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325: No Pain…Plenty of Gain

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Buck: Welcome back to the show, everyone. Today, my guest on Wealth Formula Podcast is Steve Magness. He is an author, world renowned expert on performance. Collectively, his books have sold more than a quarter million copies. He’s the author of Do Hard Things why We Get Resilience Wrong and The Surprising Science of Real Toughness, which is his latest book. He’s also written The Science Running how to Find Your Limit and Train to Maximize Your Performance. He’ll also co authored a number of books, including Peak Performance, Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive With The New Science of Success and The Passion Paradox Guide to Going All In, Finding Success Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life. So, Steve, welcome. 

Steve: Yeah, thanks for having me. 

Buck: So I was starting to ask you this offline because my first thought was, what’s up with all the books? What drives you? Man, these things, they are related, right? I mean, they’re performance related, but mostly is there an underlying theme to the things that you’re interested in here? 

Steve: That is a great question, and I think what it comes down to is I write the book that I’m struggling with in that moment. So if you look at the trajectory of the books, like, it started out very athletic, performance science of running well, I was a runner myself and helping coach other runners, so of course that makes sense. And then you get broader and broader and broader until my latest one, which is Do Hard Things, which is how do you handle life’s challenges and adversity you face? And I think the motivation to do so is like a book takes a lot of work. 

Buck: A good book does. Right. With Amazon, you can write a lot of shitty books pretty quickly. 

Steve: That’s very true. That’s a good caveat. A good book takes a lot of work. So what happens is I really need that kind of personal connection of like, hey, I haven’t solved everything. Hey, I don’t know the answers to everything, but let’s see if we can find out. And that keeps that motivational flame burning for the several years that you need to write a good book. 

Buck: What goes into the research and these kinds of things? Are you talking to a lot of people? Are you reading a lot? What do you do? 

Steve: Yeah, it takes a lot. I always start off with researching, so diving into the literature, studies, academic stuff, because I want at least to know enough to be dangerous. So that allows you to be informed when I then reach out to experts and people who are in the stuff, in the weeds all the time, so that we can actually have an in depth conversation on some of these things and I can get below the surface level kind of understanding of ideas. 

Buck: Cool. Well, let’s dive into the current one. Which is? Do hard things. Why we get resilience wrong and the surprising science of real toughness. So I guess the American Dream is based on toughness in many regards. I think that’s what if you think of a national character especially? Well, I don’t know about the current America, but certainly the America that I remember as a kid is the America based on toughness. Why do we have toughness all wrong? 

Steve: Yeah, so I think there’s some great things about the America that you and me, I remember from years ago, is that toughness is important, and I’m not saying it isn’t. It’s vital. Like being able to handle difficult things is central to being able to handle challenges in life. But I think where we get it wrong is we often hold on to these, what I’d call old school mentalities, which is there is only one way to deal with adversity and that’s to put our head down, bulldoze through, and do everything we can to get on the other side. 

Buck: So I guess part of understanding what toughness and what you’re alluding to is defined toughness, specifically what is toughness and is that definition changed from the now? Is it different? 

Steve: Yeah, I think it is. And I define it in the book is creating the space to navigate discomfort or uncertainty and being able to take wise action. So toughness to me is all about it’s not about the act of grinding through. It’s about the decision that comes from it. Because when you’re going who are stressful or uncertain or difficult moments or times, it’s all about how do we navigate that to get to the best path forward. And that path forward could be a number of different paths or number of different ways. And we want to make sure that we’re taking wise action and not just like, hey, this is the escape path, this is the easiest way through. I’m just going to default to that. 

Buck: How do you contrast the concept of toughness with resilience? We hear a lot about resilience these days, right. And it’s almost one of those words that’s just kind of overused now. So what’s the difference between toughness and resilience? 

Steve: Yeah, so all of these words are kind of similar, and I think that’s part of the problem, right. All jumbled together. But if you look at resilience, resilience is essentially the ability to bounce back. So we’re looking at how do we go through something difficult and then come back to normal. I look at toughness and I think the research is like, what are the skills that we need to not only bounce back, but perhaps adapt and grow and come out on the other side, maybe change or better than what we went through. It. 

Buck: So let me ask you this. Interestingly, what you’re talking about sort of does resonate with me. I’m not really on the athletic side per se, but like on the career side. So I started out as a neurosurgery resident, and that was my whole identity in medical school. I was like a hardcore medical student, published like crazy and got a neurosurgery programs and stuff like that. I got there and I was like, man, I don’t like this. I don’t like being up all the time. I don’t like being up every night. This is not me. And I guarantee you I’m not alone with people who have gone through these situations where they’ve signed themselves up for whether it’s medical school, surgical residency, or any number of other things that are tough. But there’s sometimes a mentality that now you’re there, you’ve already put so many years into it, you got to just keep doing it. One of the things that I quit neurosurgery, I moved into a profession that didn’t keep me up at night, and for a long time I felt a lot of identity crisis. I had a problem with, like, I was the neurosurgery guy or whatever, but there was a tremendous relief. Now, is part of what you’re talking about our ingrained reluctance to quit when we know that we’re doing the wrong thing? 

Steve: Absolutely. I think that’s a great example because to me, and this gets at the contrast perfectly is the old school model would say, just persevere persist. But if that makes you miserable, if that doesn’t align with, like, what you want or what you need in your life, is that the tough thing to do? I don’t think so. I think the tough thing to do is being able to step back and be like, hey, I know that neurosurgery gives me a lot of status. I know that I identify with it, and other people identify me with it. But the tough decision in that moment is to be like, but this doesn’t align with my values. This doesn’t align with my future. How do I essentially quit? And I think we’ve created so much of this negativity around quitting where we see it as failure is like, oh, I wasn’t good enough. And that’s why you experienced that identity crisis, because it’s like, can I not handle this? What’s wrong with me? But in reality, it was probably the best thing you did because it realigned you with what? Your goals, your motivation, all that stuff, and allowed you to thrive as an individual where maybe if you just persisted and persisted and never quit it, you would have been miserable and unhappy and unfulfilled and not able to do all of the great things that you were able to do and are still doing. 

Buck: It’s funny because the toughness element of that is at odds with, okay, society and American culture in particular, the value is to do the hard thing. Right. And you go back to even Kennedy speeches. We go to the moon not because it’s easy, because it’s hard. Right. So I think that’s great. But I think that the trap we get into sometimes is seeing those types of things as, like, you have to make sure that they are copious stick with who you are, not just what society thinks. And just because you’re capable of something doesn’t mean you should do it. 

Steve: Exactly. And I think there’s actually some good research behind this, and I talk about it in the book, is that when we decide our goals, like we decide the hard thing to do, we’re more motivated, we’re more likely to persist, we’re happier, we’re more fulfilled. If we feel like those goals are imposed upon us, either by a boss or maybe society telling us this is the way. What happens is, A, we don’t persist as well, and then B, we’re essentially miserable and our motivation shifts to more kind of a negative. I’m just doing this because I have to instead if I want to, and our happiness contentment over the long haul go down. So to me, one of the central things about, quote, unquote, toughness is, yeah, when you find that thing that aligns with what you care about and what you value, like, go for it. But if it doesn’t and we’re just needlessly, quote, unquote, doing the hard thing for the sake of it, you’re going to end up in probably a bad place. So it’s like that you need that self awareness to understand what’s actually important and what aligns with your values. 

Buck: Yeah, it’s funny because it just seems like a lot of times people know pretty quickly that something’s not right for them. Right. Even though we may drag something on for years, if you go back and you look at things that you quit or you left or you changed, you knew that it wasn’t right for probably the first month or two, that’s like defining half the relationships out there. Right. It’s like you started dating somebody and you’re like, well, she’s all right. Maybe she’ll grow into her or something like that, and three months later, you know it’s not going to work. A year later, you’re like, I’m still in this same thing for everything. Right? 

Steve: Absolutely right. And I love that example because everybody knows it. And you know the brilliant part, though, it gets at this central thing, well, who knew it in your circle before you did. Often your friends your friends were like, man, what are you doing? Why are you still dating that girl? Right? And that kind of gets us back to these moments of, well, you know, everybody knows, but we often get in our own way and having perspective or creating perspective, whether that’s through friends or just the ability to zoom out and look at your life and be like, what am I doing, man? I got to make this decision. That is often one of the key components to navigating those decisions that we don’t want to make. 

Buck: So there is another side of this, which is that when you do decide that there’s something that you want to do that resonates with you and it looks daunting and hard, there’s a significant benefit to driving in that direction in terms of self improvement. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? 

Steve: Yeah, definitely. You know, there’s a reason we’re often drawn to doing hard things or should be. It’s because in so much of life, we kind of stay in this comfort zone of where we’re kind of controlled and content and all that stuff. But it’s really once we push those bounds that a whole bunch of good things happen psychologically and even physiologically is we get almost flooded with hormones where it’s like we feel alive and that feeling of feeling alive and pushing our bounds. And then also the other thing that happens psychologically is often we have to shed some of the kind of facade that we carry around because difficult things expose us. They force us to wrestle with maybe the things that we’re not good at or our weaknesses or our doubts or our insecurities. We’re forced to come face to face with those things. And I think having something in your life where you kind of have to wrestle with that and do something difficult is very valuable for your long term psychological health. 

Buck: Yeah, I think it’s almost like an evolutionary thing, if you think about it. Right. We’re not designed to be comfortable, human like, comfortable creatures. Right. Like having things in the refrigerator and ordering out. We were supposed to go find our way in the world. And so not in a way like having nothing to work for or nothing to really drive you might as well be at that point, evolutionarily irrelevant, right? 

Steve: No, I mean, you’re spot on. All of our biology is primed to do that. Why? Because we wanted to survive. So how do you survive? Well, you have to go out and do something very demanding. Go persistent, hunt or whatever. Explore. It’s why humans are natural explorers. Because we need to see the unknown. We need to figure it out. And all of our kind of biology and hormones are set up to do that. If you look at things like dopamine, what does it do? It doesn’t erupt during the reward. You feel the highest dopamine spike, which is like a motivator during the pursuit because it’s like egging us on to say, like, hey, keep hunting, keep going, all that stuff. So I think in our modern world, for better and worse, we don’t get those hits of, like, dopamine and other things in that regard because we don’t put ourselves in those situations where it’s like we’re doing something tangibly difficult that is uncomfortable. 

Buck: Yeah, it’s just like we’re designed for the dopamine. Hits are really supposed to be there to reward you for things that you did that were good, that got you excited. And we look for artificial means sometimes to try to do the same thing because we don’t have those kind of exhilaration in our own lives. 

Steve: Exactly. We take the cheap and easy way out. Right. We scroll on our phones to get those hits, which doesn’t give us that satisfaction of actually doing the difficult thing. And I think that is a key differential that often we lack. So to me, it’s like if modern society doesn’t provide some of this, we have to have things that fulfill this. Another thing that we know is not only hormonally. But, like, our brain is very adaptive to this stuff. So I think one of the reasons why people are often seen as sensitive in this world is because it’s almost like our brain threat detecting machine, like, it’s never tested. So the analogy I like to use is if you haven’t worked out for six months or a year for whatever reason, and you go out the door and you try and run as hard as you can, well, those first steps, your brain is going to be like, hey, what are you doing? This hurts a lot. Stop. Because you haven’t been at that place, you haven’t felt that discomfort in a really long time. If every day you went out and you exercised a little bit, that alarm gets quieter. That threat isn’t as loud. I think the same thing applies to other aspects in our life, is that even if it’s something psychologically difficult, if we can struggle with something, it turns down that threat. It almost sends that message in your brain that, hey, yeah, this is difficult, but we’re okay. You’ve been similar places before. You can handle this. 

Buck: Part of the title of the book includes Surprising Science of Real Toughness. Talk a little bit about the science. I know you pride yourself on doing rigorous research on this stuff, but some of the things that you discovered or anecdotes that might be of interest to support some of the things we’re talking about. 

Steve: Yeah, definitely. So I think on the science side, one of the most interesting findings was just on that threat that I talked about. There was a fascinating series of research studies that compared expert meditators versus, like, your average Joe, regular person. And in these studies, they made them do extremely painful or difficult things. So one was getting up in front of an audience and giving a speech while being heckled, right? Another was they took like, a painful hot probe and stuck it on their wrists to make them feel physical pain. And what they found was fascinating is that during the thing, let’s say the painful hot probe, the meditators and the average Joe’s felt the same intensity of the pain. So during it, it was about the same, but before and after, it was completely different. So the average Joe, in anticipation, before they even got that painful hot probe stuck on them, their threat area in the brain was just sounding alarm. It’s like, run, danger. Like, get out of here. Escape. The meditators were calm, cool, and collected. Their kind of rational part of the brain was still online, almost telling the threat area, hey, nothing’s happened yet. We’re okay. And then afterwards as well, the average Joe, their kind of painful threat response kept going for hours. They felt stressed for hours. The meditators, it was like once the painful probe was removed or once they got off the stage, their threat area goes back to down to zero. It says, hey, we’re okay, the threat is gone, we don’t need to ruminate on this. And I think that was such an interesting thing because the researchers essentially said the problem isn’t the thing. The difficult thing itself is that most of us are getting like a triple dose of the stress when we do anything hard. And instead if we can train our ability to kind of like the meditators, embrace the reality of the situation and tackle the difficult thing as it is but don’t spend hours worrying about it and then hours afterwards stressing over what just happened. 

Buck: What do you think? So is meditation part of the anecdote to some of the troubles that you’re seeing people have? 

Steve: I think so. I think mindfulness is again, there’s lots of research on this. Mindfulness works and the great thing is that mindfulness works even in small doses. So research has found that even after I think it’s like four or 520 minutes sessions, you see changes in the brain where you’re not freaking out as much during stressful situations. But I would take that a step further is I don’t think it’s just mindfulness. I think it’s anything where you’re essentially put in a place where it’s you alone in your head having to navigate like that stress and anxiety, those doubts and those insecurities. That is an opportunity to train to almost just like we would with mindfulness is like don’t react to it, learn how to sit with it and kind of be like, okay, I’m just going to accept into this situation instead of freaking out because anytime we freak out, you’re essentially training your brain. You’re saying, hey, the best course of action is to spiral out of control. So next time you’re in a similar situation spiral out of control.

Buck: How is it important to respond instead of react when doing hard things? 

Steve: Yeah, so that really gets what I just kind of talked about a little bit is anytime we’re doing something difficult, you’re training your mind and brain which way to go. And reacting to me is that instinctual like I’m just going to very quickly react. It’s being in the argument with your spouse and saying something that you know you shouldn’t but just kind of comes out right and then you regret it. That’s the reacting that’s often what gets us in trouble. Responding is like being in those moments where you feel the anger or the anxiety coming, but being able to just slow things down or create just enough space where you don’t default towards that outburst but they’re able to navigate through it and be like, okay, I need to create space between the stimulus, this feeling and this response I have. So I take wise action and don’t have just this reaction. And as I said, any moment where you’re feeling that kind of urge to act is that moment where if you can create some space, you’re training your brain to be able to do. 

Buck: So that, again, goes back to the whole mindfulness thing. Right. Because it’s just a matter of control and emotions, and it’s a Warren Buffett quote I can’t exactly remember, but in fact, his quote was, you can always wait until tomorrow to tell somebody to screw off. Right?

Steve: Exactly. I love that, because our initial reaction is like, we send the text, we send the email, we yell at the person. Right. When often that leads us down a bad path. And if we just have that, you create that space. Wait until tomorrow. Sometimes you realize, oh, man, maybe I should lighten this up a little bit. 

Buck: And in the moment, it just seems like you can’t wait till tomorrow, and then it’s always regret it. So, yeah. Steve. The book is Do Hard Things why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness. I imagine this is available everywhere. 

Steve: Yes, it’s available wherever books are sold. 

Buck: Are you on Audible too? 

Steve: I am. 

Buck: Did you read it yourself? 

Steve: I did not. I had the option to, but I couldn’t bring it to myself to sit down for a dozen, 12 hours or whatever and just read the thing. 

Buck: Well, I guess that’s true. And also, we can find you additional [email protected] that’s with two SS. And I know you’re a big social media following Instagram and Facebook and all that as well. Thank you so much for being on Wealth Formula Podcast, man, and good luck on the book, and I’m sure it will do great. 

Steve: Well, thanks so much. I really enjoyed this conversation. 

Buck: We’ll be right back.