| Oct 20, 2022

Training Your Mind at the Point of Failure

Pushing beyond the limits of physical exhaustion can condition the mind for extraordinary success. It begins far from home and way outside our comfort zone.

No one is going to come help you. No one’s coming to save you.”  – David Goggins, “Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds”

David Goggins’ words kept running through my mind as I struggled to keep my legs spinning on my bike in the burning afternoon sun. That summer was one of the warmest Bangalore had ever seen and the mercury hovered around 100 degrees. I was stranded nearly 80 miles from home and hopelessly lost on the highways. Not a soul was around. My cycling gloves were exposed at the knuckles and I could smell my skin burning wherever the sun could tear through the material. I had run out of water long back and my throat was too parched for the dry energy bars I was carrying. 

How does one keep going when your body, mind, and circumstances are screaming at you to stop? Goggins’ best-selling book is a testament to how the mind can be leveraged under duress. No one was going to save me.

Survival of the Most Willing

The will must be stronger than the skill.” – Muhammad Ali

“Just a few more pedals. We’ll go till the next lamppost and take a break, I promise,” my brain formed the words, in apparent solidarity with my exhausted, burning body. I had long since lost my bearings and had no idea if I was even heading in the right direction. I was stopping every few feet and the staggered stop/starts were draining me even more. I had to find people, a street sign in English (most were written in Kannada, a language that I couldn’t read) — something that would give me my next destination. But I had to keep going through because there was no other way out.

For seasoned cyclists, this might be a familiar story. I wasn’t a seasoned cyclist. This was my first long ride. In fact, I had just learnt cycling at the ripe old age of 29 after three months of back-breaking effort. I had been a sedentary, asthmatic person whose idea of exercise was getting up to answer the doorbell. I had recently been diagnosed with arthritis, weakened cartilage in my knees, severe GI issues coupled with a handful of ulcers, and weighed nearly 200 pounds. I still hadn’t learnt hand signaling or how to eat or drink while riding. 

Being the slowest in the seasoned cyclists group I was riding with, I had managed to get separated on the way back. It didn’t help that they had insisted on taking a different route that was unfamiliar to me. To this day, I have no idea how I survived that afternoon. But some credit must go to the cab driver who agreed to take me and my bike. After blurting out the address, I promptly passed out.  

Become Addicted to Hard Work

Do you hammer hard and snag that personal best like you said you would, or do you crumble? That decision rarely comes down to physical ability, it’s almost always a test of how well you are managing your own mind.” – Goggins

I would go on to repeat such experiences many times (cycling is sometimes like the one ring that binds your will to its own). And I had a bad habit of pushing my very narrow limits. Each time, I managed to survive, even when I was convinced I would die before I could even glimpse the way back home. But those attempts taught me to rely on a survival instinct, to burrow through to a deeper level in my mind that I didn’t even know existed under the unending chatter and self-doubt. 

It seemed to take over just as I started to lose the ability to stay focused on the externalities — surrounding noises and conversations mostly faded, but I could still react instinctively to alarms like the loud honk of a truck behind my wheels. 

Anecdotal evidence from sporting giants like Muhammad Ali and endurance legends like ultra-marathoner Goggins (the only US Armed Forces member to finish Navy SEAL training) teach us that training our mind to continue at the point of failure is a skill that needs to be learned. While learning from failure is a well-established dictum in entrepreneurial circles, training your mind to keep going at the point of failure is less so.

The Perfect Crucible

If you want to master the mind and remove your governor, you’ll have to become addicted to hard work. Because passion and obsession, even talent, are only useful tools if you have the work ethic to back them up.” – Goggins  

There is no dearth of examples of entrepreneurs who found extraordinary success after pushing their body to the limits. Rich Roll famously left his sedentary lifestyle, recovered from drug and alcohol addiction (and a career in entertainment law) to become an ultramarathoner. He was one of the earliest movers in the podcasting space whose online health and wellness show garnered more than 26 million downloads. He went on to become a best-selling author and multi-millionaire businessman. 

Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, is also well known for his penchant for acrobatics and using extreme sports to manage his risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. 

Athletes have long-known that success in the most rigorous feats of ultra-endurance is largely a mental game. Physical training forces us to focus our mind on a single point — to get through a period of extreme load, pain and stress — and repeated attempts can measurably improve our mental and emotional conditioning

Exercise is known to have anxiolytic effects, but endurance training in particular is also linked to increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This neurotransmitter can positively impact cognition and long-term memory retention, and plays a critical role in contextual fear learning that can arguably improve our ability to survive in adverse circumstances or to deal with threats.

The Calloused Mind

Our culture has become hooked on the quick-fix, the life hack, the efficiency.” – Goggins

So do you have to be an athlete in order to be an entrepreneur? Not necessarily. But physical training does have a way of teaching our minds to endure in a way few repeatable mechanisms can. Exercise has even been touted as the silent competitive advantage for entrepreneurs. In a world where endless hacks and short-cuts to success are continuously thrown at us, Ali and Goggins teach us that having the mindset to go through the toughest of times is more valuable than any trappings of short-term success those hacks may bring. Ali was well known for only starting to count his sit-ups when he started experiencing pain because those were the ones that really counted in his quest to become a champion. 

Maybe there is something to be said for attempting foolhardy distances, if only to make your mind “calloused” (to borrow a line from Goggins) from testing the limits of what’s actually possible. Jesse Itzler, the rapper, music manager, serial entrepreneur, and lifelong runner wrote a book about what it was like to live and train with Goggins for 31 days. The former Navy SEAL showed Itzler he could do 100 pull-ups when he was ready to quit after eight sets: “When your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.” 

Goggins had the right to make the claim. For all his unimaginable feats of endurance and exemplary military training, it was discovered in 2010 that he had an undetected congenital heart defect that left his heart functioning only at 75 percent capacity. Yet he survived through it all anyway. It is a salient reminder that weaknesses do not have to be fatal to your ambitions and it is often at the point of failure that seemingly insurmountable difficulties can be overcome.

Anindita Biswas

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Anindita (Andy) is a writer and communications lecturer with over a decade of experience in B2B enterprise technology, specializing in thought leadership content for Fortune 100 executives. view profile


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