Beyond Fake Toughness

The truth about working through challenging situations

Brad Stulberg

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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 who works her athletes so hard that they frequently get injured or sick. The politician who divides the country, hiding behind their love of automatic weapons when in fact their real fear is their own isolation and declining status. It’s the person who hates the “other” because that’s a lot easier than facing their own pain and suffering. In short, fake toughness is projecting machismo instead of dealing with the real issue(s).

It is good to know what toughness is not. But it is 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, which is both timely and imperative. It is 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 venture to say we’re desperate for it.

This is why I was thrilled to see a recently published book, Do Hard Things, by Steve Magness, make the case for redefining toughness as experiencing something that is subjectively distressing, leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take a thoughtful action that aligns with your values.

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

  • Knowing what you value
  • Being able to sit 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 help when you do.

In other words, toughness is much less an external show of bravado and much more an internal attribute.

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Brad Stulberg

Bestselling author of Master of Change and The Practice of Groundedness