“What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger”: Meaning and History

Updated March 11, 2023

Whether you’ve come across some variation of the quote “what does not kill me makes me stronger” while reading Nietzsche, listening to Kelly Clarkson, or watching The Dark Night, there’s a good chance this isn’t your first encounter with the maxim.

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who first wrote “what does not kill me makes me stronger” in his “Maxims and Arrows” section of Twilight of the Idols more than a century ago. Often used as an affirmation of resilience, the idea is that we have the opportunity to learn and grow from even the worst of experiences.

“What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger”– The Meaning Behind the Quote

When you hear someone say, “what does not kill me makes me stronger,” they are typically using it as an affirmation of resilience. The idea is that there is an opportunity to learn and grow hidden in even the most negative experiences. In short, adversity builds moral character.

While the quote is often used to make a blanket statement about suffering resulting in strength in all circumstances, some scholars argue that Nietzsche did not intend to apply that strength inherently emerges from suffering.

Instead, the idea is that an individual can use suffering as an opportunity to develop strength. Beyond this, the people that do find opportunities to become stronger through suffering are the ones that are already strong.

seneca “What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger”: Meaning and History

“We become wiser by adversity; prosperity destroys our appreciation of the right.”

– Seneca the Younger

In this way, it’s good to think about this quote as a mindset rather than a fact of reality. There are plenty of people that are crushed by hardship. You likely know people personally that have technically survived certain adversities but certainly don’t seem to be stronger as a result.

Though Nietzsche has some choice words about Stoicism and the ancient Stoics (more on that later), there is something quite Stoic about this notion.

It’s not that the things that don’t kill you inherently make you stronger. It’s that you have the opportunity to learn and grow from hard times. You can choose to see adversity as an experience that you can learn from.

This is a perspective you can use to help accept the things that are not in your control and take control of the things that are in your control. If something terrible happens to you or you’re experiencing a rough patch, you can use “what doe not kill me makes me stronger” as a way to put your experience in perspective. While you might not be able to control the external factors of your life, what you can control is how you perceive your experience.

If you deliberately choose the perspective that you will reap benefits from negative experiences in the form of personal growth, you are taking control of your mindset in a way that will make you stronger.

The History of “What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger”

“What does not kill me makes me stronger” is part of an aphorism written by Friedrich Nietzsche in his Twilight of the Idols. Listed under aphorism number 8 in the section entitled “Maxims and Arrows,” the full aphorism is as follows:

Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens. — Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.

Out of life’s school of war—What does not kill me makes me stronger. 

Since the work was originally written in German, there are other English translations of the same selection. Here’s a slightly different translation:

“From life’s military school.—What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

In Twilights and Idols, the “Maxims and Arrows” section is a collection of short, pithy statements. For this reason, there isn’t a larger context to the quote, but it, instead, stands on its own among other maxims.

The second part of the expression– what does not kill me makes me stronger– has been used in numerous cultural references and borrowed as the title of many other works.

The idea is expanded upon to some extent in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s autobiography. This text was also written in 1888.

In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche talks a bit about people whom he refers to as “nature’s lucky strokes… among men.” These individuals, he says, “divines remedies for injuries; he knows how to turn serious accidents to his own advantage; that which does not kill him makes him stronger.”

Cultural References to the Quote

Even if you don’t know anything about Friedrich Nietzsche, you’ve probably heard the quote, “what does not kill me makes me stronger” before. This is because it has been used and referenced many times in media and culture.

The line has been paraphrased in songs from artists including Kanye West, Kelly Clarkson, Jay-Z, 2-Pac… the list goes on. G. Gordon Liddy– Nixon’s co-conspirator in the Watergate debacle– used the phrase in his 1980 autobiography. Conan the Barbarian, the 1982 American epic, also opens with a variation of the quote.

Nietzsche and the Stoics

Though “what does not kill me makes me stronger” sounds like a quote that could have come straight from the mouth of an ancient Stoic, Nietzsche was actually overly critical of the Stoics.

In The Gay Science, we find the following passage:

“The Stoic… accustoms himself to swallow stones and vermin, glass splinters and scorpions, without feeling any disgust: his stomach is meant to become indifferent in the end to all that the accidents of existence cast into it…”

In Beyond Good and Evil, he also states that “Stoicism is self-tyranny” and criticizes the Stoic declaration that one should live in accordance with nature.

At the same time, a good number of Nietzsche’s ideas appear to have a lot in common with Stoic notions, at least on the surface. His idea of amor fati, for example, certainly seems to have been borrowed from Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics.

Here is Nietzsche discussing amor fati in Ecce Homo:

"My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it."

In the following Epictetus quote, we find a very similar sentiment:

epictetus image and quote “What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger”: Meaning and History

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”

– Epictetus

“Eternal recurrence”– a notion that proposes that time repeats itself in an infinite loop for eternity– also bears resemblance to Stoic Physics. Nietzsche is essentially responsible for reviving the idea during the 19th century.

Some have even argued that Nietzsche’s concept of the “ubermensch” as an aspirational ideal has some similarities to the Stoic notion of imagining the ideal wise man or sage.

The relationship between Nietzsche, Stoicism and other ancient philosophies is truly fascinating and complex. While Nietzsche certainly had some choice words for the Stoics, his philosophy also seems to borrow ideas from them and, in some instances, put forward similar ideas.

The work of Nietzsche and the great Stoics have a nearly infinite depth-- you could spend the rest of your life reading, contemplating, and exploring the ideas found within their texts. It's also worth noting that the philosophy of Nietzsche developed and evolved over time, so ideas that appear to be central in one text will be completely absent from another.

Even if you have chosen to live your life as proposed by the Stoics, it is always a good idea to engage with other ideas that overlap with and diverge from Stoic notions.

Does Adversity Really Make You Stronger?

If you do a quick google search for “what does not kill you makes you stronger,” you’ll find a variety of articles from major publications and universities claiming that science has either validated or debunked this quote.

seneca “What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger”: Meaning and History

“Great men rejoice in adversity, just as brave soldiers triumph in war.”

–Seneca the Younger

The titles of such articles will read along the lines of “Science Proves That What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker,” or “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger – Does It, Really?”

So, let’s see what the researchers and journalists have to say about the question.

Northwestern University Study

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University conducted a study that took a close look at “the relationship between professional failure and success for young scientists.” The results of the study were that people who experienced failure early in their careers ended up achieving greater success in the long term.

While people that experience failure early in their careers have an increased attrition rate, the ones who stick with it end up performing better in the long term.

In this way, the people who dropped out from their field due to failure are the ones that were metaphorically “killed” by the failure. However, the ones who survived the failure ended up being stronger than people who didn’t deal with failure early in their careers.

Bucknell University Study

Biology researchers at Bucknell University also took on the question of whether what doesn’t kill you really makes you stronger, this time through the lens of stress.

seneca “What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger”: Meaning and History

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

– Seneca the Younger

This animal study used Japanese quails to explore how oxidative stress was impacted by 20-minute periods of social isolation. The results of the study found that birds who had previously experienced isolation did not experience cell damage through oxidative stress, while birds that didn’t have prior experience with isolation had high levels of oxidative stress, both when they were subjected to numerous stressful events and when they were exposed to acute stress.

Brown University and the University of Concepción Study

This study pushes back on the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” maxim. Conducted over the course of eight years, this research effort involved examining 1,160 Chileans before and after a major earthquake and tsunami that occurred in 2010.

None of the participants had a history of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder when the study began. After the earthquake, a little less than 15% of survivors were diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and 9.1% were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The people who seemed to be particularly susceptible to developing these disorders had experienced a number of stressors before the disaster, such as divorce, legal troubles, a serious illness or injury, loss of a valuable possession, or the death of a loved one.

While the argument here is that people aren’t made stronger by adversity, it’s worth noting that the study ended in 2011. This means that the research conducted only extended a year or so after the extreme event– it is tied with two other earthquakes as the sixth strongest earthquake ever measured. Presumably, recovering, learning, and growing from such an event could take some time.

It would be interesting to check in with those survivors now, more than a decade after the fact, to see whether the conclusion of the study still holds up.

Studies About Post-Traumatic Growth

Though you’re likely quite familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress, you may not have heard of post-traumatic growth. This theory discusses the phenomenon when an individual experiences a positive transformation after dealing with a traumatic event.

Clinical psychologist George Bonanno released a seminal paper in 2004 where he reviewed a number of studies about resilience. His paper showed that many people who experience trauma aren’t just resilient in the face of their difficulties but actually thrive in the aftermath. He found that most people that survive a traumatic event don’t develop PTSD, and a big chunk of them report actually growing from the experience.

This phenomenon was named “posttraumatic growth” by Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi. There are seven growth areas that people can reportedly develop after dealing with hardship:

  • Greater appreciation of life
  • Increased altruism and compassion
  • Greater strengthening of and appreciation for close relationships
  • Enhanced spiritual development
  • Greater utilization and awareness of personal strengths
  • Creative growth
  • Identification of a purpose in life or new possibilities

According to this paper, what doesn’t kill you certainly can make you stronger. This lines up with the perspective the Stoics take towards adversity, which is that it is an opportunity to learn, grow, and practice being virtuous.

"I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you."

– Seneca

It can be a useful exercise to look back over your own life and consider the difficult events and experiences you've gone through. Were there valuable lessons hidden inside of even the worst of experiences? Are there "bad" things that happened to you that have contributed to your growth as a person?

The more you can recognize that adversity gives you an opportunity to become stronger, more courageous, wiser, and generally more virtuous, the more you will be able to take advantage of these opportunities. Though it might seem impossible at this point, you might even find yourself in a position down the road where you relish at the chance to face a difficult challenge.

Quotes With a Similar Message

Though “what does not kill me makes me stronger” has captured the attention of the culture for more than one hundred years, Nietzsche certainly wasn’t the first person to comment on the way that adversity can be an opportunity for growth.

Let’s look at some quotes from other great minds that convey a similar message.

seneca “What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stronger”: Meaning and History

"A setback has often cleared the way for greater prosperity. Many things have fallen only to rise to more exalted heights."

– Seneca the Younger

“As it is pleasant to see the sea from the land, so it is pleasant for him who has escaped from troubles to think of them.”


“No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley.”

Seneca the Younger

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material.”

– Epictetus

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.”

– Epictetus

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

– Ernest Hemingway

“If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere.”

– Frank A. Clark

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”

– Moliere

“He that struggles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.”

– Edmund Burke

“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

– Louisa May Alcott

“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.”

– Seneca the Younger

“You don't develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”

– Epicurus

“Nothing befalls a man except what is in his nature to endure.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

– Helen Keller

“Behold a contest worthy of a god, a brave man matched in conflict with adversity.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

– Khalil Gibran

“Misfortune is the test of a person’s merit.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.”

– Aristotle

“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

“When you look fear in the face, you are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

“Gold is tried by fire, brave men by adversity.”

– Seneca the Younger

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

– Christopher Reeve

“The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.”

– Seneca the Younger

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

– Winston Churchill

“Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: Not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always to take full note of fortune's habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.”

– Seneca the Younger

“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.”

– Seneca the Younger

Other Nietzsche Quotes to Contemplate

Friedrich Nietzsche has had a tremendous influence on the fields of philosophy, psychology, fiction, poetry, and drama. Beyond that, his ideas so deeply pervade modern culture that many of us have been influenced by his thought without ever realizing the source.

For example, there are a great number of ideas that can at least partially be traced to Nietzsche that are common in American culture today, including:

  • Being true to yourself is the highest virtue
  • Finding yourself is the goal of life; creating or discovering an identity for yourself is true maturity
  • You must love yourself before you can love someone else
  • Your body is trying to tell you something when you fall ill, and you should listen to your body’s wisdom
  • Sexuality is a natural gift that should be developed and integrated as a part of a well-rounded life
  • An important step in mental health involves overcoming feelings of guilt
  • You should experience life as intensely as you can, as life is short
  • Don’t live passively; challenge yourself
  • The culture a person lives in shapes their values

The list goes on.

Despite the impressively long-lasting influence of his work, Nietzsche was notoriously uninfluential while he was alive. Before signing off, here is a collection of quotes from this profoundly influential man.

“There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones; it all depends on how you use them.“

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“There are two different types of people in the world, those who want to know, and those who want to believe.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Enjoy life. This is not a dress rehearsal.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“I was in darkness, but I took three steps and found myself in paradise. The first step was a good thought, the second, a good word; and the third, a good deed.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“I know of no better life purpose than to perish in attempting the great and the impossible.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“The tree that would grow to heaven must send its roots to hell.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Do you want to have an easy life? Then always stay with the herd and lose yourself in the herd.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Become who you are. Make what only you can make.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Young people love what is interesting and odd, no matter how true or false it is. More mature minds love what is interesting and odd about truth. Fully mature intellects, finally, love truth, even when it appears plain and simple, boring to the ordinary person; for they have noticed that truth tends to reveal its highest wisdom in the guise of simplicity.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Love your enemies because they bring out the best in you.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Examine the life of the best and most productive men and nations, and ask yourselves whether a tree which is to grow proudly skywards can dispense with bad weather and storms. Whether misfortune and opposition, or every kind of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, distrust, severity, greed, and violence do not belong to the favorable conditions without which a great growth even of virtue is hardly possible?”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“What makes us heroic?--Confronting simultaneously our supreme suffering and our supreme hope.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that it is this discipline alone that has produced all the elevations of humanity so far?”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Finding the Opportunity in Adversity

While “what does not kill me makes me stronger” might sound practically cliche at this point, it’s important to recognize that Nietzsche is not stating a fact but instead is pointing to a potential. You can be crushed by the things that happen to you– if you let them. You can also work to see the opportunity that is hidden in adversity to further your personal growth as a moral being.

We all experience difficult times in this life– no matter how rich, good-looking, fortunate, strong, or blessed a person is, they’re still going to face hardships.

The point isn’t to try and avoid having anything bad happen to you at all costs– the only way to do this is to hide in your room for the next few decades until you wither away. Even so, you still wouldn’t be able to protect yourself from all of the challenges of life. The point is to make yourself more capable in the face of difficulty.

It can be a useful exercise to look back over your life and think about some of the toughest times you’ve gone through. What did you learn from those experiences? How did they change you?

You’ll likely find examples of growing stronger from the things that “didn’t kill you” in your own history. Once you realize the true meaning of this, you can work to apply it in real time. The next time you are struggling with something difficult, you can remind yourself that there is an opportunity to learn and grow hidden inside the experience. Not only does this help you grow faster, but it can help you maintain a level head in the face of adversity.

Are you on a mission to improve your life using the wisdom of the past? If so, check out our Stoic Quotes blog for inspiration, motivation, and practical advice for personal growth.

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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