What Did Old-School Toughness Ever Achieve?

[3-Minute Read + Video] Put down your battle axe. There's a better way to respond to your fears than going to war, which empowers you to perform at your best.

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What Did Old-School Toughness Ever Achieve?

Put down your battle axe. There’s a better way to respond to your fears than going to war, which empowers you to perform at your best.

Toughness is the emotion I dig into when confronting an overwhelming situation. Grit is another term I use: the willingness and ability to persist in adversity.

Old-school toughness is a particular type of inner grit that originates from a masculine stereotype that is long outdated. 

These days, I label it the “battle method”. Whenever a scary scenario arises, a person using old-school toughness goes to war with the task. They sound their mental battle cries like “No pain, no gain!” “HTFU”, or “Only wimps waiver” and charge at their foe.

I’ve used old-school toughness throughout my life to achieve many extraordinary feats.

But does it bring out the best in us?  


That’s because old-school toughness limits adaptability and inhibits learning. Without those two vital drivers, you can only ever perform to a good level; you’ll never be your best.  

Old-school toughness works – to a point.

Fifteen years ago, I stood on the start line of my first 100km ultramarathon race. I had 22 hours to traverse 100km of rugged, mountainous terrain. The weather forecast predicted temperatures of above 40 degrees Celcius (104F). 

A war raged in my mind while I waited for the race director to blow his whistle.  It sounded something like this:

“It’s 6am and I already feel hot. How am I going to survive this?”

“Stop being such a wimp.”

“I’m feeling nervous.”

“Why did I even think I could do this?”

“I shouldn’t have skipped that training session.”

That day, I fought through fear and crippling heat to the race. 

The following year, I returned to do the race again, in far worse conditions and won the female category.

It felt good to win and boosted my confidence in the sport. But fledging self-belief would soon tumble.

In my third year, I stepped up the distance and made my first attempt at the race’s 100-mile (173km) version. 

Around 2 am, 20 hours into the race, the nagging voice of self-doubt returned to wage a new battle in my mind.

“Maybe I’m not capable of this.”

“You’re a wimp!”

“What made you think you were good enough?”

Weakened by the effects of sleep deprivation and exhaustion, I had nothing left to fight the insurgence.

My race ended with heartache and tears at the 125km checkpoint.

IMAGE: Elevation profile of the Great North Walk Ultras. The scene of my first 100-km and last 100-mile trail ultramarathons.

Bury your fear, and it will haunt you.

The core premise of old-school toughness is to ignore your fear and do it anyway. 

That concept has three fundamental flaws.

#1 Ignoring your fear doesn’t make it go away.

You can suppress fear and push it deep into your mind. Humans have evolved this powerful skill so that we can survive in extreme situations.  

But suppression isn’t deletion. The fear and its triggers are still in your mind and will rise from the depths at some stage, usually at the worst possible moment.

#2 You’re destroying your self-esteem.

Fear is an alert system within your mind. Your subconscious is trying to draw your attention to something – a gap or a threat – and protect you from harm. 

Whenever you tell that inner voice to shut up, it’s wrong or foolish you’re eroding your self-trust. You’re not listening to or trusting your inner voice. 

Losing self-trust has the knock-on effect of destroying self-esteem, which prevents you from performing at your best and, in some cases, from performing at all. 

#3 You’re wiping out the learning opportunity.

Addressing the source of your fear rather than ignoring it will create your greatest opportunities for growth and future success. 

Old-school toughness cuts short the fact-gathering process in your mind. It leaves your brain stranded without answers.

Expanding your safe zone removes self-doubt.

“It is believed that in the midst of a fight, a bull can find his own particular area of safety in the arena. There he can reclaim his strength and power. This place and inner state are called his querencia. As long as the bull remains enraged and reactive, the matador is in charge. Yet when he finds his querencia, he gathers his strength and loses his fear. From the matador’s perspective, at this point the bull is truly dangerous, for he has tapped into his power.”

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha

After my failure at the 100-mile race, I was determined to return and succeed. To do so, I would need to train my mind more effectively, not my body.

Cracking the mindset puzzle and feeling deeply confident in my abilities took years. I share details of that process in stories such as “Can You Have Success Without Suffering?” and “Don’t Be Afraid of Your Comfort Zone”.

In short, instead of trying to “conquer” a race or mountain, I switch my attention to feeling safe, connection, and enjoying the process.

Shifting my mindset also redefined what I thought was possible for me to achieve. Within 12 months, I had stepped up to run 860km (20 marathons) in 12 days, kick-starting an extraordinary three years of extreme achievements. 

PHOTO: At the finish line of the 100 Miler that beat me the first time but I went back to conquer it three times. This photo was the last trail ultramarathon that I ran before retiring from the sport. 100 miles of brutal trail covered in under 30 hours.

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

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