Ayn Rand said man is “a being of self-made soul.” David Goggins is a man of self-designed soul. At a young age, he literally looked into a mirror and decided he didn’t like what he saw. He embarked on a journey to turn himself into the kind of man he wanted to be. He succeeded through total honesty with himself, clarity of purpose, and unstinting effort. Both of his books, Can’t Hurt Me and Never Finished, are deeply inspiring. I recommend both, but will focus here mainly on his second book, Never Finished.
About David Goggins
From the book jacket:
David Goggins is a Retired Navy SEAL and the only member of the U.S. Armed Forces to complete SEAL training, Army Ranger School, and Air Force Tactical Controller training. Goggins has completed more than seventy ultra-distance races, often placing in the top five, and is a former Guinness World Record holder for completing 4,030 pull-ups in seventeen hours.
Although his most obvious achievements are in the physical realm, it is Goggin’s mental achievements that I find so inspiring. As he describes himself, he “should have been a statistic.” His childhood is difficult to read about. He, his mother, and his brother were treated like slaves and beaten ruthlessly by his father. When he was eight, his mother finally had the courage to leave, taking the kids to live with the grandparents. But the cognitive and emotional damage from those early years was not repaired until much later, after he took control of his mind and his future.
One thing I deeply admire about David Goggins is how consciously and systematically he has rejected seeing himself as a victim. Never Finished starts with a pivotal incident that exemplifies this: he faced his father as an adult and realized how weak his father was. This helped him realize that he had been using his childhood abuse as an all-around excuse for his life being in a shambles. His message to would-be victims everywhere is to take ownership of your life and your future. It’s up to you to deal with whatever difficulties you have, no matter how they came your way.
Inspiration for raising one’s own standards
I found his story personally compelling. In almost no respect is my life similar to David Goggins’. He is black, I’m white. He’s male, I’m female. His childhood was objectively dangerous, mine was sheltered. His goals are physical, mine are intellectual. He had great trouble learning in K-12, K-12 was made too easy for me thanks to lax standards.
What we share is having discovered as an adult that we needed to make a significant change. We needed to raise our standards, not settle for the ones that we had grown up with. I can attest that this is a difficult and often lonely process. The people around you often don’t understand why you don’t settle for less. You need to draw the strength from within, you need to do it consistently, and you especially need to do it in the most difficult of circumstances.
How David Goggins learned the importance of standards is an interesting story in itself. At eight, his grandfather had him do chores each morning, and required him to redo his work if it wasn’t done well. Little David at first resented the chores, then decided to get them done more quickly so he could play basketball. But then when he did get them done right the first time, he noticed a feeling of pride in having done the job well. From that time forward, he did the chores well the first time as a matter of pride.
He and his mother moved into their own place after some months, and he lost this structure. Later, when he realized he needed to shift his life, he came back to live with his grandfather and resumed the chores. He did this deliberately to recover and reinforce a devotion to high standards.
Embracing discomfort to do the “unseen work”
Goggins has an original take on willpower, which I am learning from and thinking about. It’s similar to my approach in a couple of ways.
First, he talks about the need to think in advance about potential challenge moments, so that you have the words to address the conflict. He does a “morning meeting” with himself each day to do this. He attributes his completion of “Hell Week” with the SEALS to this practice.
Second, he talks about the need to face conflicts head-on to do the “unseen work” of changing your psychology. I’ve been teaching that you need to experience internal conflict because the feelings that are so uncomfortable need to be experienced in order to be introspected. When you are changing a habit or creating a new value or changing a premise, you need to find the disconnects in priorities, the stored mistakes, and/or the gaps in your knowledge that hold you back. These will cause discomfort. You need to experience that discomfort in order to resolve the conflicts. It is the conscious resolving of conflicts that reprograms your knowledge, values, or skill.
Goggins takes these ideas about a thousand times farther than I have. According to his account, he enjoys it when the going gets tough, because that’s when he knows he will grow mentally. He has developed an indomitable will — which he did not have prior to his decision to become a Navy SEAL — and he shows how he did it. I thought I was pretty ambitious, but he has inspired me to take everything about my life to the next level.
Committing to full awareness
I am still thinking about and learning from many aspects of the book and will probably write more about specific things I have learned from him as time goes on.
Some of the people who have read it at my recommendation are surprised that I am so intrigued by his ideas. Goggins systematically ignores physical pain to achieve his amazing feats. He documents the damage to his body in graphic detail. Neither pain nor injury stops him. His view of life is understandably dark; he expects disaster to happen to undercut his achievements. In addition, his overall purpose is described in social terms — he wants to be the toughest man there is.* How is any of this consistent with motivating oneself by values, using self-direction not self-discipline, the benevolent-universe premise, and forming rational, independent goals? On the surface, the book seems antithetical to the theory of motivation that I teach and apply in my own life.
First, I should say that I think the book requires philosophic detection as you read it. You cannot accept his formulations and conclusions blindly. In particular, I don’t think that ignoring physical pain is a good idea, though it is occasionally necessary to do that.
But at a more basic level, the book is in agreement with some of the fundamental principles of the philosophy I espouse: David Goggins is a man deeply committed to full awareness of reality for action in reality.
For example, in the commentary we hear that his brother would try to avoid seeing his mother beaten, and his mother turned herself into a zombie — she just turned off her mind. Goggins stayed fully aware. He stood up to his father (and therefore got more beatings) and did not run away or look away when others were beaten. He was conscious of the evil his father represented and faced it squarely.
In the book, when bad things happen, he says, “Roger that,” meaning he is accepting the facts completely and will figure out what to do about them.
He developed his character and his processes for self-improvement with essentially no help. No philosophy of Objectivism (the thing that helped me). No self-help books. No mentor or guiding parent. Nothing. He figured it all out by himself, for his own life, by facing facts squarely.
Sure, I don’t agree with all of his formulations or all of his choices. But what he did is amazing. It demonstrates the power of a focus on reality and a commitment to reality. That someone in as dire straits as he was could figure this out for himself gives me hope for the world. He is tangible proof of the greatness possible to mankind, if you use your mind.
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*Incidentally, Goggins uses a profane term in lieu of “man” to describe his goal of being the toughest man there is. He includes a lot of profanity in the book, and even more in the Audible audiobook commentary, which is highly worth listening to. Surprisingly, the foul language didn’t bother me at all. Somehow, it appropriately expresses his personality, his passion, and his message. He turned down a huge book contract and chose to self-publish instead. I understand that this choice was made so he could speak with his own voice.
Buy on Amazon now: Never Finished by David Goggins