David Goggins, Brené Brown, And The Battle For The Soul Of Self Help
This is David Goggins. He is a former Navy SEAL and Army Ranger. He has held the Guinness record for most pull ups in 24 hours. In his spare time he runs Ultra Marathons.
This is Brené Brown. She has a PHD in social work. She’s researched shame and vulnerability the past two decades, and has written 6 best selling books on the subject.
Judging by their bios the two couldn’t be more different, yet you can find both their work in the self help section of your bookstore. While the two authors fit in the same genre, they view the idea of “self improvement” in radically different ways.
For David Goggins “self improvement” means self discipline. It requires shining up your armor and going to war with your weaknesses
For Brené Brown “self improvement” means self acceptance. It requires relinquishing your armor, and loving yourself in spite of your frailty.
Brown and Goggins are not alone. They are prominent examples of two fragments of the self help industry I call “self discipline” and “self acceptance.”
Both forms of self help have massive audiences, but is one better than the other? If someone wants to make a positive change in their life, must they pick a side? Or is there something we can take away from both ideas?
To answer these questions, let’s take a deeper look at the two philosophies and their spokespeople.
David Goggins & Self Discipline
David Goggins is a bonafide badass with a resume to prove it. He is a decorated Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and endurance athlete. But David Goggins was not always the superhuman he is today. In his bestselling memoir Can’t Hurt Me he describes his humble beginnings.
Goggins grew up in a broken home with an abusive father. He later moved to a predominantly white town where his classmates bullied him because of his race. Prior to trying out for the SEAL’s he was 100 pounds overweight and stuck in a dead end job fumigating cockroaches.
Things didn’t get easier during his military career. He failed the SEAL training and selection process twice, and had to endure the notorious Hell Week three times. He passed on his third attempt with a broken knee.
While these feats are extraordinary, David Goggins believes anyone is capable of a similar transformation if they put in the grueling work. He states:
“When your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.”
David Goggins is one of the leading personalities in what I call the self discipline wing of the self help world. Other figures in this group include fellow Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, MMA commentator Joe Rogan, and controversial author Jordan Peterson.
For the self disciplinarian the good life is a strenuous one. They believe fulfillment comes from pushing yourself to the extreme. Adherents are encouraged to develop discipline by seeking out difficult tasks, and tackling them with enthusiasm.
You are in a ceaseless battle against your shortcomings. In this battle there is no room for weakness, and excuses are not tolerated. Feeling tired, sad, or unmotivated? Doesn’t matter! You have to put in the work anyways.
Self Acceptance: Brené Brown
Like Goggins, Brené Brown has an impressive list of accomplishments. Her popular 2010 TED Talk: The Power Of Vulnerability currently has over 50 million views. She’s written 6 books which have sold well over a million copies. In 2019, she became one of the first motivational speakers to get a Netflix Special.
While some dub Brown “the queen of vulnerability”, she does not describe herself that way. In fact, she would not describe herself as vulnerable at all. The initial goal of her research was to “beat back shame and vulnerability with a measuring stick.”
This approach backfired. Brown talks openly about using alcohol and perfectionism as shields against inner shame. In her TED talk she revealed she had a nervous breakdown and sought out therapy when reaching the conclusion of her research.
What was this conclusion?
Unhappy people have an unassailable sense of shame. They believe there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and they are unworthy of love and approval. On the other hand, happy people believe they are worthy of love. They know they are not perfect, but still have compassion for themselves.
Brown has become one of the many faces on the nurturing side of the self help sphere which I call self-acceptance. Other figures include meditation teacher Tara Branch, author Jen Sincero, and Yale Psychologist Laurie Santos.
In this school of thought adherents are taught to be kind to themselves. To forgive themselves for past and present failures. To accept their shortcomings and move on anyway. It preaches that we don’t need to earn acceptance through external validation and accomplishments. We are enough as we are.
Both the self discipline and self acceptance philosophies have enthusiasts around the world. What specifically do people like about these ideas? We’ll start with self discipline.
Why Join Team Goggins?
Difficult Tasks Require Discipline: Most things worth achieving require discipline. Think of common goals like dieting, weight loss, financial planning, and mastering a new skill. All of these involve a trade off of hard (and often unpleasant) work to achieve some desirable goal in the future. Left to our own devices, most of us will opt for the greasy burger over the kale salad. We have to exert some form of will power to make the better choice.
This is doubly true if you have ambitious goals like becoming a successful entrepreneur, world class musician, or professional athlete. Effort alone will not suffice. Becoming extraordinary requires putting in exhaustive hours. This level of work is not possible without training yourself to withstand hardship.
Zero Tolerance Policy For Excuses: Our mind has a savant-like ability to come up with reasons not to do things we don’t want to do. Some of these may be valid, but most are clever forms of avoidance. The self discipline school does not care for these excuses.
Paradoxically this hard ass attitude can make it easier to do the work. It removes choice from the equation. Your mind no longer exerts energy flip flopping between whether or not to do something. There is no decision to make, only work to be done.
Bias Towards Action: For the disciplinarian action is the agent of self improvement. Becoming a better version of yourself requires taking bold actions day after day. The outlook is light on contemplation, but that can be a good thing for some.
Oftentimes we use research and fact finding to delay action. Self Help itself can even be a form of evasion. Some of the more cerebral folks may even believe they can think their way to a better life. If you fall into one of these categories, you can benefit from advice that advocates getting off your ass and entering the arena.
Why Join Team Brown?
More Compassionate Approach
Brené Brown believes people go through their lives burdened by shame. They feel there is some inalterable part of themselves which is rotten. I imagine many people who seek out self help advice have this belief.
These wounded souls may be turned off by the self discipline camp. The hard nosed rhetoric of the disciplinarian may only aggravate their shame, heighten their unworthiness, and make them less likely to get help.
Brown and her cohorts offer a more sympathetic solution. One that acknowledges and empathizes with people’s inner struggle. This gentle approach may be more inviting to people suffering from shame and contempt.
Gets To The Root Of The Problem
Much of our discontentment has little to do with external circumstances. There are people who have it all on the surface: lucrative career, nice car, beautiful family; but are miserable inside.
Brown recognizes the psychological roots of our dissatisfaction. If you live with the underlying assumption that “you are not enough”, no level of achievement will make you feel whole. No fancy job title, “perfect” body, or amount of money in the bank will quiet the nagging voice in your head.
The self acceptance field addresses this core belief, rather than focusing on its symptoms. It questions the assumption there is something wrong with us in the first place. Perhaps we are alright after all, and there is nothing to fix.
Allows Us To Accept What We Cannot Change
Who we are is a result of both nature and nurture: our biological makeup and unique upbringing. What do these two forces have in common? Both are outside your control. This means there are many parts of ourselves which we did not create and cannot govern.
There are certainly things we like about ourselves: perhaps we have a square jaw and a killer golf swing. But there are also things we despise. And many of these less favorable parts of our personality cannot be willed away by discipline. Whether we like them or not they are here to stay.
Self acceptance allows us to come to terms with the parts of ourselves we cannot change. Denying, outwitting, or outworking these parts of ourselves doesn’t make them go away. It shoves them into the dark corners of our psyche where they grow stronger in the shadows. Self acceptance brings them out of the shadows, and into the light where we can begin to deal with them.
Why We Need Both Types Of Self Improvement
While self discipline and self acceptance are certainly different, they are not necessarily at odds with one another. When you take the best elements from both philosophies you can create a more integrative and realistic view of self help.
Brené Brown is correct that meaningful change starts with self acceptance. We are cast in the world into circumstances we can’t control. We can’t control where we were born. Who are parents are. What we look like. What we’re good and bad at. These intractable forces shape us, carve out our personality, and create unique sources of insecurity and shame.
The journey to self improvement begins by accepting these imperfections, but not being defined by them. We’re all imperfect people, in a deeply imperfect world, and many of us carry burdens we didn’t choose. Coming to terms with these facts lessens their power over us. It reminds us, blemishes and all, we are worthy of love and happiness.
But acceptance only gets you so far. If you want to make a meaningful change in your life (even if that change is being more accepting of yourself) you’ll need to put in a lot of work.
And make no mistake, the work will not always be fun. In fact, much of it will be demanding. And most days you will not want to do it. This is where David Goggins and the disciplinarians enter the fray.
The work ahead of you requires strength and discipline. To cultivate these qualities you need a David Goggins type figure yelling over your shoulder. A figure who knows what you’re capable of and demands a lot from you. A figure who will not accept excuses and half assed attempts. A figure who exhibits the type of tough love you need to be the best version of yourself.
In the end self-acceptance and self-discipline may come together in the form of self love. This messy type of love is both caring and demanding: tough and tender. It embraces our misgivings, but wants us to push forward and be our best in spite of them. This knotty form of self love might be exactly the thing that brings together the David Goggins and Brené Browns of the world.