate mini donuts every day like tic-tacs. He was at a dead end job living a sad miserable friendless life.

He had hit his bottom. Goggins was tired of living a life being a nobody. He decided to change. He decided to stop giving up. At which point, a wonderful crazy thing happened to him. He heard about the Navy Seals on TV. How they have the toughest program to get in.

Goggins decided that he would become a Navy Seal. Only thing? The program does not accept obese candidates. But the new Goggins has decided not to give up. So Goggins lost 50kg of weight in 3 months!

Finishing the hardest training in the world

Navy Seal training is one of the hardest in the world and can take someone years to pass. But Goggins had decided to stop giving up. The hardest part of the program is something called Hell Week: 130 hours of continuous challenges. Goggins got pneumonia during hell week. So he dropped out to reattempt it later again.

The second time around, he suffered from stress fractures. And had to drop out again. But he had decided to not give up. So he attempted the hell week third time in a year – and passed it to become a Navy Seal!

As a soldier, he was shipped off to Afghanistan and Iraq. Where he lost a lot of friends in a helicopter crash.

Which led him to become an endurance athlete. To raise money for his friends’ kids, he started running marathons.

When someone invited Goggins to run a 100 mile race. And at 70 miles, Goggins started to pee blood.

But Goggins had decided not to give up. So what did he do? He walked the next mile. And the mile after that. At around 81 miles, he felt like he could run again! And he completed the 100 mile race in 19 hours and 6 minutes!

It’s this experience that caused Goggins to create a 40% rule.

What’s the 40% rule?

Goggins believes that when your mind says you are done, you are only 40% done! 

If you push yourself, you can achieve a lot more! It’s just that most people can’t push themselves when their mind tells them to stop. 

As Goggins says: “The only way you gain mental toughness is to do things you’re not happy doing.”

So how did Goggins rewire his mind?

Tricking the dopamine brain

Mark Lepper and his colleagues from Stanford University conducted an experiment. The experiment was done on kids in preschool who liked drawing. They gave stars to half the kids everytime they finished a drawing. 

Soon, these kids who got a reward stopped drawing in their free time. They stopped drawing when they knew they wouldn’t get a star in the end.

Our brains crave rewards. They need their dopamine hit. Without it, we stop doing previously enjoyable tasks as well. 

So how do you trick your brains? You rewire yourself to believe that:

The effort is the reward

If you get joy from the pain, you will be able to continue forging ahead. But how do you start liking pain? What you’ve got to do is build a connection between the feeling of pain and effort to reward. You have to “know” that because the task is painful, your mind will release more dopamine in the end.

Three tactics that Goggins teaches:

  1. The cookie jar method: Whenever Goggins is facing a difficult situation, he mentally reaches into his cookie jar. And pulls out a past victory – some hard won accomplishment. Memory of past achievements is a powerful thing!
  2. Visualization: Goggins would envision himself achieving his goal. He would create anticipation and excitement for the reward he knows is coming.
  3. Affirmations: Goggins would say “I am the toughest, strongest, most determined person on Earth!” He would tell himself: “I know this is hard, but I am still doing it because I enjoy doing it.”

It may seem like a lie, but it will be a temporary lie. Because soon enough, your mind will connect the reward with the effort.

These mental tactics may sound wishy-washy or even too good to be true. But they work. Because belief is the foundation of will power. And science proves this too. When people thought they were drinking coffee, their energy and alertness went up, even though they were given placebo decaf. 

It’s these tactics that Goggins built his will power from. He remade himself from an obese loser to a navy seal to becoming an endurance athlete with a heart defect. He has completed more than 60 ultra marathons and raised over $2 million for a nonprofit that gives scholarships to children of fallen soldiers.

Action Summary:

  • You’ve got to rewire yourself to love hard work. To connect effort with reward.
  • To rewire your mindset so that it thrives on hard work, work on both your actions and your identity. Doing + being. The Cookie Jar Method powers your actions by reminding you of past achievements, while visualization and affirmations shape your identity to find joy in effort and challenges.