How to Face Reality: 3 Ways to See the Clear Picture

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Do Hard Things" by Steve Magness. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to accept life as it is? How do you face reality?

Facing the reality of a situation and of your capabilities is an important step to becoming mentally tough. To make the best decisions when facing adversity, you need to accurately assess the problem and what you can do to solve it.

Discover how to face reality, according to Do Hard Things by Steve Magness.

1. Set Realistic Expectations

The key to learning how to face reality lies in having accurate expectations, claims Magness. During a difficult task, our brains are constantly calculating whether things are going better or worse than expected. When they’re going as expected, or better than expected, it’s easy to stay motivated and positive because it’s all going according to plan. If things are harder than expected, you’re more likely to have negative thoughts and feelings that spiral and cause you to give up or panic. 

Setting realistic expectations lets you see a stressful situation as a challenge rather than as a danger. If you see a stressor as a challenge, you’re more likely to stay calm, accurately evaluate the situation, and accomplish the task at hand. However, if you see a stressor as dangerous, you’re more likely to give up—your body is simply trying to get out of that situation. 

Magness provides some strategies on how to set realistic expectations in your life:
Set realistic goals: When setting personal goals, people are often told to go big, which leads them to set goals that are unrealistic. When it becomes apparent that the goal you set isn’t achievable, you’ll likely give up. Instead, set goals that are achievable, or perhaps just beyond what you think you’re capable of. That way, you can push yourself to your limits instead of beyond them.

Set goals that align with your values: Setting realistic expectations isn’t just about your capabilities: It’s also about your needs and wants. Magness contends that it’s important to set goals you actually want to achieve, not goals that you want to achieve for external reasons (for example, goals you believe others want you to accomplish, or goals you feel you should accomplish in order to fit into society’s view of success). 

Focus on the journey: If you define success based solely on outcomes, Magness says you’re more likely to kill your motivation—if you don’t get the outcome you expected, you’ll be more likely to give up. Instead, define success by how you executed your plan or how much effort you put in.

(Shortform note: In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday provides another reason why focusing on the journey is important. He explains that often, focusing on the outcomes of your work is just a way to stroke your ego (for example, you might want to nail a presentation because of the praise your boss will give you). But if you define success by how much recognition or external reward you get, you set yourself up for failure because when things don’t go your way, the lack of recognition or external success might make you angry or bitter.)

2. Build Inner Confidence

Magness argues that to properly face reality, you must develop inner confidence based on a realistic understanding and acceptance of your abilities. Confidence is important because it keeps your insecurities or doubts from taking over when you face difficult situations. When we doubt ourselves, we may feel we aren’t capable of accomplishing the task at hand. Old-school toughness is more concerned with the appearance of confidence, which isn’t based on reality and thus doesn’t help when doubts and insecurities arise. 

The self-esteem movement of the ’80s and ’90s is an example of how false confidence can be harmful. People constantly told their children that they were special and that they could achieve anything they put their minds to. But this ideology leads to overconfidence—people believing they’re more capable than they actually are. When this overconfidence meets reality, it can be discouraging and demotivating to realize that you’re not as capable as you believed. To counteract such false confidence, we should focus on gaining real experience and understanding our capabilities.

In order to build inner confidence, Magness provides the following advice:

Shoot for consistency, not all-time highs: Many people base their confidence on their highest achievements—the highest grade they got on a calculus test or the most points they scored in a basketball game. But judging yourself based on your best performance leads you to hold yourself to unrealistic standards, and when you inevitably fail to live up to those standards, it can be demoralizing. Instead of seeking to improve your best performance, look to achieve a higher average. This will lead you to be more confident in your abilities.

Accept your weaknesses: Confidence isn’t only about acknowledging what you’re good at, it’s also about knowing you can be good at things even if you have weaknesses. Magness says that if you only focus on your strengths, you aren’t accurately evaluating your capabilities. Real confidence is about believing in yourself despite your weaknesses.

(Shortform note: Though accepting your weaknesses is important, it’s also important not to focus on them too intensely. In StrengthsFinder 2.0, Tom Rath argues that the problem with most self-improvement methods is that they put too much emphasis on correcting weaknesses. The idea of such methods is that if you put in the effort, you can overcome any weakness. However, we all have inherent weaknesses that can’t be easily corrected or overcome. Because of this, we should focus on improving our strengths, as we’ll get more out of the effort we put into it.)

3. Maintain Your Autonomy

According to Magness, true toughness means facing the reality of your own autonomy. Another way old-school toughness affects our ability to navigate adversity is by restricting our autonomy. In schools and workplaces, we’re constantly taught to obey commands and do as we’re told—to fight through the pain or suffer the consequences. But when we’re taught in this disciplinary manner, we lose our autonomy—our ability to choose our own path and make our own decisions—which then leads to listlessness or burnout. In reality, we can choose our own path, and our decisions do matter.

Autonomy is based on our perception of control in a situation. If you have a sense of control—if you feel like you can enact change or fix a problem—you won’t give up so easily. If we feel we’re not in control, however, we’re more easily stressed—our minds are quicker to shift to negative thoughts, and our body’s stress response is more drastic. When we feel we can’t change the outcome of a situation, the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, spike. The combination of negative thoughts and stress hormones makes it difficult to continue when the going gets tough.

Here are some tips from Magness on how to maintain control in your life:

Start small: People often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a challenge. Look to gain a sense of control by breaking down a large task into smaller chunks and tackling the easiest part first. 

Leave yourself options: People can leave themselves with few options without realizing it, limiting their own autonomy in a situation. For example, you might tell yourself you must finish a task by the end of the workday. But in doing so, you stress yourself out because you’ve given yourself no other choice than to stay late and finish. Instead, say to yourself, “I’ll try to finish today, but I can get up early and finish tomorrow if I need to.” Simply providing this choice for yourself makes it more likely you’ll complete the task.

(Shortform note: Charles Duhigg provides another way to use choices to maintain control in Smarter Faster Better. He claims that making a subversive choice—one that breaks a rule or is an act of rebellion in some way—can be especially powerful because it reminds you that you don’t have to always follow the rules or listen to others.)

Establish a routine: Magness explains that establishing and following a routine can provide a small sense of control in your day-to-day life. When you perform a routine, like taking a 10-minute walk at the same time during the workday, this can shift your focus from the things you can’t control to the simple task that you can control. This small shift of focus can be enough to avoid spiraling out of control.

How to Face Reality: 3 Ways to See the Clear Picture

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steve Magness's "Do Hard Things" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Do Hard Things summary:

  • Why the "old-school" way we think about toughness is wrong
  • Why machismo ideals are harmful and ineffective
  • How to become resilient and versatile, and how to overcome adversity

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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