Reviewed in the United States on April 4, 2020
I see no reason to write an overly detailed review of this book. Others have beaten me to the punch. So I'll give you a quick overview and then add my reasons for why I think many people need to read this, and why even those who don't might find it quite useful in their own lives.
David Goggins is a retired Navy SEAL who is legendary for his determination, will-power and ability to edure pain. Now, before you throw up your hands, adopt an English accent, and exclaim, "Och, not another bloody book by a bloody SEAL!" let me assure you that CAN'T HURT ME is most definitely n o t like all the others you may have read. The Chris Kyles and Marcus Lattrells and what-not were telling war stories and to some extent, making extended commercials for their own branch of the military. Goggins is not. In fact, when it comes to his deployed-in-a-war-zone days, he doesn't write enough to fill out a paragraph, much less a page. He talks about his military training extensively, but only with the larger focus of the book in mind. Which is as follows.
Goggins grew up in an abusive family. His dad was a physically and emotionally abusive hustler who treated him like a slave. He ended up living with his mom and taking comfort in food -- lots of food, so that he eventually became grossly and immensely fat. As one of the only blacks in an all-white school, he was also subjected to terrible racism. By the time he was in his late teens, early 20s, his life was a kind of morbid joke, with his job being to empty traps left in restaurants which were full of dead rats. He had no self-respect and no future. To compress a very complicated story into a few sentences, Goggins eventually came to the conclusion that he must stop seeking out the easy path in life, must "find comfort in being uncomfortable," and constantly seek to challenge himself in every aspect of life. This led him to the SEALs, whose training he had to go through several times due to injuries and illness -- a remarkable feat in itself given the mental and physical brutality of the training. Once a SEAL, however, Goggins continued to find ways to become uncomfortable by seeking out the toughest trainings he could sign up for, including the Rangers and the Delta Force, and by entering marathons and later, the masochistic enterprise known as the ultra-marathon. Eventually he competed in even more punishing activities such as trying to become the Guinness Book of World Records holder in the category of chin-ups (which sounds like my idea of hell.) But the thing which distinguishes him from everyone else is the fact that he did most of this with some severe congenital defects he didn't even know he had at the time. This discovery truly blew his mind and got him asking, "What if -- ?" He began to realize that we are largely prisoners of our own perceptions, and are capable of so much more than we think, but we habitually underestimate our potential and settle for what he calls "the 40%." His goal for himself, and his goal for you, is to reach 100%. The fact that this may not be possible is irrelevant to him. It's the striving, the discomfort, the pain that he seeks, not because it will get him to the goal but because it is the goal. Seeing what one can endure expands what one can achieve. As writers from Marcus Aurelius to Ernst Jünger have noted, "the obstacle is the way."
CAN'T HURT ME is important not for its recitation of all the blisters and sweat and torn ligaments Goggins has endured, or for his achievements as a sailor or an athlete, but for the way he approaches the central questions regarding the difficulties we all face in life. Goggins has plenty of reason to play the vicitim, but chose another path, the path of self-ownership. It really is very simple. For example, when he discusses his obesity, he does not blame his father, racism or society: he blames himself. His mantra in every aspect of his life is that we own our own skin and our own decisions and too often, we use our traumas to justify things like laziness, apathy, cowardice, drug abuse, and alcoholism. Overcoming this self-sabotage requires being brutally honest with oneself. "Don't call yourself overweight," he all but shouts at the reader. "Say what you really are -- a fat f***!"" Carl von Clausewitz called this, "The appreciation of the situation." Goggins calls it a self-audit. He audits himself regularly, especially when he fails at something, but also when he is successful, too. He encourages a mind-set of brutal honesty with an emphasis on the brutal. He is very frank that he "gets his strength from a very dark place," and his ethos illustrates that, as does this book. He isn't a shiny, happy person. He isn't interested in fame. He doesn't have many friends. Even when he writes about the SEALs, he offers criticism -- something you won't see much if any of in other books by former members. Some readers may be offput by this very darkness, especially in an era in which whining and entitlement (something he especially despises) are now rampant everywhere. But that is why I consider this book important. It comes at a time when many are beginning to suspect that the victim mentality they've been told to sharpen their entire lives is actually an albatross, weighing them down, stranding them in weakness, unhappiness, and failure.
CAN'T HURT ME is a fast and brutal read. It's inspiring, but it's not a feel-good memoir, and one can't help but wonder if Goggins takes any real pleasure out of life. He's sort of the Mace Windu of inspirational writers, a grim-faced warrior monk who is going to poke you in your love-handle and ask if you think that is the best you can do. But should you sweat it off, don't look to him for a pat on the back. Look to him to ask if you couldn't have done it more efficiently...and then to ask you what's next on your list of challenges. And why you aren't working on them yet.