Steve Magness never imagined he’d be a writer –let alone be caught in the eye of one of the most controversial competitive athletic storms entangled with running brand behemoth Nike, in what could be the biggest scandal since Lance Armstrong. But despite all the drama and set backs, Steve has managed to figure out through his own experience and the scientific research of others, how to create real toughness and resilience to overcome whatever life throws your way. Instead of focus on the drama that still haunts Magness more than a decade later, I’d prefer to walk you through some of the many merits of Do Hard Things that puts it on my recommended list and makes it worth reading.
As a track and field athlete in high school, he dreamed of one day being a running coach, or an Olympic athlete. As it happens for so many, life took him on a different path. He is now the author and co-author of many bestselling books including, The Science of Running, The Passion Paradox, Peak Performance and his latestDo Hard Things.
“I wanted to go to the Olympics and be a professional athlete, and that was all I cared about,” he tells me. “I went to school because it was an expectation. I went to college because it allowed me to continue to compete and run. Beyond that, honestly I didn’t have a ton of interests.”
He’s not a competitive runner anymore but today, as I sit down with him to discuss his new book, Do Hard Things, we can’t help but shoot the breeze about running and how it’s really a metaphor for life.
“We can get so caught up with comparing ourselves to everybody else, and trying to ‘win’ and conquer everything. But the reality is that all you can control is what you do yourself. And that gets to this idea in track and field where , all I’m trying to do is the best I can do and improve my own personal record. I came in 7th place. I’m thrilled because this is the best I literally have ever done in my life.”
Magness talks about running a mile and I can’t help but draw a comparison to what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. He talks about how the first lap you feel good and excited and full of energy, but by the second and third laps, your energy starts to wane, and your body realizes you’re tired.
“You’re going to hit that lull in the middle where it just kind of sucks,” he says. By the final lap, everything hurts but the finish line is so close you can taste it and so you give it everything you’ve got. “Once you see that goal, whatever it is, [your mind says,] okay forget everything we just gotta go.”
Magness is a world-renowned expert on health and human performance, and he tells me that his sporting event was the mile. The fastest time he achieved in his running career was four minutes, one second. I ask him if that extra second ever bothered him, or if he ever wished he could shave off two seconds and break the four-minute mile time.
“For the longest time that second annoyed me to death,” he says. “But I think it also brought in something that has helped me through the rest of my life. It might seem like it’s just a little more but all I can control is the work that I put in. I put everything towards [shaving off] that two seconds and it didn’t happen so there’s nothing else I could do but kind of move forward.”
Magness tells me that his experience in life has taught him that it’s the tough things we do that build our character, resilience, grit and strength. With that said he believes there’s more nuance to this than just forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to do.
“What I found is that we were at this unique time and space in the world where everybody needed resilience or toughness,” he says. “I was writing this book in the midst of the beginning of the pandemic. I was writing this book in the middle of political chaos, and people were just uncertain. I think what I was trying to do was add nuance to this idea of resilience. and grit and toughness. hey just put your head down and grind through it. And I think there’s some merit to that, but that’s not the only path toward resilience, grit or toughness.”
Magness tells me that there are also times where we need to relax into things we’re doing rather than try to tough it out and helping people to discern the difference is why he wrote his book. He believes that sometimes we need to find a calm place where the brain allows us to better navigate things. Those moments when we’re not triggered or in fight or flight mode.
Magness explains that there is a process to become resilient and that there are a few core philosophies he talks about in his book that can really ease and expedite this. The first pillar he calls, ditting the façade and embracing reality. He tells me that so much of our perception in society is that we need to be confident
“If you look at the latest science and psychology what it shows is that confidence works,” he says. “But false bravado tends to fail in the really difficult moments when you need it. Bravado works on the easy things, not the difficult things.”
Magness says that what works better is a sort of humble admission of one’s limitations paired with an eagerness to try. Having confidence that you’ll give it your best shot, that you’ll be open to learning and growing is really where it’s at. Knowing something is going to be hard while also knowing your own capabilities (and limitations) can really help someone in a tough situation to have the confidence to succeed. “If I haven’t done that work no amount of confidence or faking it is going to help me,” he says.
The second pillar that Magness writes about is learning to listen to your body. We hear all the time that trusting our gut is important. That our bodies can signal to us in ways that our brains can’t. Magness says that the old model of toughness is to ignore our feelings and push them away and show no weakness, but that actually listening to them is better in the long run.
“Your emotions and what you feel are messengers,” he says. “So they’re trying to communicate something to you. If I go lift some weights and all of a sudden my bicep hurts, I’ve got to distinguish is that message, oh you’re a little tiredOr is that, Oh, you’ve strained your bicep. You should stop. I think if we look at emotions and feelings and our inner voice as messengers and learn to understand and speak their language then we can make that distinction. If you’ve trained a lot you’ll know that distinction right away. If you’re a novice you might stop when it’s just a little fatigue, or just a little soreness and you’re okay to keep going.”
Magness says that the research shows that people who learn to distinguish between a legitimate gut feeling, and a fear-based thought often do better in their personal and professional lives, but this is one that’s hard for me.
Over the last year, I’ve been doing cold plunging, a technique popularized by Wim Hof. I’ve found that it has really helped with my overall health and wellness, but every time I go into that freezing cold water my brain tells me to stop and get out. I know internally that I’m not in danger. I haven’t fallen into a frozen lake, but the brain tells me to give up and it’s a struggle to stay in. I want to train my brain to stay calm and allow me this experience without anxiety, but I want to know how I can differentiate if my brain is telling me the truth or not. I ask Magness what he thinks about this, and his answer intrigues me.
“Part of developing that mental muscle and to train your brain is to train your brain to turn down that alarm when it’s not really in danger,” he says. “By essentially sitting with that discomfort and being like, this sucks, but I’m in it, I’m okay, I’m going to survive… You’re training your brain to that sensitivity. You’re turning the alarm down, and you’re turning the area in the brain that is related to self-control up a little bit. So that it’s in charge and that alarm isn’t.”
Magness says that any time that we feel fear or anxiety is a great opportunity to train the brain. He says that attempting to think and rationalize our way through fears can often come up short in alleviating them. The part of the brain that experiences fear is often more powerful than our own rational mind. So while sitting with fear and discomfort can help turn the alarm down a bit, it’s also helpful to try out different tools to quiet the fear. Magness tells me that one of the more interesting ways to quiet a fearful mind is to talk to yourself, but to do it in second or third person. So rather than saying, I got this. It’s more powerful to say, You’ve got this. And the most powerful? Bryan’s got this. He says that pumping ourselves up in third person confuses the brain long enough to short circuit the pattern of fear and it gives space for the rational mind to come in.
“They call it psychological distance,” he says. “It’s almost as if your friend is giving you this advice. It’s almost like your brain goes, hey this sounds different than the normal inner dialogue that we use. And another trick on that is that most of this inner dialogue is silent. We’re just saying it in our head, but some of the recent research shows that if we start saying that out loud it almost jolts you out of this moment.” Listen to more with author Steve Magness here.