We often hold up elite performers as some sort of superhuman. Impervious to the doubts and insecurities that the rest of us face. We call them tough, gritty, resilient, clutch, to show that they have figured out how to perform under immense levels of pressure. Something, that us mere mortals simply can’t do. Yet, every single elite runner I’ve ever talked to has said “Oh ya, I think about quitting during every race.”

The desire to quit is normal. In researching and writing Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and The Surprising Science of Real Toughness I talked to dozens of the best performers, from athletes to entrepreneurs to scientists to artists. They all echoed the same sentiment: They all had moments of wanting to throw their manuscript in the trash, debating ways how to get out of their approaching deadline, or having daydreams of pulling their own Jerry Maguire moment and leaving the company they helped lead. If that sounds dramatic, best-selling author Brad Stulberg told me, “Seventy-five percent of the time I’m sitting at my desk writing, I want to quit. Or at the very least, go for the easy win—writing a tweet—instead of the real work— writing a chapter.” Jonathan Wai, a prolific academic at the University of Arkansas who studies gifted education, described to me how he often loses this inner battle, “I find myself staring off into space, avoiding writing and revising various papers and projects… I often side with the lower hanging fruit probably because I’m lazy.” We all want to quit. We all search for the hole to step in. Even if we don’t admit it.

Why Do Some of Us Quit While Others Persist?

When we are faced with completing a task that doesn’t push our limits or only induces mild discomfort, the decision to continue onward is rather easy. Writing an email to a friend. Completing a set of math problems that we could do in our sleep. Going for an easy jog of a few miles when we’ve previously completed a marathon. These are all tasks that don’t push our limits, that put forth little challenge. We might feel a little resistance, a sense of apathy, but it’s easy to overcome. When the outcome of our pursuit is never in doubt, when everything is going according to plan, minimal toughness is required. The decision to persist is easy. Our goal is front and center in our minds, and choosing to pursue it requires little to no thought or effort.

When achieving your goal is uncertain and discomfort rises, the picture changes. Our singular pursuit of a goal is replaced by doubt. We face what psychologists call a battle between goal pursuit and goal disengagement, two sides of a spectrum that we bounce between. When life is easy and we are motivated, we live entirely on the goal-pursuit side of the continuum. But when we take on a challenge where we might not have the capacity to prevail, we find ourselves swaying around in the middle—edging toward goal disengagement when we feel particularly lost or discouraged. Rebounding toward goal pursuit when we catch our “second wind” or muster some forgotten motivation. It’s in this in-between zone where the struggle arises, the point where we ebb and flow between persisting and calling it quits. That point of inner debate, of finding a hole to step in is called an action crisis.

According to researchers out of Switzerland, an action crisis occurs whenever we face increasing setbacks or challenges on our way to accomplishing a goal. We come face to face with the reality that we might fall short. We shift from a goal-directed orientation where the motivation to achieve is the focus, to a state where negative thoughts and sensations persist. We shift from driven to succeed to negotiating with our self to abandon the goal. Whether we call it a freak-out, action crisis, or catastrophizing, the battle between persisting and quitting is critical in nearly all aspects of performance. What is taking place in our mind that nudges us toward goal engagement or disengagement at this crucial juncture?

When psychologists and sports scientists Veronika Brandstätter and Julia Schüler came together to understand why we give up on our goals, they found that regardless of the challenge, as discomfort increased so did our reliance on a cost-benefit analysis. Take, for example, struggling with the romantic decision we’ve all faced: to continue the relationship or to end it and look elsewhere. When couples are happy, their minds are nearly entirely focused on the benefits of continuing the relationship. As the saying goes, they see their partner through rose-colored glasses. Their thoughts follow their mood. If they are happy, why should they focus on the potential red flags or reevaluate their choice? This blissful unawareness explains why close friends can often see the bright flashing warning signs before the couple can.

But when a relationship moves from bliss to that in-between zone where unhappiness rears its head, our thought patterns shift. Couples still consider the benefits of continuing, but their minds start to mull over the costs of continuing and the benefits of ending their relationship. The inner calculus shifts. They start noticing all of the red flags that they were previously blinded to, and daydreams of a future life together turn into flashes of “What have I gotten myself into? Is he going to be this lazy all the time?” As the certainty of the honeymoon phase fades, the inner battle, or action crisis, unfolds, as the partner decides whether to stick it out or find a way out—to persist or quit.

Researchers found that the same pattern held when a group of national class Swiss table tennis players were evaluated on whether they wanted to continue their sport or to quit. The further down the action crisis rabbit hole (i.e., already having thoughts of quitting) a player went, the more cost-benefit rumination occurred. Other researchers found the same phenomenon when running a marathon. Discomfort leads to doubts, and as doubts rise, we shift from a goal-directed mind to one that weighs the costs of whatever endeavor we are on. Our mind has moved from a Tony Robbins motivational speech to a fierce debate contest. What can we do about it?

1. Set Appropriate Expectations

Setting big audacious goals is a hallmark of business and self-help gurus. Yet, it often backfires. Sure, it may give us a motivational bump, and may even change our perspective. But when the going gets tough, our mind defaults to a quick and dirty cost-benefit analysis. And if that big goal seems near impossible to accomplish, we’re more likely to spiral towards an action crisis, than to muster up motivation.

After all, why should you put more effort if the odds of success are quickly eroding? This is the mistake of the amateur who sets an overly ambitious goal, only to find his mind entering a state of ‘what’s the point,’ and clouded in doubt and negativity. It’s the novice marathoner who goes out way too fast, full of motivation and energy when the race is easy, but drained when she needs it the most. Setting high goals can backfire, sending us towards finding that hole to step in.

On the other hand, if we make our goals too easy, we simply don’t try as hard. Researchers have found we tend to reduce our efforts when we feel like we’re going to accomplish our goal. Ask any teenager about this phenomenon and they’ll have plenty of stories of knowing exactly what they needed to pass a class, and how they stopped studying once they knew that was within reach. We coast to the finish line, when the cat is in the bag. It’s not laziness. It’s simply your brain saying, ‘why expend more energy than necessary when we’re going to reach our goal regardless?’ Researchers hypothesize that “people generally interpret positive feedback on their rate of goal attainment (e.g., feeling good) as a signal that they can attend to something else.” You brain is efficient, not wasteful.

2. Give Yourself a Shot

Are you trying to take on Apple and Microsoft, or the startup down the street? Our comparison point matters. When a group of researchers studied over 5,000 college students performance in an online class, they found a curious trend. When average students were made aware of how the best students in the class were performing, they were more likely to give up and quit the course. They were discouraged, unable to measure up to their high-achieving peers. In other words, they didn’t have a shot.

The same holds true in just about every performance. We perform our best when we are in the mix. This isn’t rocket science, but far too often, we set unrealistic expectations. We define our comparison point as Lebron James or Steve Jobs, when it should start out as the kids at the local junior college, or running a successful small business. We do best when our expectations and goals are in the sweet-spot, of just manageable. Where they are meaningful, challenging, but we have a realistic shot. We give up when we don’t have a shot.

3. Find the Right Motivation.
At the 2018 Boston Marathon, which took place in atrocious, wet and windy weather, 5% of men dropped out, while only 3.6% of women did. Was this a fluke? When researchers looked at over 2,500 participants in endurance cycling events, they found that men dropped out of races more frequently. But more interesting, was why this occurred. Men’s motivation tended to be more ego orientated. They were focused on winning or performing better than their peers. On the other hand, women tended to have higher levels of intrinsic motivation; a focus on putting forth their best effort, of competing for the joy of the activity itself.

When the race got tough, or their goal seemed out of reach, the men were more likely to throw in the towel. After all, if you’re motivated by winning, then what’s the point if that goal is out of reach? The women on the other hand, even if it was a bad day, were more motivated internally, making sure they got the most out of themselves, whatever that may be on that day.

Intrinsic motivation doesn’t just help us stick to tough races. Research has found that it’s tied to better long-term performance, and a decrease in burnout and employee turnover in the workplace. So while we might think that being motivated solely by winning is what allows us to perform and persist. It’s actually the opposite.


In running, we all have doubts. We all have that devil on our shoulder that screams at us to stop, to slow down, to find a hole to step in. That’s normal. The key is learning how to navigate those voices and urges to act. Step one is the appropriate appraisal and the right motivation. Step two is learning how to navigate them via enhancing your mental toolset. I cover both in my new book Do Hard Things. It just released, and I hope you’ll give it a look!

-Steve

Do Hard Things is finally on sale. For a limited time, order today and you’ll receive:

  • Bonus Deleted Chapter: Why We Quit and What We Can Do About It?
  • Online Course: 30+ hours of written, video, and audio content to walk you through improving your mental game. (A $200+ value for free!)
  • Guide to Toughness: A guide outlining the key concepts of the book
  • Practices of Toughness: A guide with dozens of exercises to help you develop your mental muscle.
  • The Principles of Toughness: The key attributes to apply to your business, athletic, and home life to develop resilience.
  • How Tough are the best performers in the world? I collected measures of grit on some of the top performers in history. Are they all bastions of toughness, or are they actually more like the rest of us? See for yourself as I walk you through the data to understand toughness.

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