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Book Review: Can't Hurt Me

“It takes relentless self-discipline to schedule suffering into your day, every day, but if you do, you’ll find that at the other end of that suffering is a whole other life just waiting for you.”

-David Goggins

The strength of this book is its simplicity. Goggins’ magic formula for mastering yourself is to do lots of hard things to “callous your mind”, and optimally to do these things when you least want to. He applies this to basically every problem in life; he doesn’t exactly ignore structural problems or systemic inequalities, but the only axis these things have any meaning for him is in how much he can use them as fuel. No matter what life throws at you – for him personally it was racism, a learning disorder, an incredibly abusive father, and being born with a hole in his heart, among other things – the answer is always to work harder at callousing your mind.

Doing this gives you a reason to do hard things besides just doing the thing itself: because every time you choose to do a hard thing, it makes it easier for you to do hard things in the future. Under this framework, every task, no matter how dreary, can be integrated into the overarching goals of your life and imbued with a sense of greater purpose. If you can learn how to reframe hard things, or other various types of suffering, as opportunities for growth, you can flip the polarity of the part of your brain that responds to them – instead of being immediately repulsed by hard things, you can embrace the pain and give it meaning. It doesn’t exactly make you enjoy suffering1 but it does make it feel more rewarding.

Goggins takes these beliefs to their absolute logical conclusion (well, one possible conclusion). He fully embraces the idea that the race never ends: “we’re either getting better or we’re getting worse.” I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand it allowed him to transcend mental limitations in all kinds of absurd and ridiculous ways.2 On the other hand, he doesn’t really seem like a happy person. Immensely accomplished? Yes.3 Living a life of meaning? Also yes. Able to enjoy normal human pleasures? I’m not so sure.

Maybe he is on to something though. The unending rat race has always been a source of pervasive dread for me. The knowledge that no matter how well I do in anything there will always be another hurdle to overcome, another self to transcend, another goal to achieve. If there is no real finish line, what’s the point? Goggins answer is to rejoice in this fact. He spits in its face. He allows himself to be vulnerable to it, to feel everything it entails about the existential angst many of us experience at one time or another, and then goes out there anyways, raging against the void. It’s inspiring and bleak at the same time.

I’m not convinced this is the best approach. It seems like having clearly defined goals that you go after Goggins-style, followed by allowing yourself a period of well-deserved respite, would be preferable. Overall though Can’t Hurt Me4 is an incredible book, and I think the message – that you can achieve meaning, mastery, and self-transcendence by embracing deliberate suffering – is worth heeding.

Notes

  1. Goggins has claimed several times that he is not in fact a masochist, despite some of the insanely painful experiences he has put himself through. 

  2. Check out this great podcast interview for a preview. 

  3. The book jacket description – “A retired Navy SEAL and the only member of the U.S. Armed Forces ever to complete SEAL training, U.S. Army Ranger School, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller training. Goggins has competed in more than sixty ultra-marathons, triathlons, and ultra-triathlons, setting new course records and regularly placing in the top five. A former Guinness World Record holder for completing 4,030 pull-ups in seventeen hours, he’s a much-sought-after public speaker who’s shared his story with the staffs of Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and hundreds of thousands of students across the country.” – captures maybe 30% of the extent of his exploits. 

  4. See my book highlights here