David Goggins, Superheroes and the Purpose of Suffering
Kevin and I are sitting in the car, driving up to a fight in Isaan and listening to one of Joe Rogan’s podcasts with David Goggins as the guest. Up until a couple days ago, I’d never heard of David Goggins. A man posted on Instagram that he’d been listening to mental toughness mentors and he quoted me alongside his own trainer and David Goggins. That’s some awesome company to be in the midst of, for me. I looked him up and he is fucking incredible.
above, the Joe Rogan interview of Goggins
The interview is 2 hours long and Goggins covers his life from childhood to 44 years old, chronicling his process from “running from everything,” to facing every fear he can in order to shape him into the man he is today. There were countless times I found myself nodding along to what he was saying, not in an abstract, like “that’s a great quote to put on a post-it on my bathroom mirror,” but in a concrete, “yes, that’s exactly how it is,” experiential truth kind of way. A capital “Truth” kind of way. I can’t armchair psychoanalyze, but I can speak to these things I see in his story that I see in myself, things that I find incredibly important.
For one thing, David Goggins has accomplished absolutely incredible things – like, impossible things and many times over – but when he tells his story he always starts from being afraid. He carries this weak, lying, self-doubting person who he called “the real me” into every time he recounts his story. He doesn’t start from running 100 miles on 2 days’ notice. He starts from being an abused kid, who did not “overcome” that experience as a boy. He endured it. He starts from quitting some of the hardest conditioning and training anyone in the world ever undergoes, because he was afraid of the water. He failed. And so he had to start again. Looking at David Goggins now, he’s unbelievable. They call him the “baddest man on the planet,” but he always, always goes back to his process. Because he understands that what’s impressive about who he is now, about what he’s done, isn’t the feat itself. It’s the process he had to undergo from who he was to get there.
At one point Goggins recalls an experience of literally shitting himself and pissing blood down his legs while failing to complete a 100 mile run. I often call really bad losses, “shitting the bed,” because that’s what it feels like. It’s so embarrassing, it’s so shameful and you’re this stinking mess. In his case, it’s literal. I lost 6 fights in a row very early in my career, such that my fight coach at the time basically told me to stop fighting. She may not have been telling me to quit forever, but she was definitely asking me to quit for a time. We all know how that story went because I’m now 209 fights in to my career. Goggins, sitting there, unable to stand, with his own shit going up his back, could either stay in that chair having shit himself and have that be his story, or he could get up and have that be the process that was required to run 100 damn miles in just under 19 hours… having never run more than 20 miles at a time before, ever. But what struck me about listening to Goggins’ interview was that there’s a tradeoff to what it takes to be a person who accomplishes these impossible things. To be driven like that, to keep pushing past failing kidneys and running the next 31 miles covered in your own shit, it’s not a positive personal experience. I told Kevin, that the kind of person who refuses to quit in that kind of situation has a heavy capacity for self-hate and shame. Goggins explains that it’s because he’s quit before and he knows how that feels; he knows where that goes. Me too. I can recall very early memories of being embarrassed or ashamed as a kid and still feel it; I’m still embarrassed about some shit that happened when I was 8. But that’s what keeps you from stopping. That pain is what keeps you from allowing the failure to be permanent, turning it from result into process.
The things that Goggins accomplishes, what he pushes through, over and over again… the guy is a superhero. But what I mean by this is not that he has super powers, freakish abilities that are almost bestowed on him. No, he’s like a superhero in how superheros are written, as characters. The kinds of internal divisions that make them up and propel them. Like a superhero, he has this tradeoff. He has this dark side, hardcore inner pain that he’s driving himself with. Every superhero is tortured or split, although some are written better than others. That’s why Goggins takes this scared little kid identity with him everywhere he goes; that’s why he is sure to tell you that he failed two or three times before achieving his incredible feats. The guy does things that seem insane, and then you realize he’s failed at them and started from scratch a couple times before succeeding and it’s just this other planet of drive and mental fortitude. I never really liked Superman in comics. He’s not human, so he’s all sad and that, but if you’re invincible it’s not that amazing to face bullets. I became a fan of Superman when he was weakened by Kryptonite or when he was battered. It’s a superhero’s weakness that makes them interesting, not their superpower. That’s why Wolverine was always my favorite as a kid, because everything hurt. That’s Goggins. That’s feeling failure and pushing past it instead of giving in to the self-pity or the false satisfaction of relief. I love that he is emphatic about showing that failure is part of the process and that he somehow turns all his self-loathing into something really powerful and oddly positive, even though it doesn’t sound positive at all. Every superhero has these two sides, the tradeoff to being incredible is suffering. But rather than you “have to have” the bad in order to have the good, you get to have the suffering in order to be good.
What I hear when I listen to David Goggins is a perspective that doesn’t come from books, or even other inspirational people – he’s very clear about this, it’s not quotes and mantras, hacks or systems. Like Vipassana meditation, these are truths that cannot be taught, as they can only really be understood by experience. They don’t have to be his same experience, but you have to live those truths to really know them. There are some mental training assertions or positive reminders that I take inspiration and meaning from, but I recognize myself more in Goggins’ approach of finding the kernel of negative, of what is unacceptable to me, because I’m driven to change that. For those of us with powerful negative self talk histories, dare I say “natures,” – something I’ve suffered through and worked very consciously hard on for years now – this is a chance to embrace that alter self, the one that the superhero carries around with them, as a kind of twin, to fuel your change. It’s not about changing the thoughts, necessarily; it’s about changing the meanings that they relay to you, and the actions you choose from that meaning.
If you don’t have the 2 hours to listen to the Joe Rogan podcast, you can watch this 1 hr interview with David Goggins:
or you can read this book (I haven’t read it yet), which features his training:
His Instagram is pretty badass and inspiring too. Long entries.
David Goggins also offers insight into some of the thinking I was pointing to in my much read, and somewhat debated: The Myth of Overtraining: Physical and Mental Endurance for Muay Thai – you can read all my articles on Overtraining here. I’m nowhere near his equal, but I do feel we have visited the same mental territory. Much of what he talks about feels very familiar.