Army Recruiters Laughed At Him, He Became “The Toughest Man Alive”
We all have feelings of insecurity that we aren’t fulfilling our potential. But not everyone has the ability to make the necessary changes. This is the story of one man who did. When David Goggins first called to enlist in the Navy SEALs recruiters laughed him off the phone. It was the catalyst he needed to make an unimaginably radical transformation — and it nearly cost him his life.
The Joke’s On You
At the age of 24, and after living a lifetime being ridiculed by his peers, David Goggins finally had the “a-ha moment” that he had been waiting for. Overweight, unhappy, and working the night shift as an exterminator, he happened to overhear a show on the Discovery Channel documenting what it’s like to endure Navy SEAL training.
In that moment, David Goggins realized that in order to conquer his inner demons, he was ready to subject himself to the most intense physical and mental training possible. Yet when he called his local recruitment offices, he was laughed off of the phone and hung up on.
Not Good Enough
While a stint in the Air Force gave him an edge over other candidates, Goggins’ weight disqualified him from even applying for SEAL training. Having recently gained over 100 pounds thanks to a static lifestyle and eating badly, he would have to lose it all in order to make weight.
For a 6’1″ man, the maximum weight threshold is 191 pounds. Tipping the scale at 297 meant that Goggins would need to lose 106 pounds just to apply for training. Most of the recruiters refused to waste their time with him and hung up; the ones that stayed on the phone told him that the feat was impossible. Little did they know: he’d been through far worse.
A Difficult Childhood
Born in Buffalo, New York, Goggins grew up in an abusive household. His stepfather, who worked as a pimp and had several businesses in Long Island, used to make a young David work in his skating rink as a child. There, he scraped gum off of the floor until midnight.
Because he had to work long hours, Goggins rarely attended school as a child. In fact, his stepfather didn’t believe in it. He actively held the boy out of school so that he could work. After many years together, Goggins’ mother finally worked up the courage to leave her abusive husband, and she fled with her son to start a new life. Unfortunately, their situation didn’t get much better.
Not Free From Suffering
Goggins and his mother moved to Brazil, Indiana, a small town close to the border of Illinois. Used to the urban environment of New York, Goggins and his mother suddenly found themselves in a town where they were the only black family. As if standing out wasn’t bad enough, David and his mother were starting over from scratch. Leaving their tormentor also meant fleeing his financial security, and they lived off of subsidized housing and food stamps.
David suffered academically and socially. He missed class frequently, but found solace in sports, playing football and basketball. But whether on the court or in the classroom, he was constantly on the receiving end of racial slurs and threats. Although he refused to show it on the outside, David was broken. As if things couldn’t get worse, one day a letter came in the mail.
Mrs. Goggins received a letter from the local school district saying David was in jeopardy of being expelled from school. He had missed over twenty-five percent of his classes. The teachers joked that David, who at the time could hardly read or write, didn’t stand a chance at graduating.
By copying off of his classmates for three years, he was able to pass. But all of the abuse from his stepfather and from his peers had taken a toll. Somehow, a teenage Goggins was still able to muster the energy to get his life on the right track. He made a difficult decision that was about to change his life.
An Enlisted Man
At eighteen years old, David Goggins left home and enlisted in the United States Air Force. His goal: to become a member of TACP, or Tactical Air Control Party. TACPs are soldiers who go into battle with Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, typically on special ops missions. But there was one serious problem.
David soon found out that he was absolutely petrified of being in the water. More than that, he wasn’t a strong swimmer. He dreaded water training so badly that he couldn’t sleep at night. One day, during a routine physical examination, the doctors told him something that would crush all of the hard work he had put in for the past year.
A Change of Plans
David tested positive for a sickle cell anemia trait, putting him at risk in low depths, high altitude, and in general, harsh conditions. A convenient out, Goggins admits in hindsight, the news gave him a convenient excuse to quit. Although he was really afraid of the water, he told his training instructors that he feared the doctor’s recent diagnosis. He was pulled from physical ops and from the pool.
Instead, he would help his team navigate their missions from land — only now, a new obstacle stood in his way. He could not pass the multiple-choice aptitude test to graduate from training. In a breakthrough, David found that if he wrote things down repeatedly, eventually he absorbed the information. He went on to pass his training, and completed four years in the US Air Force. But during that time, he had changed physically.
By the time he completed his service, at age 24, Goggins had put on over 100 extra pounds. As a civilian, he picked up a job working as an exterminator for a company called Ecolab. His daily routine: working the night shift from 11PM to 7AM. Then, pick up a couple of hamburgers and mini donuts from 7-11, and feast the entire 45-minute commute home.
Once he arrived to his house, he was so lethargic, he would turn the TV volume on high so that he could hear it while he was showering. On a typical night, he was usually vegged out on the couch. Then, one evening he heard something that resonated with him.
“These Men Detest Mediocrity”
Through the sounds of the water droplets, he heard a man speaking about mediocrity. It was a documentary about SEAL training. As he watched the men drop out one by one during the most intense kind of water training he had ever seen, Goggins was both terrified and enthralled. Fed up with the voice in his head telling him that he was mediocre, he had an epiphany.
He felt that if he couldn’t conquer his innermost fears than he wouldn’t be able to move past the demons that continued to torment him and make him feel unworthy. He could still hear the voices of his abusive stepfather, his classmates, and teachers. The next day he called up the local recruitment office, only to be laughed off the phone. David knew that to pursue his path, he needed to turn inward.
The Accountability Mirror
In that moment, Goggins developed a tool that he would utilize for the rest of his life. He calls it the accountability mirror. Literally, he looked at himself in the mirror, and had a tough conversation with himself about what his biggest fears were. At the same time, he held himself accountable for not taking action. “What have you done today to push yourself?” he said to himself.
In order to counter what he dreaded the most in life, Goggins decided that he would need to toughen his mind. For him, the only way forward was to subject himself to the most intense physical and mental suffering. Feeling that he was about to embark on his chosen path, Goggins was motivated, but it soon became clear that it would be a long process.
A Long Journey
“You’ll never make it. It’s impossible to lose 106 pounds,” he told himself. The same night, he returned to his job as an exterminator and came across something incredible — the mother lode of all cockroach infestations. In that moment he had another revelation.
He decided that finding a nest of roaches was not going to be the highlight of his life or his career. Terrified that he would look back on his life at the age of fifty with the feeling of regret, he was moved to action and got in the gym the same night.
There’s one thing that separates elite leaders from their peers: their desire to be the absolute best at something. When Goggins began hitting the gym and running he was motivated. But on his first run, he set out to run four miles and only made it a quarter of a mile. He walked back home crying, defeated, and made himself a chocolate milkshake as consolation.
As if things couldn’t be worse, he had also just gotten a woman pregnant and was living on less than $1,000 a month. Somehow, through conversations he started having with himself, he developed the perseverance to try again. The next day, he went back to training. Now, the only problem was…he physically couldn’t run.
Forrest Gump, Step Aside
Because he was so out of shape, Goggins had to start his training on a bike and in the place he hated the most: the pool. He could hardly swim, so he bought fins to help him float, and logged countless hours cycling and swimming laps.
From swimming he began running, first one mile, then two, then three, and then six miles. If he was too tired or sore to run one day, he would make up for it by doing two-a-days, or by exercising double the next day. From there, he started tapping into his true potential.
In three months, David Goggins miraculously shed the weight and got into SEAL training. Many highly talented candidates are accepted, but only a small percentage actually make it through. Navy SEAL training is the most intense of all the units in the armed forces.
It is a true endurance test of body and mind, and a defining moment for becoming a SEAL. Instructors say that completing the training is ten percent physical and ninety percent mental. For most, the greatest challenge lies in the fourth week of training, in what is unaffectionately referred to as Hell Week.
During Hell Week, trainees are kept in non-stop motion and are constantly cold, hungry, sandy, and wet. Mud is everywhere, covering the entire body, while sand burns eyes and chafes raw flesh. In case of emergency, medical staff is on hand to treat injured or sick soldiers and many have died during Hell Week (including a member of Goggins’ own class).
To test the candidates’ mental fortitude, instructors continually remind them that they can drop out at any time they feel they can’t go on. Famously, the trainees do so by ringing a shiny brass bell that hangs prominently for everyone to see. Even the toughest soldiers have succumbed to the rigors of hell week, including David Goggins.
The Cookie Jar
After failing twice, he finally made it through on his third try. David Goggins is the only SEAL to have endured three Hell Weeks in one year, after stress fractures in his legs repeatedly forced him to drop out. By then, he had conquered his mind, and given himself the ability to seek positive reinforcement in his brain on command.
In order to make it through SEAL training, Goggins developed a tactic that he calls “reaching into the cookie jar”. In difficult moments, he tries to think about previous experiences where he overcame odds and experienced a taste of success. He is thus able to tap into his sensory-nervous system to create the motivation needed to stick it out. It’s something that everyone is capable of, and something that Goggins utilized in his next challenge.
After becoming a certified member of SEAL Team Five, in 2001, Goggins felt he was unstoppable. He enrolled in Army Ranger School, essentially for sport and for the experience. Less than fifty percent make it through Ranger school. Yet he graduated with the distinction of “Top Honor Man”. Just one year later, he deployed to Iraq, where he mostly served as a training commander, readying soldiers for impending battles.
After losing several of his trainees during the war, Goggins began entering in long-distance runs as a way to help raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. The organization gives college scholarships and grants to the children of fallen special operations soldiers. Thus began a post-military passion that paved the way for Goggin’s greatest accomplishment to date.
Becoming One Of The Best
After Googling “toughest marathons in the world”, David was set on running the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile test of endurance starting in California’s Death Valley Basin, and ending at an elevation of 8,360 feet on Mount Whitney, the state’s highest mountain. It takes place annually during the summer, when conditions are at their most extreme.
But in order to compete, Goggins needed to enter (and complete) another ultra marathon first. In his first marathon in San Diego, he was able to run 101 miles in 19 hours and 6 minutes — despite never having attempted to run a marathon previously. Afterwards, Goggins was physically defeated, showing signs of organ failure. He was unable to stand and became incontinent, needing his then-wife’s help to make it up the stairs to his apartment. But he didn’t stop there.
Continuing To Get Better
In 2006, David competed in the Ultraman World Championships Triathlon in Hawaii. He placed second in the three-day, 320-mile race, cycling 261 miles in two days on a rented bicycle. Before training for that race, he had never ridden competitively. To date, he has competed in over sixty marathons and ultra marathons, winning several and placing highly in most.
By this time, he said he went from being David Goggins to just “Goggins”. His transformation was astounding. In an incredible show of physical prowess, he returned year after year to the same races, trying to better his times. For a period, he was competing in consecutive ultra-marathons within weeks of each other, for months on end. All of the wear and tear on his body started taking a toll.
Taking A Break
After transforming his body from one extreme to the other, and then competing at the level of an elite athlete, it was time to give his legs a break. In the interim, Goggins set out to do something that he had never done before: break a Guinness World Record.
After a failed attempt in 2012 that resulted in an injured wrist, Goggins eventually broke the record for most pull-ups in a twenty-four hour period in January 2013. He officially completed 4,030 pull-ups in seventeen hours. He owned this record for two years before being overtaken by another Air Traffic Control Officer. Goggins would eventually return to running, but not before a new obstacle would unexpectedly sideline him.
Don’t Forget To Stretch!
David Goggins is the first to admit that the way he transformed his life wasn’t exactly the healthiest. Changing your body as quickly as possible is not doctor-recommended. By the time he was competing in races in his late thirties, Goggins couldn’t go out on a warm-up run without duct-taping his ankles in place.
In fact, his psoas, a powerful hip-flexor muscle, had become so tight from physical and emotional stress, that his entire body was pronating, or turning inward. It was as if his body was shrinking itself from the inside. Doctors told him that his organs were failing, and he was dying.
A Life-Saving Treatment
If you think that yoga is a joke, or just a New Age fad, just ask David Goggins why you’re wrong. Always one to take physical tests to the extreme, he began a doctor-prescribed stretching routine that went from thirty-minute sessions, to lasting several hours long.
Slowly but surely, his body began to heal itself. The spinal bone that had appeared on the back of his head due to his body caving in started to get smaller and smaller. In time, his body realigned itself. After a five-year hiatus from running competitively, Goggins said that at 43 years old, he was in the best shape of his life, largely from learning how to stretch properly.
Work As A Motivational Speaker
When David Goggins had just started his fitness routine to get into SEAL training, he used a couple of tricks to stay at it. Always drawing on inspiration from characters who refused to stay down, he would re-watch his two favorite films: Rocky and Platoon.
He also learned to control the voices in his head telling him that he couldn’t do things. Instead he used to tell himself, “How awesome would it be if a fat, 290-pound loser could turn his life around and become one of the toughest men on the planet?” After over a decade of walking the walk, and smashing every goal that he set for himself, Goggins earned the credibility to share his life story with others.
Living With A Navy SEAL
Multimillionaire entrepreneur and owner of the Atlanta Hawks, Jesse Itzler, was so compelled by Goggins’ story, that he paid him to be his roommate for a month. He blogged about his experience and shared what he learned from their time together.
One of Itzler’s main takeaways: do something difficult every day and be accountable to yourself. Goggins teaches that every day, we should do something that pushes us out of our comfort zone. If you’re not out of your comfort zone, then you’re not growing.
An Unbelievable Story
For some people, the David Goggins story is too incredulous to fully believe. They either think he’s exaggerating or that he’s completely insane — one of those people that’s just born with an otherworldly work ethic. But David Goggins is the first to admit that anyone can accomplish what he has: for the simple fact that he spent over twenty years not being that guy.
Whether Navy SEAL, entrepreneur, or elite athlete, successful people all have one thing in common: the desire to be the best at something, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve it. If you truly want something bad enough, and you continue to work at attaining it, absolutely anything is achievable.