The Inspirational Power of Prosaic Badassity

(This is a kickass guest post by Shanna Mann.)


I was really excited by the message of the now-defunct “Impossible League” (brainchild of Joel Runyon). Kicking the ass of the so-called impossible? Right on! Finally, a group of people who will really celebrate the hard stuff and what it means to overcome. That was until I realized that they had an unbelievably narrow view of what it meant to tackle the impossible.

To me, impossible isn’t just when you intentionally push your limits. However difficult that situation is, it’s fully in your control.

To me, the real impossible stuff comes when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, or when you can’t succeed in the typical manner, whether that’s because of a disability, a disease, being neurodiverse, or just having a really complicated personal situation — that’s what I see as “impossible.”

This collective embracing of feats of physical fitness and stoic challenges represents an actual cultural bias in favor of the fit and healthy. As understandable as that bias is, it shouldn’t make people who don’t reach that standard feel like failures. If anything, it should be the opposite.

That’s why I’m such a fan of making your own job. You can mitigate your issues far better that way.

You see, the way the world is now, it expects certain things from people. A commute. Set hours (or perhaps shift work, which is worse). It requires ridiculous “workdays” that no human being could possibly be productive across the whole span of. It prevents and really kind of pooh-poohs the idea that you should be able to have good hot food, naps or breaks when you need them (not only when they are legally required).

It insists that you should have to save anything and everything personal until after hours, even things that would be more efficient to prod along with throughout the day, like laundry or exercise or walking the dog.

Basically, the modern job requires an automaton, and some of us can’t even fake it. Rather than do all that and fail, we choose to put ourselves into circumstances where it is possible to succeed. Whether it’s a chronic illness, lack of childcare, or some other reason, there’s no reason to play with a stacked deck if you can invent a new game that plays to your strengths.


Not “Hacking It” Is a GOOD Thing

I’ve always said that coping mechanisms hurt as often as they help, and this is why: Not being able to hold down a “real” job helps us.

It makes us find another way to keep a roof over our heads, even if we’re suffering from debilitating pain 6 days a week, even when our elderly mother needs full-time care.

Oh, it sucks shitballs, because you have to make things up as you go, but at least it forces you to take your life by the reins. The people who can squeeze themselves into the role their workplace and the economy demands of them are afraid to move for fear of losing the “security” they have. Those who have nothing to lose can afford to be bold.


Test Whether the Default Settings Work for You

There are loads of articles about how beneficial it is to be your own boss or to work from home. People rhapsodize about how cool it is to get paid while you’re in your pajamas. That’s fine and all, but that’s really the lowest common denominator when it comes to how being freed from the shackles of societal default settings.

Not many people talk about how you can really take unconventional actions to solve your problems. You can move to Florida to mitigate your SAD, to Ireland to reduce your allergies. You can cope with a rare sleep disorder because when you run your own business, it doesn’t matter if you gain two hours every day. You can earn a living without having to afford daycare. You can take your mother to all her doctor’s appointments — hell, you can go to your own.

I’m on the other side of that issue. One by one, I’ve adjusted the defaults until I’ve settled into a lifestyle that’s so supportive, all my various health problems are nearly asymptomatic.

Why? Because I can wake naturally without an alarm, nap whenever I feel the warning signs, take the day off if I feel ill, eat every 4 hours without fail, and exercise daily to keep my body from seizing up.

When I worked a traditional job, I would wake with a start multiple times in the middle of the night, worried I had slept through my alarm. I would rise in the middle of a sleep cycle and feel nauseated because of it. I would force myself to eat something anyway because I could never be sure when I would get a chance to eat again. I would drive 45 minutes to work, where I would stay pepped up on coffee, B vitamins and Red Bull, and I would take Advil, Robaxacet, and a glass of rum every night so I could unwind and get to sleep without my body aching too much. I coped, but barely. I was still in the stage of trying to prove I could hack it.

What woke me up was someone asking me where I saw myself in 10 years. I said, “Not working this hard.” But when I looked into the future, I couldn’t see any way how what I was doing would lead to a better life.


Just Being Brave and Strong Is Not Enough

There tends to be this concept that if things are tough, we should stick it out. We should persevere. But it’s not as simple as that. When we struggle, we should struggle for a purpose. I damn near killed myself trying to prove I was tough, and let me tell you, I now have pretty strict standards about what is worth struggling for.

I am sufficiently convinced that I am not a malingerer. I guess I’ve paid my badass dues. My husband has rheumatoid arthritis and never missed a day of work, even on his surgery days. He’s convinced of his own toughness.

When people talk about their badassity, about the impossible things they’ve done, they never talk about the fact that they get through life on 15 spoons a day. They never talk about how they manage their business by working only when their kids are sleeping (except for years after the fact when they’re being interviewed by Forbes.)

They don’t talk about the second job they work, or how they keep it together in front of clients when their spouse is undergoing cancer treatments. WTF? This is the stuff of heroism. Not cold showers and running triathlons. (Tweet!Those are acceptable training, but the people in my examples are already in the pros.

Fitness and training goals are easy. Not in the sense that you can just snap your fingers and they’re accomplished, but in the sense that there’s a concrete measurability to them; there are simple templates to follow, and there’s a warm camaraderie with all the rest of the crazy people out risking an ankle with you. I have loads more respect for the way that Joel Runyon built a movement around the Impossible League than I am that he ran a marathon and takes cold showers every day.

I don’t have any grand lesson to share with you. If you’re in this situation, you’re already doing everything you can. You might not be doing everything right (because who can tell what that is?), but you’re the man on the ground, and no one can gainsay that. This sparse little poem sums up my feelings on the matter precisely:

I used to admire

Men who sailed the unknown seas or climbed dangerous mountains,

Who flew planes in the Yukon or parachuted for fun,

Men who built their own house and planted with their own hands,

Giants who built shopping centers and skyscrapers 100 stories high.

I used to admire

Priests who missionaried in China and scientists who discovered cures,

Industrialists who built empires, celebrities who made a mark.

Now I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to do some of the things

I used to admire.

Lately I only admire people

Who do what they have to do.

~James Kavanaugh (1928-2009)


Professional Badass: 24/7

If you’re already in the pros, own that shit. Don’t treat it like you’re secretly failing because you can’t “live up” to the default. You’re not failing; you’re winning against the odds. You’re taking your own destiny in your hands, and you are fucking crushing it.

If you’ve never been able to talk about your triumphs for fear they’ll sound like whining, tell us in the comments, and we’ll cheer you for the impossibility-crusher you are.


Shanna MannShanna Mann is a business coach for freelancers and solopreneurs. She’s not the “$100K in 90 Days or Less” type of business coach, or the “How Can I Get Paid for My Passion?” type — she’s the “How can I pursue excellence, both personally and through my business, and how can I secure my gains so that my family doesn’t suffer the stress and uncertainty of the risks I chose?” type of business coach. If that sounds like your cri de coeur, visit and sign up for the free business management guide Be The Boss.


 Image: Atos / Flickr

Never miss a post! Sign up here and get a free copy of Your Guide to Calling It Quits.

  • Joel Runyon


    We’ve gone back & forth on this from time to time, so I’m not going to respond in length as I’ve done so in the past. I’m simply writing this comment for the sake of other people who might read this & aren’t familiar with IMPOSSIBLE.

    I never claimed cold showers & triathlons are “heroic” – I simply view them as one of best analogies for recognizing the same resistance & overcoming it. The weight room is the easy place to recognize it. When you have to face it in life – it’s that much harder.

    Heck – my last post was on that very thing 🙂

    • Shanna Mann

      Hey Joel,

      I know the stuff you advocate is basically a proxy for developing grit. And it is a very effective proxy; that’s why it’s so enduring and so popular.

      And I definitely admire the way you branded “Impossible” (with the strikethrough). Seriously, your marketing is something else.

      It’s actually because you (and people like you, I’m not picking on you in particular, I just know you the best) have done so well in making sheer physicality synonymous with mental toughness that I felt compelled to write this post.

      The weight room *is* an easy place to recognize resistance and overcome it. But I want to remind people that they are likely meeting it and overcoming it in several places in their lives, places that are most likely harder to recognize and harder to tackle. With all the airplay that workouts and cold showers get, it’s easy to forget that this is a multi-front war, and if you’re making headway on the Cliffs of Navarone, maybe you should feel alright about ignoring the weight room.

      Thanks for commenting. I poked around ImpossibleHQ last week. You’ve had a tremendous year- congratulations and many more.

  • Pingback: What To Do When You're Finished Proving You're Tough()

  • Love the dialogue! As someone whose husband suffers from fibromyalgia — and who has family members and friends living with lupus and MS, not to mention a myriad of mental disorders (their own form of challenge) — I can attest firsthand to how impressive and truly badass it is just to make it through the day, with kindness and good spirit, when simple tasks like running errands or cooking a meal can drain you for the rest of the day.

    While physical challenges are one (truly awesome) subset of living an incredible life, there are so many other subsets, and “impossible” looks different for each person. It’s important that we raise awareness of the fact that strength and bravery looks very different depending on your life situation, and people who live with disabilities and chronic illness are as worthy of admiration as people who douse themselves in cold water every morning. Sometimes, someone walking down the grocery store aisles is every bit as kickass as someone jumping out of a plane.

    In other words? There should be no one, narrowly defined “litmus test” for what makes a worthy person or a worthy life. The only test should be: are you meeting your challenges and tackling them with everything you’ve got in them? It’s not up to us to judge someone’s level of awesomeness based on what qualifies as awesome in our own lives; it’s up to us to appreciate what they’re doing with what they’ve got.

    Great job, Shanna!

    • I particularly love this, @Cordelia : “The only test should be: are you meeting your challenges and tackling them with everything you’ve got in them?” It places the focus back on the person doing the tackling. I think it’s far more important that you measure up for yourself against standards you’ve set than to or against anything external.

  • This may be off topic, but I’ve never felt the need to be heroic. I’ve never felt like recreating a Rocky or 1980s tough guy movie montage. Wake before the sun, go for a ten-mile run, drink a glass of a dozen eggs, and literally chew through nails before the rest of the city is awake? No thanks.

    The problem with recognizing badasses is that the biggest ones are often the silent ones that nobody notices. They are too busy slogging through their circumstances to seek publicity or acknowledgement of their acts.

    For example, my dad spent about 120 consecutive hours last year catering to my grandpa’s needs as his health declined. My dad did things to and for his own dad that I hope I’ll never have to do. But that week my pops spent in New Jersey doing what had to be done … that nobody else could or was willing to do (without being paid $1,000.00 a day for it)?

    That was an act of badassity. That’s my version of badassity incarnate. And did my dad seek a pat on the back for any of it? No. He stayed humble, and somehow stayed sane.

    • Hell yes, Joel. Real heroes often *are* the silent ones, the people who give selflessly without wanting or expecting anything in return. Or the ones too busy just trying to get through the day the rest of us take for granted. Anyone can drink a glass of a dozen eggs, but not everyone can lead a hero’s life.

      Your dad sounds like an incredible person, and the fact that he’s humble about everything he did is perhaps the most badass of all. What a lovely example. We could all learn from it.

    • Shanna Mann

      I think it’s really cool that you’ve somehow sidestepped a number of cultural imperatives. And I totally agree about your dad. That’s the type of heroism I want to celebrate.

  • Right on, @shanna_mann:disqus. I have nothing against physical feats and the like, but I appreciate the acknowledgement that there are many, many paths up the mountain. We’re all starting from unique places, so of course success and living up to expectations will — and should — look different from person to person. There is (or uh, shouldn’t be) a society-wide standard for what it means to be tough.

    I tend to find my biggest challenge is mental. Where do I find the discipline to keep going? How do I balance the learning I still need to do against the skills I already have? How do I get out of my own way and grow in the ways I want to at the same time? To me, where I am right now, the willingness to engage with these questions is enough. Tomorrow the bar might be higher. I’ll try to keep in mind that it’s me who gets to set the bar, not someone else.

    • Such an important point! Mental challenges are every bit as hard (or harder, I’d argue) than physical ones. Heck, even the physical ones have a mental component — willing yourself to push beyond your limits, not to give up, to move past frustration. Getting out of your own way is one of the hardest (and most rewarding) challenges of all, in my panda-hatted opinion.

      The fact that you *are* engaging with those questions is badass in itself. So many people lead unexamined lives; that you’re trying to improve yourself every day and strive for your goals is awesome. Keep it up — just being on that journey means you’ve won. 🙂

      • Yes, true, the mental ones are everywhere! And they’re invisible, which maybe makes them somehow less glamorous to tackle. More rewarding internally, though, at least in my experience 🙂

  • Shanna Mann

    I was reading The Upside Of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, who suffers from the lasting effects of suffering 3rd degree burns on a substantial amount of his body. He mentioned something reminiscent of this: pp183

    “A third example of my personal adaptation has to do with my ability to find happiness in my professional life as an academic. In general, I’ve managed to find a good job that allows me to work more hours when I feel good and work less when I am in more pain. In my choice of professional career, I suspect my ability to live within my limitations has a lot to do with what I call active adaptation. This type of adaptation is not physical or hedonic; instead, a bit like natural selection in evolutionary theory, it is based on making many small changes over a long sequence of decisions, so that the final outcome fits one’s circumstances and limitations.”

    We all have a different lense when we look at the world, don’t we?