“When the Going Gets Tough” - Meaning and History of the Quote

Updated March 22, 2023

You’ve likely heard the motto, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Though this saying originated sometime during the mid-20th century, there is a Stoic meaning behind the quote that is worth exploring.

What do you do when life gets hard? According to this maxim, mentally strong people are motivated to take action and persevere in the face of adversity.

When the Going Gets Tough– The Meaning

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is a popular American witticism that is used to emphasize that strong people take action when conditions become tough.

The implication here is that adversity actually acts as a stimulus to a person with strong character. Instead of shrinking away from challenges or pressure, the strong individual rises to the occasion.

This saying is an example of an antimetabole, which is a rhetorical strategy where the words in one clause or phrase are closely or exactly replicated in the next clause or phrase in reverse grammatical order. They can, alternatively, have an inverted order of the repeated words in the next clause or phrase.

Some other examples include:

  • “Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat.” – Socrates
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy
  • “By failing to plan, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
  • “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” – Carl Sagan

Though the origin of this quote is a bit mysterious (i.e., it’s been attributed to a number of different people,) and it certainly wasn’t said by an ancient Stoic philosopher, the meaning aligns with the teachings of the Stoics.

It is easy in life to get bowled over by difficult times. However, the Stoics teach us that adversity actually offers an opportunity for growth. If we are able to see this fact when we are in the depths of hardship, it can help us persevere and overcome the challenges we face.

Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who was born into slavery, taught that we have to correctly identify what we have control over and what we do not have control over. In his view, our control is largely limited to those things that emanate from our minds– our thoughts, words, opinions, beliefs, and actions.

Much of what occurs in our own lives are things that we don’t have control over. While this might seem distressing at first, the important key is that we do have control over the way we react to what happens to us in life.

epictetus image and quote about external events when the going gets tough the tough get going

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

– Epictetus

When we are facing a challenge, we have the power to control how we perceive the situation and how we react to it.

For example, let’s say that you unexpectedly lose your job. For many people, this is a tremendous blow. Not only does it take away the source of income that you rely on, but it can also feel like a part of who you thought you were is now gone. It can take a tremendous toll on your sense of self-worth and leave you feeling humiliated.

These are only a few of the emotions and feelings that can result from being fired or let go. Though you might not be able to exercise control over the fact that you are no longer employed by a specific company, you do have control over the way you understand the situation and what you do about it.

For instance, you could recognize your feelings of humiliation and work to recognize that this means you concern yourself with the opinions of others. Since you can’t control what other people think, you are essentially expending energy in a direction that isn’t particularly productive.

You could also think about all of the reasons why losing your job is actually a blessing. Maybe you have been putting off pursuing your purpose for a greater sense of security through your job.

Some people might curl up and feel helpless when facing such a difficult situation. The mentally tough, though, will find the opportunity hidden in their adversity. They will come up with a new way to make their necessary income– whether it be through another job or entrepreneurship.

When the going gets tough, you have two choices. You can see yourself as a victim and ask questions like, “why me?” Or, you can step up to the plate and use the experience as a catalyst to be a victor in your own life.

The History of the Quote

The precise origin of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” is hard to put the finger on. Many sources state that the motto originated in American football circles as a coaching mantra from K. Rockne, Francis William Leahy, or John Thomas.

Some other sources attribute this quote to John F. Kennedy’s father.

One of the earliest examples of the phrase being used in print is written by Joe Scherrer in The Corpus Christi Time. The article, entitled “Thomas Won’t Let Hornets Scrimmage,” published in the column Good Evening, this excerpt comes from September 15th, 1953:

“John Thomas, who has been coaching the Green Hornets for 17 years, tore down the house as he mixed philosophy with wit, in as fine a speech as the Quarterbacks will hear all year.”

The article goes on to list a number of the quotes that Thomas would use to encourage his football team. The section ends with the following statement:

“ As Thomas said: "When the going gets tough, the tough gets going."

It is possible that Thomas was the originator of the slogan, or he may have picked it up elsewhere and incorporated it into his motivational coaching strategy.

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that ‘when the going gets tough’ and ‘the tough get going’ as phrases have a similar but not identical usage history.

‘When the going gets tough’ starts appearing in publications as early as 1903 but doesn’t really start to pick up steam until about the 1930s leading into the 1940s. As might be expected, there is a clear correlation between the first half of this phrase and World War II.

If we take a closer look at some of the publications where this phrase appears, we see that it is used without the second part of the phrase in question, ‘the tough get going.’

A 1938 issue of a publication called Railway Age states the following in a section dedicated to letters from members:

“Ordinarily, such a newspaper comment is disregarded but after you wrote to us you then broadcast copies of your letter to the press and the Chicago newspapers added their comment. This clumsy effort on your part to elevate yourself by tearing down others, is somewhat amusing to those of us who know your record for quitting when the going gets tough.”

From this and other examples, it becomes clear that ‘when the going gets tough’ was an established phrase that referred to hard times before the second half of the saying entered the popular lexicon.

As another example, we find ‘when the going gets tough’ in a publication called What the Soldier Thinks from 1944.

“Fear is the soldier’s constant companion. It is at his elbow when he moves into action. It shares his foxhole when he is pinned down by enemy fire. It hovers over his gun position even when there is a lull in battle. When the going gets tough, fear is a stubborn enemy he must conquer.”

After the 1953 article discussed above, we begin to see the full quote appearing in publications. For instance, this is from a speech that was delivered in 1959 by Joseph G. Knapp:

“This is good. Challenges make strong individuals and strong institutions. If we meet this problem as we should, it will step up cooperative progress by leaps and bounds. Yesterday I was in the office of Skuli Rutford. He has a sign on the wall which says: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ This is the time for tough-minded men to get going.”

You can find the phrase used throughout the 1950s in American newspapers, typically in reference to sports.

Stoic Advice For When the Going Gets Tough

Navigating adversity is one of the things that the ancient Stoics discussed at length. They understood that the opportunity for personal growth is much more apparent in times of trouble than in times of abundance and that hard times are, therefore, a gift.

seneca image and quote about adversity when the going gets tough the tough get going

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

– Seneca the Younger

In this Seneca quote, we are confronted with a fascinating reality. We all think we want lives of comfort and ease, but the truth is this will most likely leave us completely unsatisfied. It is through difficult experiences that we are forced to turn to our inner resources, that we push ourselves past our perceived limits, and that we ultimately prove ourselves to ourselves.

Let’s look at three important concepts you’ll want to keep in mind when the going gets tough.

Understand The Power of Perception

One of the most critical concepts you will want to grasp when facing adversity is recognizing the truly incredible power of perception.

How you perceive a situation will ultimately dictate how you feel about the situation, and your feeling about your circumstance will have a big impact on what action you choose to (or choose not to) take.

Let’s say that you started a business, and it’s not going well. You might feel helpless, defeated, and embarrassed. If you let yourself feel this way, though, your actions (or lack thereof) will reflect this mindset.

What if you, instead, used this as a motivation to really zoom in on what you could improve? What if you felt energized, enlivened, and determined in the face of this difficulty?

Well, your actions would certainly reflect that.

No matter what, don’t let yourself feel like a victim.

Contemplate the following quote from Epictetus, and think about what it could mean for you to take his advice.

“Another person will not hurt you without your cooperation; you are hurt the moment you believe yourself to be.”

– Epictetus

If you assume that Epictetus had a cushy life and therefore has no right to speak about what it means to feel hurt or victimized, think again. Born into slavery, Epictetus wasn’t technically a free man for the first thirty years of his life.

“What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insults like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective? If, however, he has his victim’s weakness to exploit, then his efforts are worth his while.”

– Epictetus

Life can be impossibly hard at times. It can feel like a constant struggle. We don’t have to suppress our emotions, but what we can do is learn to be aware of them and never fall prey to a victim mentality.

Identify What You Have Power Over

There are a lot of things we don’t have power over in our lives. There are so many things we can’t change.

From the weather and traffic jams to geopolitical realities and thoughts of other people, much of what we experience is external events that the Stoics argue we don’t have control over.

Where we can find our power, however, is in the things that emanate from our minds.

These include:

  • Our perspectives
  • Our thoughts
  • Our mindset
  • Our attitude
  • Our emotions
  • Our creativity
  • Our actions
  • Our reactions
  • Our effort
  • Our determination
  • What information we consume
  • What we do with our time
  • What we say

Try, as an experiment, to turn your focus towards these things for a week, even a day. You might be amazed at how it changes the feeling of effectiveness and power you have in your life.

Remember, this doesn’t mean you should sink into nihilism or feel that most of your life is out of your control. Even when dealing with external events that you don’t have power over, you do have control over a very important piece of the puzzle– how you react.

See the Treasure Hidden in the Trouble

It can be hard to look for a silver lining when you’re in the depths of despair. The truth is, though, that there is pretty much always a lesson hidden in difficult times.

Seneca the Younger even advised that individuals voluntarily practice hardship, stating that we should “take part of a week in which you have only the most meager and cheap food, dress scantily in shabby clothes, and ask yourself if this is really the worst you feared.”

Not only are the bad things that happen to us not typically as horrendous as we imagine beforehand, but the trials we face give us an opportunity to learn, grow, become stronger, and become wiser.

Think about the people that you know– either personally or through media– that best exemplify a virtuous existence. Did they lead lives of luxury and ease, or did they face trial after trial? In most cases, the wisest people have endured extreme experiences and come out the other end with valuable lessons that they incorporated into their lives.

How to Become Mentally Tough

We all know (at least vaguely) how to become physically stronger– workout, eat right, get enough sleep, etc. How do you strengthen your mind, though?

If you find yourself always feeling like a victim at the slightest insult or negative circumstance, it’s important to understand that it doesn’t have to be like this. You can become mentally stronger and learn to take responsibility for the things that you have control over.

In the same way, a strong man can easily lift something a normal person couldn’t budge; you can become a person that doesn’t shrink away or feel sorry for yourself when faced with an unfortunate event.

epictetus image and quote about difficult times when the going gets tough the tough get going

“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

This quote from Epictetus is worth printing out and hanging on your wall. You aren’t a victim in life. You are a wrestler– a warrior– that has been paired with a difficult but ultimately defeatable adversary. Over time, your ability to deal with adversity will be “Olympic-class.”

Let’s look at a few things you can do– even in times of abundance and plenty– to ensure that your mind is ready for whatever is to come.

Spend Time Alone

Our modern world makes it possible to never be alone. Even if you’re in a remote cabin in a mountainous wilderness, as long as you have a cell signal or mobile data, you can be in constant contact with other people.

If you’ve ever spent some quality time alone– really alone– you know just how beneficial it can be. If you’re skeptical, though, you might be interested to learn that scientists and researchers have found that spending time in solitude has a number of benefits, including:

  • Improving memory and concentration
  • Boosting creativity
  • Helping prioritize self-development
  • Improving relationships
  • Increasing empathy
  • Boosting productivity
  • Increasing life satisfaction
  • Boosting mood and increasing happiness
  • Improving stress management

On the other hand, not having enough time to yourself can cause all kinds of problems, including:

  • Increasing feelings of agitation, irritation, and anger
  • Increasing fatigue or tiredness
  • Reducing enjoyment during activities you usually enjoy
  • Increasing your stress levels around the clock
  • Increasing the risk of anxiety and depression

Perhaps most importantly, when you don’t spend enough time alone, it means you aren’t getting to know yourself. In the following quote, Epictetus talks about how hardships give us a chance to “turn inward and evoke our inner resources.” Though adversity can give you this opportunity, you’re still better off if you give yourself ample time to get to know yourself even when you aren’t dealing with adversity.

epictetus image and quote about inner resources in adversity when the going gets tough the tough get going

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trials 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

If you feel that you hardly ever spend time alone, start incorporating some solitude into your life. Work on creating a place within yourself that you can retreat to, the place that Marcus Aurelius describes as follows:

“For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.”

– Marcus Aurelius

If you have found yourself to be among the ranks of the tech-and-social-media-addicted, that’s all the more reason to prioritize alone time. Disconnect yourself from the constant barrage of images, words, and sounds. Learn to sit quietly and be content– it’s worth it!

Lean on the Side of Being a Producer (Not a Consumer)

In addition to allowing us to never really be alone, our current culture and society also make it very possible to consume, consume, and consume some more without producing nearly as much in return.

Are you a consumer or a producer? What are you offering yourself, your family, your community, and your larger society? How much time do you spend consuming the things that other people have created versus producing something of your own?

If you could contribute anything to the world, what would it be?

Much in the way that Teddy Roosevelt told us that “it’s not the critic who counts,” the consumer is ultimately a passive and unimpressive character. Being a producer, though, takes mental toughness.

You have to be organized, driven, committed, and disciplined. You have to know which feedback is relevant and which should be thrown out with the trash. You have to believe in yourself without letting your head get too big.

When you become a producer, you see that your sense of self shifts. You no longer define yourself by the TV shows you watch and the subculture you ascribe to. What you produce becomes a part of who you are, and who you are will continue to evolve as you practice the strength and resiliency necessary to really make something meaningful.

Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday

Whether or not you’re a Jordan Peterson fan, it’s hard to argue with the following advice: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”

An important part of becoming mentally tough is being willing, to be honest with yourself about your current situation. With practice, recognizing your own mistakes and failures doesn’t have to be an exercise shrouded in anxiety, depression, guilt, and panic. Over time, you will learn that keeping track of your failures (and successes) actually helps you make progress toward being who you want to be.

seneca image and quote about adversity when the going gets tough the tough get going

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

– Seneca the Younger

It might sound cliche at this point, but it isn’t how many times you fall down that matters; it’s about how many times you get back up. If you’ve had a bad day, week, month, year, or decade, it is what it is. That doesn’t mean you are doomed to failure.

Don’t compare yourself to other people, whether they are people you know personally, characters you encounter on the internet, or public figures. Sure, these people can be great role models or cautionary tales. But the only person you want to compare yourself to is your own self.

If you can succeed in this, you’ll find that your energy is much more efficiently directed toward your own personal growth. Ultimately, you won’t be nearly as mentally weak in the face of criticism or difficulty.

Put In the Work Every Day

In a recent post, we took a deep dive into the AA motto “it works if you work it.” In short, this quote means that you can make progress over time if you put the work in every day.

If you want to be one of the “tough” that “get going” when times are hard, it’s something you’ll want to work on day in and day out.

There are countless opportunities to adjust our perception and strengthen our minds, even on the most mundane of days. Here are just a few exercises and tasks you could take on to become more mentally tough:

  • Set goals and hold yourself accountable for meeting them
  • Learn a new skill
  • Deliberately leave your comfort zone
  • Focus on the present moment
  • Try to do every act– even the most mundane– with purpose
  • Watch your mind– notice what you think about, the way you think, the things you are afraid of, and the way you talk to yourself.
  • Practice gratitude
  • Negative visualization (practiced by the Stoics as premeditatio malorum)
  • Start a journaling practice
  • Read Stoic books and books that challenge you and the way you think
  • Meditate on death (practiced by the Stoics as memento mori)
  • Work to embrace and even love the way things happen (a concept referred to as amor fati)
  • Practice voluntary hardship

These are only a few of the things you can do to work on building mental toughness every day. Consider trying out a few and adding them to your daily routine. Though progress might feel slow at first, you’ll be amazed at how much you can grow and change if you give it a little time.

Forget About What Other People Think

Sometimes, people you respect give you feedback that is difficult to hear but relevant to your situation. In these cases, it’s good to take a long hard look at yourself and consider how you can use this advice or criticism as a part of your personal growth process.

Many times, though, the feedback we get is from people we don’t respect, or we don’t even know. It’s easy to let the way we perceive ourselves and the world be impacted by other peoples’ opinions. What we say, how we act, how we dress, and so much more can be driven by trying to please others.

There are always going to be critics out there that make judgments about what you’re up to. Take the advice of Epictetus, a man worth respecting, who teaches that we should stop handing over our minds “to anyone that comes along, so they may abuse [us], leaving [our minds] disturbed and troubled.”

Is It Time For You to Get Tough and Get Going?

There are so many things in life that we don’t have control over. All of us confront times of difficulty, whether they be financial, relational, emotional, physical, or spiritual. Though we might not be able to change external events, we can control how we react to the things that happen to us.

This is where mental toughness and resilience come in. You don’t want to wait until the sky falls to get serious about strengthening your mind and spirit, though. Seneca teaches us that “it is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it, then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”

Remember, nothing is permanent– not the good times nor the bad. When things are going well for you, put in some work every day to ensure that you will be prepared when the wind changes directions.

Are you searching for more information on how to live a Stoic life? Are you seeking inspirational and motivational quotes from some of the greatest minds in history? Make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog for more practical and powerful advice and insight.

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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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