Book Review – Can’t Hurt Me

Have you ever wanted to know how to run on two broken legs?

I can’t say that I meant to learn how to, but David explains how he did it, with duct tape, tube socks, and an attitude. Much of the book covers his (superhuman?) exploits in this and similar extreme circumstances. Losing 100 pounds and remedying a lack of proper education? Running 101 miles without training? I’m not saying David’s a parahuman in hiding, but I’m not convinced he isn’t, either. This book will carry you through the life of a man who is, quite frankly, hard as the diamond core of Jupiter.

David attributes his ability in these, and other arenas, as more the product of a state of mind, a denial of defeat, an abjuration of abandonment, a gross gesture towards giving in. It certainly seems to have worked for him in achieving his goals, and he breaks it down into ten challenges, one following each of the first ten chapters, intended to make you, if not the beyond belief bodily breaker that he is (at one point in his first Hell Week, he was running from the nose and mouth with blood, kept getting pulled off the ‘evolution’ (a term for exercises in BUD/S training), only to get back up and back into place: “Oh shit, Goggins is back on the log. I repeat, Goggins is back on the log!”) then at the least, stronger than you were walking into it.

From his youth of abuse, disappointment, and being the outsider, to breaking world records for pullups, David really doesn’t seem to know the meaning of, “Enough”. As you walk with him through the house of pain, both forced and by choice, that his life has been, there is a rising sense of a need to do better, be stronger, more resilient. Perhaps it was just me, but it certainly seemed to come across as a friendly challenge – “I’ve gone through this and I’m still here. Come on, is your stopping point your real stopping point, or just a matter of convenience?”

David has a lot to say about your real stopping points. A few times, he actually does hit a limit, but it’s clear from how he approaches these situations, that he really did give it his all, and not his ‘all’. At least, I don’t think you pee blood from hitting a point where you allow yourself to give up. Maybe I’ve just given up too early in my exercise routines to do so, but on the whole, I’m actually pretty okay with not being quite that hard.

I started reading this book because I have been told, and observed, that I often give up too easily, and I hope I’ve gathered some of his gears without necessarily making myself someone who will beat my body to within an inch of death’s door. It’s hard to know where to draw the lines, given how very far from where most humans do David demonstrates is possible. I think I’ve gained from it; certainly I am stronger than I was. I started running, and unlike my last attempt (“Run at least one minute per day”) I find myself going further and further before I am compelled to stop. I have also challenged cold showers, turning them from a frightening punishment-type experience, to my new normal. Certainly I shower faster in my daily cold shower than I did in the warm, but it’s more a matter of not wasting time enjoying the water, then a need to get out as soon as possible.

In this book, David explains something he calls the 40% rule – that we tend to have only reached 40% of our total limit, when we feel we’ve hit our limit. He suggests this is controlled by a brain area he calls the governor, after the part found in many car engines that limits their top speed. I’m not sure how accurate his numbers are here, but I definitely think he’s onto something with the idea of having a limiter, something that tells us, “You’re too tired, you’ve done enough, this is too much” well before we would start taking real damage. It makes sense to have something like that, so we don’t break ourselves in everyday life, but at the same time, when you need to run from a tiger, well, you have deeper reserves than you thought.

Certainly I’ve found that I can do more than I ever believed possible, mere months ago, when achieving twenty hours of work in a week was a struggle to me. Now I well exceed that, with my main limiter seeming to be my distractability, a problem I’ve struggle with all my life to one degree or another. A very low degree, apparently, when reading fiction or playing video games (at least until the Hell Year broke my hedonism trap, but that’s a story for a later blog post). I was being governed, and it was possible to see my way past it, but Can’t Hurt Me gave me an explicit model of what was going on, one I suspect I will use again and again before accepting, “You’ve done enough, it’s too hard” or other stopping point phrases.

Personally, I think in some ways David goes too far in his pursuit of shattered limits, over shattered limbs, through a hole in his heart, and past pneumonia. I suspect there’s some survivor bias here, in that other people who have run his peculiar mental setup, often die, and don’t report back that it’s a bad idea. Read it with this in mind, seriously consider how hard pushing for whatever goal you pursue is worth putting yourself through, but also, learn not to accept your first, “This is too much, I’m done.” There’s a balance to be struck, and Can’t Hurt Me brought me closer to what I think is the correct balance, while also showing me just how far the point of balance things can be taken.

I recommend reading it if you’ve decided you have something to protect, but please do remember that you can’t protect from a hospital bed or the grave. Get stronger, but try not to go too far, wherever you decide too far is, for you.

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