“You have to embrace the suck” – an interview with Leo Babauta of Zenhabits

For most, the man needs no introduction. But in case you do, here’s one anyway.

Leo Babauta is the founder of ZenHabits, a massively popular blog that is considered by Time Magazine to be one of the top 25 blogs in the world. This is already enough to make him interesting, but actually, there’s more.

In November of 2011, Leo completed the Goruck challenge, a 15-20 mile behemoth that pushes you to every limit you thought you had.

The connection to The Flinch seemed natural. If you read it, you’ll definitely love this.

Tell me about the Goruck challenge, and why you decided to do it.

They say if you have to ask, it can’t be explained. And so of course I’ll try to explain it: if you hear about the challenge — 12+ hours of grueling physical tasks with a 55-lb. backpack on your back — and you think it sounds like fun, you’re probably right for it.

It’s kind of like getting a taste of what the Special Forces guys do in training, but without the weapons. Weighted pushups, lunges, bear crawls, hiking, running, carrying logs, carrying your teammates … this is the kind of thing I wanted to try. I’m not into the military aspect, but I am into physical challenges, and especially into mental challenges. This was, at its deepest level, a mental challenge: you have to find it in you to not quit when it sucks really bad, to help your teammate when he’s falling down, to motivate your team to meet its missions. I found out a lot about myself.

I know they say “it’s all mental,” and I know from Crossfit, walking the Camino, etc, that it’s true, but there’s also real physical challenge there. How do you know you can do it?

You don’t know, and that’s the scary part. You should be able to run/hike with a weighted backpack (let’s say 30-lbs.) for a couple hours at least. You should be able to do a bunch of pushups, squats, lunges, and bear crawls. You should be able to sprint and run up hills. It requires strength, so practice carrying people on your back and shoulders.

If you can do all that, you should be OK physically. But it will still suck at times, and you’ll want to quit, no matter how physically prepared you are. You have to make it through the suck. You have to embrace the suck.

Now we’re talking. Ok, describe the moment where the suck occurs. How does it feel when it happens? How do you convince yourself to go on?

You’re cold and wet and you’ve been crawling on the sand for hours with your heavy pack biting into your shoulders and your knees are bloody and your shoulders want to collapse, and you don’t know when this will end. Your mind has been complaining constantly, “Why are we doing this? What’s the worst that would happen if we just quit and walked away? What are we trying to prove? Is it worth it? You could go home and sleep. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

And it’s incredibly tempting to give in to your mind, because it is very convincing. We are very very good at rationalizing, especially in the face of pain. It’s painful, and you want the pain to end, and you want to just rest. This is what happens when it starts to suck. And that was just the beginning of the suck — there were many other such moments along the way.

I would convince myself to go on first by being aware of what my mind was doing. I would watch my mind as an outside observer, and laugh at my mind and its rationalizations. Then I would pay attention to the ground in front of my face, the waves on the beach washing up near my body, the incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge lit up at night, and think, “I am incredibly lucky.” I would feel the pain and the tiredness, and think, “What a wonderful thing it is to feel.” And then I would say, “Just one more step. We can re-evaluate after one more step.” Then I’d repeat that after that one step. It also helped that I had a team relying on me, and that I couldn’t just quit or I’d let them down.

I lived in a Japanese temple for a while where I did that. To delay the decision to stop meditating, I would say, “I will decide in exactly 30 minutes.” And then after that time: “Well, that wasn’t that bad, I could do that again.”

True, it works for anything. It helped me too when I started marathon training — you inevitably want to stop running, but if you just go a few more steps, you’ll be fine.

What I’m trying to figure out is how to make people resistant to the BS of that inner voice. To do it, you need a certain distance from yourself. How did you learn to do it? Were you born that way?

I learned it when I wanted to quit smoking, and the urges would be so strong and the rationalizations would nearly always beat me. I would tell myself, “Just get past this one urge.” I didn’t even need to go the whole day, just that one urge.

Before I learned this, I would give in to any urge. But when you realize the urge is there — you become self-aware — you learn that you can watch it, and listen to your inner voice. The inner voice is extremely intelligent, and the worst part is that we are usually not aware that it’s speaking. We just listen to it without being conscious of it. And it is talking all day long. Most people don’t realize how persistent and powerful it is.

Running really helped me to learn to listen to it, but not heed it. I run without an iPod, which means it’s just me, the outdoors, and my mind. So I pay attention to the nature around me, but also I have nothing to listen to but my mind. So I listen. And it talks, constantly.

Meditation helped strengthen this skill. Meditation is the same as running — you have nothing to pay attention to but your breathing, your body, and your mind. And your mind is very active. So you watch it, and you learn to be this observer, and it’s fascinating if you stick with it.

I’ve started to think that people should be doing difficult things on purpose, if only to train them to be able to push past their usual habits and internal programming. Do you agree? What other internal walls have you been able to push past?

I haven’t found this to be necessary myself, though I’m not saying you’re wrong. I do things in baby steps, so that change is easy. I find it much more sustainable than trying to do things that are really difficult.

I also think people are already doing difficult things in their routines — it’s incredibly unpleasant to be in a job you hate, to be overweight and unhealthy, to be deeply in debt. I know because I’ve done those things, but I felt stuck in this difficult life. The baby steps helped me to get out of the routine, to change my internal programming with micro changes.

As for other internal walls … one that I’ve been exploring is giving up goals. I’m very much programmed to be goal-oriented, and I think a lot of us are. When I first considered giving up goals, I thought it was impossible and stupid. But slowly I’ve been learning that it’s a much better way of thinking, at least for me.

Explain “giving up goals.” Did it help you complete the Goruck or was that something separate?

As I looked deeper into what’s necessary and what’s not, I started to question the need for goals — are they really essential? What would happen if you gave them up? Are they really the driving force behind what we accomplish? I’ve found that they are unnecessary — without goals, you’ll still work on things you’re passionate about, and do fun fitness activities and other things that excite you.

Goals take credit for our accomplishments, but our passion and interest is what really make things happen. Goals also add a lot of administration — goal setting, tracking, making sure you’re sticking to the goal, finding next actions, etc. Goals stress us out — if we’re not on track or don’t reach them, are we failures? Goals also fix us on a certain path, when in truth there are many possible paths and staying on one predetermined path with a fixed destination is an artificial limitation that’s completely unnecessary and unnatural.

When you remove this limitation, you are freed to do anything.

When I did the Goruck Challenge, I didn’t have “finish challenge” as a goal. I just wanted to have fun doing a new challenge. It didn’t matter to me if I finished or not. However, when I felt like quitting, I decided to stick it out through the urge to quit, to explore what that’s like. I think it’s a really interesting experiment, pushing past these urges to quit, and so that’s what I did. So yes, it did help me to finish.

“Free to do anything.” That is the perfect final sentence.

Last question: After all this progress you’ve made, is there anything you still feel any anxiety about? What do you still have problems with, if anything?

Sure, I have all the same insecurities as anyone else. I get anxious about unfamiliar social situations, public speaking, will people like my writing, am I good enough to write fiction? I have fears, about financial security and being alone and whether my life is meaningless.

The key I think is whether I let those insecurities and fears stop me from doing the things I love. I’m learning to watch those feelings, like an outside observer, and realize that they are not a part of me, but just something that happens. They are natural phenomena, like the sun rising or leaves changing color, but they are not who I am. So I watch, and let them happen, and don’t let them define me or what I do.

Find out more about Leo here.

Read The Flinch, for free, here.



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17 responses to ““You have to embrace the suck” – an interview with Leo Babauta of Zenhabits”

  1. Joseph Ratliff Avatar

    A perfect final sentence indeed Julien.

    “Freed to do anything.”

    Love it — and great interview.

  2. Jackie Shelley (@jackinessity) Avatar

    Wow! Such interesting cross-fertilization. I had the great honor to meet and speak with Leo for a few minutes just last week at a minimalist event in San Francisco, and I file that under “extraordinary encounters.” Thanks for this interview.

    I also just finished reading _The Flinch_. There’s a book called _Willpower_ that I read about a month or two ago, and again, some interesting connections forming. I appreciate how you always seem to unite these different strains of thought that I’m chasing and put them into something useful.

    Will keep processing. Grateful for your work, as usual.


  3. Alli Worthington Avatar

    “The key I think is whether I let those insecurities and fears stop me from doing the things I love. I’m learning to watch those feelings, like an outside observer, and realize that they are not a part of me, but just something that happens. They are natural phenomena, like the sun rising or leaves changing color, but they are not who I am. So I watch, and let them happen, and don’t let them define me or what I do.”

    Wonderful. So simple and so important.

  4. Charles H. Green Avatar

    Terrific on so many levels. I’ve heard embrace the suck before, though perhaps never quite so eloquently.
    But I don’t think I’ve ever heard get rid of goals. I’ve often felt that way, never heard anyone articulate it. Maybe zen guys.
    Thanks Julien, Leo.

  5. Conni Biesalski Avatar

    I love the photo of Leo – it actually looks like he’s suffering. Usually his face is so relaxed and happy. 🙂

    Great questions and great answers – I mean, two brilliant guys having a chat – what else besides awesome can come out of it.

    Cheers, Julien!

  6. Maria Avatar

    Here is a quick story on goals…

    A professor was teaching his students how to set goals.

    He stated the difference between a long jump and high jump goal.

    A high jump has a threshold – if you don’t achieve it you failed.

    A long jump has no threshold – the longer your jump the better. However, there is no failure.


    “I will lose weight in 3 months” is a long jump goal – as long as you lose even 0.5 pounds you have succeeded.

    “I will lose 10 pounds in three months” is a high jump goal – If you, e.g., lose 9 pounds you have failed.

  7. Patti Murphy Avatar

    I certainly have a lot of respect for Leo Babauta and his accomplishment, but what I’m interested in is reading his wife’s perspective.

    While he’s doing all this training, she’s raising his six kids. I think it’s a privilege to have that kind of focus. In my opinion, that kind of focus is the purview of the single, childless or married male with a spouse who takes care of everything else while you go and tromp around carrying heavy things over obstacle courses and then write about it.

    Something truly remarkable would be if a woman who had a husband and children did this challenge. Then, stand back and watch as critics jostle each other for their chance to say what a horrible, horrible mother and human being she is.

    1. Christopher Avatar

      Interesting point, Patti. It got me to thinking that a lot of these things are completely selfish endeavours. How far can I go? How far can I push MYSELF? It would be interesting to do an analysis of posts by the ‘self help gurus’ and see how much time they recommend devoting to helping others.

    2. Mihai Avatar

      Patti got the point.
      I follow Leo’s blog, I know his evolution and writing.
      Impressive, but his wife is the true hero for giving birth and raising 6 kids.
      I feel the same for my wife, while I am travelling for job/still having fun and enjoing the experience – she is taking good care of our 2 kids, making our lives comfortable and shiny.

      Keep up the good work, Julien.

    3. Russkiy Avatar

      I can’t help but agree with you! Same thing happens with best of us 🙂

  8. Shawn Tuttle Avatar

    I loved reading Leo’s thoughts on goals. It’s soooo contrary to how we’ve been engrained to think about our work and progress.

    When I’ve chosen actions based strictly on interests I seem to go “slower”, but then when I look back at those periods, I see that I went at the perfect pace for where I was and what my capabilities were—the missing piece usually being “permission”. What head trips we humans are!

  9. Lorilee @ Loving Simple Living.com Avatar

    Sounds really fun/hard. Very inspiring.

  10. Aurora Avatar

    So on point. Nicely said. Thank you. 🙂

  11. Ari Herzog Avatar

    As a high school cross country runner, I used to silently recite the following words every time I felt I couldn’t run another stride: “All pain is suffering and all suffering is bliss.”

    In its own way for my 17-year mind it led me to keep running. It led me to go on.

  12. Maria Meiners Avatar

    Learning to step back and observe oneself is a skill definitely worth cultivating.

    Sometimes I’m amazed as I watch myself squirm and try to face things I find difficult or challenging. I also find it interesting that what terrifies me has no effect on others at all while what terrifies them I can easily take in stride.

    By the way I loved “The Flitch.” Have recommended it it so hundreds of people already.

  13. Sam Ovens Avatar

    Awesome interview! I especially like the last sentence too..


  14. Rex Williams Avatar

    I’m really curious about Leo’s latest endeavor of doing things without goals. The way he explained it here sounds more like he’s being driven by curiosity, which is what I’ve been focusing on lately.

    Curiosity drives action.

    So if you’re curious enough to see what’s on the other side of your achievement, then you’ll act to make it happen.

    There’s a lot more. Of course I’m writing a book on it.

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