Anyone can shoot a gun. But not everyone can become a soldier.

Anyone can punch and kick. But not everyone can become a fighter.

Training and preparation are necessary to achieve that transformation.

In sports and increasingly in the corporate world, toughness is seen as a key ingredient to success. 

However, I think we continue to misinterpret toughness, and what it means. 

Toughness isn’t about enduring whatever comes your way. 

Toughness isn’t about putting up a brave front in the face of struggle.

It’s more than will, it’s skill.

And if there’s one thing I know about skill, is that you can acquire, develop and harness it.

To me, tough guys are individuals who can navigate uncertainty, and make it work for them rather than against them.

Given my background in MMA and the UFC, I think I understand fairly well what it means to be a tough guy.

Fights are high-stakes, high-uncertainty situations. A multitude of scenarios could happen and making the right decisions can mean the difference between winning and losing.

How do we respond to uncertainty and how does toughness factor into our decision-making process?

In his book, “Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilence Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness” author Steve Magness breaks it down to the following elements:

Fear → Inner Debate → Urge → Decision

The key to toughness lies in being able to navigate this sequence effectively.

It’s about training the mind to handle uncertainty long enough to guide your response in the right direction. The goal is to create space so that you don’t jump straight from unease to the quickest possible solution, but to the “correct” one.

To better illustrate this, I wanted to talk about what the military uses to train soldiers. This is relevant because soldiers are often placed in high-conflict and stressful situations.

Under such circumstances, untrained soldiers exhibited tendencies to lapse into what Magness calls ‘Dissociation’. 

Basically, like a “fog of war”, you lose the ability to function or think critically during situations that demand active engagement and heightened awareness.

Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training program

SERE training is a program designed to prepare military personnel for survival in the most challenging conditions imaginable. 

Before military personnel are dropped into the wilderness for the evasion phase of SERE training, they undergo a classroom phase where they learn the skills necessary to survive, evade, and resist. This phase is often overlooked, but it’s crucial to their success. It’s not about enduring harsh conditions; it’s about being prepared for them.

I see this mistake all the time with people designing their workouts to be as “tough” as possible. Too often, we overvalue the outcome and not the process of getting ready and being prepared. Quit and you’re not a tough guy. 

I’ve been put through the grinder plenty of times by Mike to know that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’. 

But I think a lot of people forget the training and preparation that I undergo to be able to withstand such grueling exercises.

This principle applies directly to personal development and productivity. If we want to be resilient and mentally tough, we need to equip ourselves with the right skills and knowledge. This could mean learning new strategies for time management, developing better communication skills, or gaining a deeper understanding of our own mental and emotional processes.

Another key lesson from SERE training is the importance of maintaining a clear head under stress. During SERE training, soldiers learn to keep their cognitive wits about them, even in the most stressful situations. They learn to navigate through the “fog of war” and make sound decisions.

There’s no magic pill. Solid and consistent preparation is how I’ve consistently been able to maintain my composure, even when things looked bad in the octagon.

Extreme training to become super ripped or extremely conditioned was not heavy contributing factors to my success as a fighter. 

Instead, they allowed me to get acquainted with discomfort. This, in turn, pushed me to develop my own coping strategies to deal with them – whether it was hiring a mental coach to guide me or seeking cutting-edge recovery methods that reduced the likelihood of injuries.

I was able to build toughness not by bulldozing my way through obstacles. Rather, I was aware and prepared for the challenges because I had already experienced what discomfort could potentially feel like.

You may not face the same level of stress as an MMA fighter or a soldier, but we all face our own “fog of war”.

Let’s stop equating a lack of toughness with being weak or soft.

A lack of toughness simply means a lack of preparation and training.

In the end, toughness isn’t about surviving the harshest conditions; it’s about thriving in any condition. And that’s a lesson we can all apply to our personal and professional lives.