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What Conan The Destroyer Taught Me About Mental Toughness


Listen to Josh. I taught him well...

There’s a great line in Conan The Destroyerwait, here me out–after Conan gets done with an intense battle.  A scantily clad princess is rubbing a wonderful ointment into some gouges on his biceps.

“Nothing hurts you, does it?” she asks.

“Only pain,” says Conan, before going all bottoms up with a gourdful of liquor.

Pain hurts

No kidding.  Are you from North “Duh-Kota?” as my dad has often asked me.   I tell you that pain hurts not to be obvious, but so that we will each give ourselves permission to feel pain.  To hurt.  Life is hard and pain hurts.

Now…how to deal with it?

Easy!  Or, relatively easy.  The answer is:  harden up.  Embrace it.  You’re not made of glass and you’re not going to shatter every time something hurts.  But it would still be nice if things hurt less. Well, they can. Harden up. Time for some muscle training. And mind training.

I have always been fascinated by the idea that the mind can harden and toughen in the same way that the body can.  Fascinated and a bit desperate at the thought might be a better way to say it.  My physical pain has never been nearly as hard to cope with as the mental pain it causes—or that I let it cause.

Capacity Work

Each week I have between three and five kettlebell workouts.  At least one of the workouts begins with a session in which the goal is building “work capacity.”  This simply means trying to increase the amount of time I can do a lift for.  Reps don’t matter.  The only numbers that matter are those on the clock.

This is very deliberate.  It is much harder to say “I will do this for eight minutes” than to say, “I only have to get through 10 reps.”

For instance, I might do kettlebell snatches with a very light weight, but I will do them for seven minutes without putting the kettlebell down.  Reps don’t matter.  I can switch hands if I want.  If I only get 10 snatches, that’s acceptable, as long as I didn’t put the kettlebell down.

The semi-fancy name for supporting a weight is “time under tension.”  As long as you are holding a weight, a suitcase, a kettlebell, a baby, or a giant doughnut, that is time under tension.

Time under mental tension

Physical capacity work is one of the great loves of my life.  Mental capacity work is one of my most sinister demons.  I’ve told you that the urge that causes me to have tics is similar to the urge when you need to sneeze.  Well, here’s what I’m suggesting: pretend that the ten seconds when you need to sneeze are time under mental tension.

You could hold it in.  It would eventually go away.  Would that toughen you up?  I’m not sure about that.  Regardless, the stakes aren’t high when all that hangs in the balance is a sneeze.

Mental pain

Two weeks ago I was 30 minutes into my shift when my tics started misbehaving.  It was noticeable enough that the patrons in the library were looking in my direction.  I could have taken a break.  I could have explained to the patrons what was going on–that’s what I usually do.  I could have done any number of things, but I decided to try something new.

“No,” I said to myself.  “Just no.  Not today.”  Two hours earlier I had been in the gym.  I pushed 140 lbs worth of kettlebells over my head 60 times in 30 minutes, and then I did a bunch of other hard stuff.  It took all the focus and determination I had.

Why could I force through something physically but not mentally?

I made a decision: I will not have tics for the next 30 minutes.

The result

It was really, really hard, but I made it through the 30 minutes without so much as a superfluous eye blink.  Usually when I try to hold things in, I pay for it later.  There’s a quota of craziness to meet, after all.

But I was okay for the rest of the day.  The next day I bumped that 30 minutes up to 35.  I was okay for the rest of the day.  I’m curing myself! I thought.  I’m such a handsome genius!

The next day I had a bit of a problem in the airport.  I paid for my experiment.  I paid for it and then some.

Silver lining trumps blood and tears

Yesterday I tried it again.  I made it to 40 minutes.  And you know what gets me off right now?  It’s not the two days of physical and mental misery that my meltdown in the airport caused. All I can think about, with a big fat smile is:

I just went 40 minutes without having tics.  It may have been a year since I’ve had one minute of complete stillness.  I’ll probably smash my face in tomorrow as punishment, and it will hurt…but so what?

I’m convinced the theory is sound.  Time under tension applies to our bodies and our minds.  Subject them to tests and they will grow.  Yes!  You can do this as well.  This post is not supposed to be about me.

If you are human, you have negative thought patterns.  It is very likely that there are uncomfortable realities that you need to spend time thinking about that you choose not to.  There are things you can’t dodge forever.  The sooner you put your mind under tension, the sooner you can think about other things.  The quicker you increase your work capacity and tolerance for mental discomfort, the sooner your mind will truly be your mind.

Confront the thing that should be confronted.  Tomorrow, add time.  Soon, you will no longer have to increase your mental work capacity because the problem will be solved.

Will it be comfortable?  Certainly not in my case, and most likely not in yours.  It will hurt.  Pain always does.

But there are worse things than mental pain. Like having to flex for an entire 90 minute movie.

That's time under tension!

That's time under tension!

You belong to you.  Act like it.


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Greg November 2, 2009, 4:49 am

    This reminds me of the Aiel in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and their mantra of embracing pain.

  • Ben (from TIC) November 2, 2009, 7:27 am

    Mental pain and physical pain influence each other. You can have one without the other, but they do often go together. I your decision–to be in control of the mental which precludes the physical.

  • Casey Brazeal (North and Clark) November 2, 2009, 10:36 am

    I have heard you quoting Conan and Dr. Phil Josh.

    You’re no high culture/low culture snob and I love that.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 2, 2009, 10:39 am

      @Casey: I’m most comfortable in the gutter.

      @Ben: It’s a good theory when it works. I wish I could make it work more often.

      @Greg: I only read half of the first book of WOT. Maybe I should rethink it.

  • Kenji Crosland November 2, 2009, 10:45 am

    I like the “time under mental tension” idea. Do as much as you can within a period of time and forget about whether you did more or less.

    As a Karate sensei once said: “Karate man don’t count.”

  • Heather November 2, 2009, 10:45 am

    Hey–I DIG the Conan reference! Thanks for this post, Josh! As someone who has been facing some weird stuff in her own life since last Christmas, this has made my day! It’s one thing when feces occurs. . . but when feces keeps occuring over and over again to the point where IT makes LIFE happen, things get bad. But no more with the badness that is bad! Thanks as always! U da bomb, yo!

    • Josh Hanagarne November 2, 2009, 11:32 am

      @Heather: We scamper all over looking for answers, when all we need is to watch a movie with Wilt Chamberlain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And a gorilla man made of mirrors. It’s all true, yo.

      @Kenji: It works! Love the karate quote.

  • Gayze November 2, 2009, 12:22 pm

    Thanks for this post, Josh. I can so relate to the physical and mental tension thing, even though to look at me one wouldn’t see the correlation. Having come through a year plus of pain, setbacks, frustration, more setbacks, and finally being, once again, in a position where I can actually stand on my own two feet…. Well, the explanation would be long and boring, but the Thank You is quick and deeply sincere.

    Plus, Conan rocks. Not necessarily the Arnie version, though. I love the original Howard stories. I had twelve volumes at one point, and a move, with a relative picking up the wrong box of books to donate to the local library, lost all but two on me. Awesome stories, superb sword and sorcery mayhem.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 2, 2009, 12:33 pm

      I love the old Conan books. I’ve still got a bunch of them I can’t bear to throw out.

      • Gayze November 2, 2009, 12:55 pm

        Conan the Barbarian. The guy every little kid who’s ever been picked on by a bully would love to have as a best friend. 🙂

  • We Fly Spitfires November 2, 2009, 4:15 pm

    Heh, I love the Conan films. One of my favourite quotes from the first one below:

    Mongol General: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?
    Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
    Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?
    Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.
    Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

    Ever read any of Robert E. Howard’s books, Josh?

  • We Fly Spitfires November 2, 2009, 4:16 pm

    Sorry, just saw your response above 🙂 Great books huh 🙂

  • pseudosu November 2, 2009, 5:19 pm

    People are so freaked-out about pain, myself included I guess. Over the past couple of years I’ve had some doozie injuries and people have said stuff like– “Oh- If you broke ribs you’d KNOW it.” So I’d go, “Well, I’m not dying, so they must not be broken.” WRONG! Same with a severe tibia fracture. I assume I’m being a baby, and injure myself worse. Now I’m back in fightin’ form– better than ever really, and feel kind of kick-ass actually. I CAN take it!
    Your mental toughness is an inspiration to me!

    • Josh Hanagarne November 2, 2009, 6:37 pm

      Hey, nobody’s saying it’s fun, including Conan. I would love to see the numbers on how many people get injured pushing through injuries. I’ve been there. It’s the dumbest thing we can do, but wow is it tempting:)

  • Daisy November 2, 2009, 8:02 pm

    You know, after reading this post about pain, I could almost believe a few of you men could try giving birth. Maybe. Once. (laughing behind laptop)

    • Josh Hanagarne November 2, 2009, 8:04 pm

      Oh, I’ve been witness to a labor. That’s serious business. That’s a type of fortitude and toughness I don’t want any part of.

  • Oleg Mokhov November 2, 2009, 9:44 pm

    Hey Josh,

    We can do more in life if we expand our capacity, both physical and mental.

    We toughen up and push our muscles, so they can grow. But we shouldn’t stop at our arms, legs, chest, cardiovascular, etc. We need to push our most important and strongest muscle of all: our brain.

    By expanding our mental capacity, we can achieve more. Go through tougher stuff to get more out of life. We could have the strongest physical body in the world, but if we wuss out of doing certain things because of slight chances of pain here and there, then we’re not putting it to use. We miss out on a lot of fun things.

    Just ask rock climbers. Or thru-runners. Or white water rafters. Or anyone that gets to do what they love to an extreme. They’re at the edge, maximizing life, and when they encounter the inevitable mental walls of “man, I really don’t think I could go any further,” they push on and really LIVE just that much more.

    Those are the people with the sun-bright gleaming eyes and smiles that look like they were surgically inserted into their faces.

    Great reminder to not forget to exercise the MOST important muscle: our mind. We build mental capacity along with physical to really live life how we want it.

    I couldn’t agree more: it’s our life, so we need to live it our way.

    Awesome stuff,

  • Beth L. Gainer November 3, 2009, 1:45 pm

    Great posting, Josh. I think the mind is very powerful and, like you, I do like to challenge it. BTW, I took your advice and told myself that walking on most days is OK and more than most people do.

    And I’ve been walking an hour a day. Feels great.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 3, 2009, 1:53 pm

      Anything new feels good when your body isn’t used to it. Walking is highly, highly underrated, for physical and mental effects.

  • Belinda Munoz November 3, 2009, 2:54 pm

    Love this: “But there are worse things than mental pain. Like having to flex for an entire 90 minute movie.”

    • Josh Hanagarne November 3, 2009, 3:10 pm

      Belinda, flexing is serious business. Every time Arnold flexes his pecs so they ripple and dance right in your face, it’s the result of hours and hours of practice. Also, it’s exhausting. Please film nine 10-minute youtube videos of yourself flexing and I’ll run them as your first guest post here on WSL:)

  • Boris Bachmann November 4, 2009, 10:46 pm

    That’s great to hear!

    • Josh Hanagarne November 5, 2009, 8:35 am

      Thanks Boris. I’m determined to solve this riddle and prove that I’m way smarter than all of my doctors:)