How Tough Are You?

Big Red Car here in the quiet hour before dawn when the world gets ready to welcome the sun and get on with its business.

Today, we talk about toughness.

How tough are you?

The answer is — much tougher than you think you are.

OK, now you can get a cup of coffee and get on with your day. JK


If you are going to be an entrepreneur, a founder, a CEO — you will need to be tough for it is not an easy undertaking. Agree?

I hope so because my Boss, who had been a CEO for over 33 years, sees it that way.

But the toughness we speak of today, is not organizational; it is personal.

How personally tough are you?

Is it an acquired trait, Big Red Car?

Like almost every trait and characteristic of a successful entrepreneur, founder, CEO — toughness can be developed. it can be learned. It can be perfected.

And how you say?

By doing tough things.

It is so simple as to be complex by its elegant simplicity. Think about that for a second. You will spend a lot of time trying to make it way more complicated than it is or has to be.

Exemplars, Big Red Car?

When The Boss was a young man, he had a plan. He even wrote it down from time to time. He wanted to accomplish certain things and he believed that in America there are no limitations to what one could accomplish.

He wasn’t, initially, wise enough to articulate it so clearly but that was what was in the background whispering in his ear. What he heard his mother saying. What he saw his father doing. What he wanted to believe but was too young and inexperienced to prove to himself.

Still, he had an idea that it could be true and, if not, should be true.

So, The Boss, when he was getting ready to go to college, decided to go to the Virginia Military Institute. The fact that there was a war going on and he got a free ride — tuition, books, room, board, paper, pencils and a monthly stipend — had some influence on him but the more important issue was this: Was he tough enough to get through the notoriously difficult challenge of a military school?

The answer to THAT question was — hmmm, don’t know. To which he added, “Let’s go find out.”

Therein lies the first lesson — even when you don’t know if you can, you go try and you submit yourself to be tested, developed, weighed, measured. You go find out and you learn.

So, he went to VMI, dear readers

He arrived in Lexington, Virginia early one morning well before dawn having ridden the Greyhound from Asbury Park, New Jersey. There is no sadder place than a Greyhound bus station sending forth souls to war, school, changes in their life. It is a relic of a different time.

He got bus sick and threw up in every little town down the Shenandoah Valley and arrived wan and weak. He was the first member of his class to sign the matriculation book and immediately thereafter the torture began. They made him do push ups and push ups and more push ups. He became very good at doing push ups.

Civil engineering was what he signed up to learn because he had worked in construction and had a budding love affair with concrete, particularly reinforced concrete. It turned out to be the perfect course of study. It was hard because it required a few semesters of calculus which is how cadets often become liberal arts majors — the inability to master calculus. The Boss mastered calculus.

At the end of the first semester — the only time a VMI class is evaluated as a single group, thereafter you are evaluated within your major — The Boss stood first in his class.

There was nobody more surprised than him. He had no idea. Head down and studying hard — scared witless — he had never noticed how he was doing. One foot in front of the other and lots of push ups.

The big takeaway — he had begun to learn how tough he could be. It was an education and an insight.

What then, Big Red Car?

Let’s get off The Boss for now. What have you done to test yourself? To develop a bit of toughness?

If you are struggling for an answer then let’s do this — pick something that you’ve always wanted to do and let’s use that as a way to develop and evaluate your toughness. It doesn’t have to be physical or dramatic or world changing. It could be making a clear Vision and Mission for your startup. But, it has to be something that will test you.

Allocate the time and resources to make it happen and then take the first step. Get on that bus in Asbury Park, drive down to your Lexington, Virginia, throw up in your Shenandoah Valley and start doing push ups.

Where does this lead, Big Red Car?

At the end of four years at VMI, The Boss had a degree in civil engineering, had worn academic stars for all four years, and received a commission as a Regular Army officer–together with an invitation to Airborne and Ranger Schools. Off he went to the Army and more challenges. More tests. More opportunities to develop.

What he really had was a sense of himself and what he was capable of doing. In the wonderment of it all, he was surprised and elated at who he was and who he had become. Don’t get me wrong, he was still not a pimple on the world’s ass but he knew more about himself than he did four years earlier.

For you, this leads to a similar path — building more toughness not for the sake of being tough but to be able to tap into the vast talents that you possess that need just a bit of friction to free them. You will find, like The Boss, that what you did before becomes easy and is the foundation for even bigger and better things. But it all starts with that first test, that first surrender to developing your own toughness.

Remember this — inspiration is for amateurs. Toughness will carry the day when it seems like the world is closing in on you. Develop that reservoir of toughness. Now. You can do it.

Go sign up for dance lessons or to learn how to code.

If you’re going to be a bear, why not a grizzly bear?

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car but I’m a tough Big Red Car. Have a great week. You deserve it. You’ve earned it.





11 thoughts on “How Tough Are You?

  1. Lesson 1: Likely you are smart enough.

    Of course, ballpark 99% of the people do 99% of the work that is done. So, likely any of 99% of the people can do at least some significant part of 99+% of the work that is done. So, very likely you can do some significant work.

    Since actually humans are quite flexible animals, likely there is a lot of 99% of the work you can do.

    Lesson 2: Get a head start.

    Commonly in life, if only out of some contemptible arrogance, people will try to evaluate how smart you are. To this end they may look at your performance in some challenging situation, maybe a college course, a puzzle problem, etc.

    So, defend yourself — one way is to get a head start, by analogy in a foot race, start running early and be right at the finish line when the starting gun goes off!

    E.g., for a challenging course in school, before the course, talk to students who have taken the course, get the materials, and make a lot of progress in the course, maybe cover all of it, in advance.

    Lesson 3: Don’t let them intimidate you.

    Sure, it’s common to have people, in social situations, in school, at work, try to intimidate you with obstacles, say, with undefined terms, jargon, obscure descriptions, etc.

    Commonly it is fairly easy to get past such obstacles. E.g., for undefined terms, just look them up in a dictionary, at Google, etc.

    Rarely are such obstacles really serious, say, need you to have a lot of background you are missing.

    Mostly people who are trying to intimidate you are not very competent, and, thus, their obstacles are not very difficult to circumvent.

    Lesson 4: Don’t let the difficulty of the perfect stand in the way of the very good.

    Sure, for some cases of work, being perfect would be nice but is very difficult, maybe too difficult for you at the moment.

    But that does not mean that being very good at the work is too difficult.

    Lesson 5: How to meet some severe challenges without anxiety.

    Before this airplane

    was built, how did the designer Kelly Johnson at Lockheed know it was going to fly as promised — 80,000+ feet, Mach 3.0+, 2000 miles without refueling, e.g., over much of the Soviet Union from and to US bases just outside the Soviet Union?

    Similarly for the customer, IIRC the US CIA?

    Sure, he did a lot of good and quite solid engineering.

    There can still be various problems, but he was able to trust in the engineering — basically the plane had to work as planned.

    For some severe challenges in some fields, it really is possible to have solid plans, e.g., engineering, that can be executed routinely as planned and, thus, without the anxiety one would expect.

    Maybe getting such good plans is a lot of work, risky, and a source of anxiety, but given the plans the rest can be routine, i.e., maybe still a lot of work but still routine enough to remove nearly all anxiety.

    Then, sure, one of the secrets to successful projects is good problem selection. Or, pick a problem where can have solid plans where, given such a plan, the rest is routine.

    In life, to do well, it’s not necessary to solve every possible problem. Instead nearly always it’s enough to solve just a few or maybe even just one significant problem. So, just need good problem selection only a few or just one time.

    A common remark is that ideas and plans are easy, plentiful, and worthless and good execution is challenging, rare, and everything. Well, given a bad idea/plan, execution does stand to be an unanesthetized upper molar root canal procedure gone wrong. But with good problem selection, ideas, and plans, good execution can be routine.

    Lesson 6: “The business of America is business.”

    Definitely, often, the other guy wants to get rich getting the revenue, having you do as much of the work as possible, and giving you as little of the revenue as possible.

    The solution is for you, ASAP, to work yourself into a good position as the full, at least significant, owner of a business, one that is good to great, where you make the business successful and are able to keep enough of the revenue to be a good husband, father, etc.

    Of course, in the US, the business world is constantly changing so that sometimes after some years a good business is good no longer. Then, sure, pick another business direction. So, always be watching for what other businesses might start. And, ASAP, have some money saved for such a change.

    Being an employee can be good, crucial, beneficial, and often necessary early in a career and in some cases later, but, still, the importance of being a business owner will never go away before you are wealthy.

  2. The investor world is super tough. Nobody is going to hand anything to you unless you prove your worth.
    What helps mental toughness is physical toughness.Ride a bike ,lift weights ,swim ,u name it. My work out friends say it best,”No pain-no gain.” Thanks JM ;one, for being a vet, two ,for the good words.

  3. My wife and I dropped our son off at Medical school 3 weeks ago.
    It’s hard to get into medical school on the first try.

    We are proud of him, but that’s not the point. Parents are biased.
    When he was thirteen he wanted to play rep. hockey but he was a good house league player and was out of shape.
    He said he wanted to join a gym to get into shape. We signed him up on the condition that if he didn’t work hard at it, it would be taken away.
    He worked hard and did a lot of push ups.
    Later we found out from the trainers in the gym that when my son first arrived, he was so out of shape non of them wanted to train him.
    In four years he went from playing single A to AAA hockey.
    This taught him (and reminded me) that you can accomplish your goals if you work hard and test yourself.

  4. Needed this one today. It always makes me feel like a p word when I equate cold calling that “very important” prospect in my database to 18 year old kids getting sent to Afghanistan.

  5. Great post. I love this line, “Remember this — inspiration is for amateurs. Toughness will carry the day when it seems like the world is closing in on you.”

    My son, who is in his first year of college studying civil engineering, used to laugh at his teachers when they said, “follow your passion.” He says, “Forget passion and do what you’re good at.”

    He also has had a post it note hanging on his wall for many years that says, “There are no short cuts to any place worth going to.” — Beverly Sills.

    • .
      Civil engineering is a great discipline as the “built environment” continually grows and recycles itself. There are always jobs with a degree in CE from design to construction to construction management to real estate development.

      It is also a great vehicle from which to confront, understand, and deploy technology. Every tech app has to have a clean, air conditioned environment.

      Tell him the following:

      “Engineers have hairy ears; they make love to their wives with butcher knives.”

      Maybe not. I don’t know where I ever heard that.


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