|Photo by William Breault|
Q: You write, "Distilled to its essence, the purpose of this book is to offer a clear and complete concept of toughness—what exactly it means to be truly tough and, more importantly, why it matters—and a straightforward map to allow anyone to achieve it." What initially inspired you to write the book?
A: I think initially it was a need to understand it better myself—to really examine all the many pieces, how they fit together, and figure out some kind of unified concept that could be used to create a roadmap for achieving what by its nature is difficult to grasp.
I spend a lot of my life helping people through difficulty as a coach who’s very personally involved in my athletes’ lives, and who is frequently asked pretty penetrating questions about life by my audience.
I felt there was nothing I could send people to in order to provide them a sensible guiding philosophy and practical steps to get to where they were attempting to go.
I’ve been disappointed by what’s out there and have felt nothing accurately represented what I’ve found to be true in my experience, and that so much of it from a practical perspective was ineffective and even counterproductive in many cases.
Toughness is so consistently misrepresented and misunderstood, and leaves people confused and frustrated and seeking answers from the wrong places.
My goal was to create something that covered every single facet of the issue rather than throwing a random collection of often incompatible ideas against the wall.
Q: How would you define toughness, and what would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about it?
A: The way I break it down is as consisting of four elements:
Character, which entails truly knowing and being secure in your identity and values—this allows you to understand your true motivations, needs and avoid the many traps we stumble into, such as comparison, attention-seeking, and need for validation.
Capability, which is a broad and always-growing collection of abilities, both in terms of practical skills and knowledge generally—this allows self-reliance and experience, which is what truly drives fulfillment and insight.
Capacity, which is the ability to not just survive hardship and adversity, but to actively exploit it in any and all possible ways to improve ourselves—this involves many things, but in particular the recognition of responsibility as a power rather than a burden, and the understanding that we have a choice at all times about the actions we take, the way we think, how we interpret events, and therefore the outcomes of our life.
And commitment, which is our willingness to do what is required to achieve what we seek—this includes discipline and habit-building, but critically also being capable of understanding our motivations in order to remain on course despite setbacks and failures.
The most common misconceptions involve the limitation to a narrow set of traits, often related to physical ability, that it’s a masculine quality, or that it’s not accessible to everyone.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Most of it comes from my own experiences over many years, both personal and through my work and relationships with a broad array of people, from elite athletes to Special Forces veterans and everyone in between.
I began taking notes for the book 10 years ago, and have been ruminating on the substance for as long as I can remember.
I supplemented that with work by a number of experts, from psychologists to philosophers—both to help clarify ideas, and to validate my various claims—and points from the experiences of extraordinary individuals like Viktor Frankl (psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor) and Steven Callahan (survived alone on a life raft in the Atlantic for 76 days).
I think the most salient lesson I took from the process is how integrated all of the many mental, emotional, and physical facets of our lives truly are. That it’s simply impossible to isolate any of the pieces, whether to develop something independently or to escape it.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book, especially during this pandemic, about toughness?
A: If they take one thing from it, I hope it’s the unwavering confidence in their inherent ability to determine the course of their lives.
So much of the discontent and hopelessness in the world is derived from a sense of incapability—a belief that we’re simply assigned a fate and that our only choice is to accept it.
None of us can control all of the circumstances in which we’ll find ourselves throughout our lives, but in none of those are we powerless to effect change—even in the most extreme situations, in which our only option may be determining the way we view and interpret events, and our consequent sense of peace and contentment.
This pandemic has stripped away the security so many of us were convinced was reliable and immutable, and the abrupt experience of such vulnerability has created true existential crises for so many.
Like all adversity, however, we each choose how to respond to it—we can view ourselves as victims with no hope, or we can recognize our own agency, and determine to take whatever action is necessary to succeed, and transmute the raw power of the experience into growth.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Related to this book, I have a number of projects such as journals, training resources, and a supplemental guide specifically for athletes on the implementation of the concepts and practices to training and competition.
Of course I always have a seemingly infinite number of pans in the fire related to content creation and coaching the sport of weightlifting, but the big change I’m implementing this year is to get more active in my own continuing education and experience.
I’ve been so underwater for so many years coaching, teaching and otherwise being a resource for others that I’ve been largely unable to do the amount of learning and gaining of new challenging experiences that I believe is necessary.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of the big challenges in writing this book for me was the title, and how to get the premise across clearly because it’s such a complex topic and the volume of possible interpretation and misconception is massive.
I want to assure the more skeptical out there that this isn’t just another in a long line of books in which the author simply relates personal anecdotes and then tells you to tighten your belt and suck it up… leaving you with a fleeting sense of inspiration at best, and more likely, a lasting feeling of inadequacy and no idea how to remedy it.
True toughness is very likely not what you think, and it encompasses literally every aspect of our internal and external experiences—and the book will not just provide a vague philosophy, but the practical steps you can take to achieve it.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb