in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The 5 Switches of Manliness: Challenge

Vintage antique electric light switch lever rusting cobweb.

This is the second post in our series on the five switches of manliness. The five switches of manliness are the power switches that are connected to our primal man and deeply ingrained and embedded in the male psyche. When they’re turned off, we feel restless, angry, and apathetic. When they’re turned on, we feel alive, invigorated, motivated to be our best, and just plain manly. The two principles behind these posts that must be adopted in order for the recommendations to be successfully integrated are: 1) the switches are simply either on or off, and 2) turning them on requires only small and simple changes in behavior. The biggest obstacle to flipping the switches will be pride–the belief that firing up our masculinity requires arduous, mystical, and/or perfectly “authentic” tasks. Just because you cannot do everything, does not mean you cannot do something. The maxim to adopt is this: “By small and simple means I will flip the switches of manliness.”

In case you couldn’t tell from last week’s post on the Band of Brothers, I truly admire the men who fought in World War II. When I look at my grandpa, I think, “There is a man.” There’s simply no doubt about it; his manliness is unassailable.

I think a lot of guys in my generation are fascinated by the men who lived through not only World War II, but the Great Depression as well. We know in our hearts that it was a terrifically terrible time, that there’s absolutely nothing glamorous about not knowing if you’re going to be able to feed your family that night or seeing your friend’s brains blown out of his head right in front of you.

And yet….when we read their stories our hearts ache and there is an undeniable sense of longing. It is not necessarily a longing to live in that time and have gone through those trials specifically, but a great yearning for something our grandfathers had in spades, and we often feel a complete lack of in our own lives: a true challenge. A chance to prove out mettle, our resiliency…our very manhood.

Because for many of us, the switch of challenge is firmly in the off position. And that’s left our lives feeling awfully empty.

The Origin of a Man’s Need for Challenge

Let’s begin with a startling statistic:

Only about 33% of our human ancestors were male.

Modern people have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors. And that’s a conservative estimate.

What the? You likely assumed it was 50/50, right? To illustrate how this can be, in the book, Is There Anything Good About Men? sociologist Dr. Roy F. Baumeister uses this imaginary scenario:

Imagine a desert island at the start of time with just four people: Jack, Jim, Sally, and Sonya. Thus the population is 50% female. Let’s assume Jack is rich and handsome, while Jim is poor and unattractive, so Jack marries both Sally and Sonya. Thus, Jack and Sally’s baby, Doug, has ancestors who are 50% female (i.e., Jack and Sally). The same can be said for Jack and Sonya’s baby, Lucy. But if you take Doug and Lucy together, their combined ancestors are 67% female (because their total ancestors are Jack, Sally, and Sonya).

Dr. Baumeister goes on to explain what these means:

Of all the people who ever reached adulthood, maybe 80% of the women but only 40% of the men reproduced. Or perhaps the numbers were 60% versus 30%. But one way or another, a woman’s odds of having a line of descendants down to the present were double those of a man…Most women who ever lived to adulthood probably had at least one baby and in fact a descendant alive today. Most men did not. Most men who ever lived…left behind no genetic traces of themselves.

Dr. Baumeister calls this idea the most “underappreciated fact about men.” Why? Because it explains an enormous amount about why men are the way they are and act the way they do.

It’s All About Reproduction

Reproduction lies at the heart of all evolutionary theory. Every species, whether humans or beetles, wants to perpetuate their kind to the greatest degree biologically possible. The more descendants the better.

When it comes to humans, the simple fact of the matter is that a woman can only get pregnant by one man (at a time) while one man can impregnate multiple women. This is why a woman’s eggs, and her womb, have always been much more valuable than a man’s seed (the implications of which we’ll explore more in the next post).

So in primitive times, in the days before widespread monogamy, the odds that a woman would become a mother were very good. She did not have to do much apart from making herself desirable and wooing the best possible mate. The chances were, even if she did not do much at all, she would get an offer. Her main concern was landing a father for her children that could provide food, protection, and good genes.

On the other hand, the odds that a man would become a father were not good. The alpha males of the tribe, who were the most desirable to the women because of their good genes and high status, could sire children with numerous partners, shutting out the less attractive and successful men from fathering any children at all.

So men had to do something, the bigger the better, to raise their status and thus improve their chances of reproducing. Women could be relatively sure that they would have at least one child, so it did not make sense for them to give up this sure thing to sally forth on an adventure that might win wealth and glory, but might just as well result in complete failure or death. Regardless of what they did, and what kinds of worldly success they found, they would never have more than a dozen or so children. But, it did make sense for a man to take big risks to win wealth and glory and elevate himself above his rivals. If he did nothing, the chances were that he would have no children. If he gambled on a risky venture, he might die or fail, but he might make it big, so big he might even father 50 or 100 children (or as many as Genghis Khan!).

All of this is to say that the men of the past were highly motivated to take on large challenges that would give them a chance to gain wealth and glory and thus prove themselves as men of high status–alpha males who would be rewarded with numerous chances to sire progeny.

Man Up!

We’ve talked before about the importance of male rites-of-passage, ceremonies and tests that for thousands of years marked a boy’s transition into manhood. But it should not be understood from the idea of the rite-of-passage that once a boy became a man, that was the end of the road, and his manhood was secure until the end of his days. Instead, it was something that had to be chosen and secured over and over again.

Womanhood was a status automatically conferred as the result of biological maturation. Manhood was something that had to continuously be proven. Men have always had to prove themselves worthy to women and jockey for position among men. As Dr. Baumeister puts it:

A woman is entitled to respect until and unless she does something to lose it. A man is not entitled to respect until and unless he does something to gain it…The man must repeatedly achieve: obtain, surpass, conquer….Insecurity is part of being a man, an essential part of the male role in society. Manhood is never secure: It must be claimed via public actions, risky things seen and validated by other people–and it can be lost.

This is why it is common for people to say, “Man up!” but not to say, “Woman up!”  If you tell a woman to “Be a woman!” she will think, “Uh, I already am.” If you tell a man to “Be a man!” they know just what you’re talking about.

While the insecurity of manhood may seem like a negative thing, perhaps even silly to some feminists, it is in fact vital to the progress and health of culture and society; it is what propels and pushes men to not back down from a challenge and motivates them to accomplish big things and strive for greatness, which is to say, to make valuable contributions to society–to be a producer, and not just a consumer. (Conversely, when men opt-out of the goal of manning up, and instead decide to live a life of safety, entertainment, and luxury, society becomes decadent and slides into decline.)

The Blood of Greatness

The men who tried to prove themselves, who accepted the challenge, who dared to do great things, and who had the intelligence and courage to become successful, were the ones who were able to father children and pass on their genes. The ones who did not take the gamble, or who did not have the prowess to be successful when they did, died childless, and their hapless genes died with them.

What this means is that we are all descended from the strongest, fastest, smartest, bravest men of the past: the world’s alpha males. It is no stretch to conclude, as Dr. Baumeister does, that the blood of greatness runs through our veins.

Whew, now that’s some heady stuff, right?

So if our genes come from such daring stock and our psyche is deeply embedded with the motivation for greatness, what’s stopping more men from seeking it?

The Obstacles to Accepting the Challenge

Obviously, even a cursory look at history reveals that not every man tapped into his inborn proclivity for risk and adventure and decided to accept the challenge to dare for greatness.

Why is this? Well, in the first place, for much of human history many men were shut out from even the chance to make it big. Once the egalitarian days of tribal life were over, and civilizations built up, society became more stratified, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t obtain greatness if you’re, say, a poor peasant living in the Middle Ages.

But even when societies opened up and democracy leveled the playing field, many men still chose to play it safe. Because seeking for greatness, while certainly an inspiring idea, is an incredibly risky venture. We love to hear the stories of men who gambled big and won, but far more common, if far less recorded, are the tales of men who risked it all and went completely bust. Thus for many men, the life of safety, with minimal potential reward but minimal danger as well, has seemed to be the more sensible path.

Vintage soldiers military storming beach war.

And now we come back to our grandfathers…the reason why we envy them so much, is that their great challenges were built-in to their lives, and were inescapably thrust upon them. They were not the Greatest Generation because they were made out of a different material than we are; rather, they became great because they were given the chance to rise to the occasion, and they admirably answered the call.

Today, we generally lack those built-in challenges. Unlike primitive man, we don’t have to hunt our own food or protect our tribes from predators of the human and animal variety. And unlike our grandfathers, there is not a draft or world war to fight.

And our modern day challenges to challenge don’t end there.

As we’ve just discussed, when primitive man strove for greatness, he did so to get a leg up on the other men in his tribe; he was competing with them for status. His goal was thus to do things that allowed him to stand apart from his fellow men. Changes in our culture have squashed some of a man’s opportunities to do this, and thus his motivation to try to get to the top. Key in this are things like grade inflation and the self-esteem movement. If tons of students receive an A, and all team members get a trophy, regardless of varying levels of achievement, boys lose their drive to be the best, because they are deprived of the reward of standing apart from their fellows and receiving well-earned public accolades.

At the same time, the male traits that have developed to drive them towards greatness–aggression, ego, risk-taking–have in recent time been criticized, de-valued, and attempted to be bred out of men. Boys are given medication because they can’t sit still in class. Male risk-taking is blamed for the current economic crisis (ignoring the fact that without male risk-taking, there wouldn’t be an economic system in the first place!).

The Vital Need for Challenge in a Man’s Life

So despite these obstacles and knowing that daring greatly may result in failure, should a man seek to turn the switch of challenge, or should he simply opt-out in favor of a life of safety and convenience? Because sure, striving for greatness benefits society, but nobody wants to feel like they’re being used in a sucker’s game.

The truth is, what’s good for society as a whole is also good for the individual man. When you pursue a challenge, it is true that sometimes you will fail, but the real value is simply found in the striving. Whatever blood, sweat, and tears you expend in the pursuit of greatness, whether you ever reach your goal or not, will be returned to you in the form of greater strength, virtue, and deep satisfaction.

When NASA first sent astronauts up into space, they thought perhaps the zero-gravity atmosphere would do great things for the astronauts’ bodies–that their vitality might increase once they were released from having to contend with all that gravitational pressure. Of course, what they found instead was that without the pressure, their bodies deteriorated and their muscles atrophied.

The lesson can very easily be applied here: you can try to float through life by shunning challenge and minimizing resistance, but you’ll end up as a soft shell of a man.

Obviously most men these days don’t want to have 100 children. Some may not even want one. Of course nature does not distinguish between the drive for progeny and the drive for sex, and plenty of men still want to have as much of the latter as possible. But whether you’re an unabashed lothario or no-sex-before-marriage man, our primal drive for challenge cannot be denied and left unsatisfied.

The Warrior Dash, a race in which participants run, climb over obstacles, crawl through the mud, and sprint through fire has more than 650,000 fans on Facebook. Whereas men used to get in the dirt to get paid, men now pay to get in the dirt. This is truly extraordinary. Clearly, the need for challenge cannot simply be rationalized away.

How to Turn the Challenge Switch in Your Life

Truly, the biggest challenge for modern men is motivating ourselves to embrace little challenges in a time of peace and prosperity, in order to be ready for a great challenge, if, perhaps simply when, it arises. In a time where there are not too many external challenges that are thrust upon us, a man must motivate himself to utilize every bit of his potential internally, to purposefully challenge himself.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid diagram illustration.

Decades ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with his famous “hierarchy of needs,” which described the ascending level of human needs. Once humans have taken care of their basic needs, like food and shelter, they have the freedom to seek even more from life, working their way to the peak of the pyramid, which is self-actualization.

Self-actualization sounds a little hokey, but it simply means this: “What a man can be, he must be.” In other words, a man at his peak utilizes all of his potential and becomes all he is capable of becoming. So the pursuit of greatness and each man’s peak will look different for each individual man, according to his particular talents, abilities, and desires.

But for every man, it can only be attained by creating challenges for himself whenever possible. It sounds complicated and daunting, but remember the mantra of the switches of manliness theory: it’s all about doing small and simple things.

I love what Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness has to say about finding a challenge in your life. Simply do sh** that scares you. Find whatever makes you uncomfortable and do it.

If that bit of advice is still too vauge for you and you’re still looking for some specific ways to incorporate the switch of challenge in your life, we provide the following suggestions.

Mental Challenges

  • If you’re in high school or college, don’t take the easy classes just so you can get the easy A. Take classes that will challenge and stretch you intellectually.
  • Read books and articles that challenge your point of view.
  • Make it a goal to read the Great Books of the Western World. I’ve been doing this for two years now, with numerous starts and stops. Some of the reading is dense and challenging, but the effort has been worthwhile.
  • Take up meditation. Learning how to quiet the distracted mind requires discipline and dedication.
  • If you’ve never been a math guy like me, take free online math classes at Khan Academy. I freaking love this site. I’m in the middle of reviewing basic arithmetic, but am looking forward to getting started with the calculus stuff.
  • Ask for assignments at work that challenge you. Don’t be the guy who plays it safe and stays ducked under his desk all the time.


  • Make it a goal to pray or meditate every morning and evening.
  • Challenge yourself to read your scriptures for 10 minutes or more a day.
  • Commit to doing several hours of community service each month.
  • Start tithing 10% of your income to your church or to a charitable organization.
  • Take Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues Challenge


Social/Emotional Challenges

Do you have any suggestions on how to flip the switch of challenge in a man’s life? What sort of challenges have you overcome that have made you feel more like a man? Share them with us in the comments.


Is There Anything Good about Men? by Dr. Roy R. Baumeister.

We’ll be talking more about the implications of the disparity in primitive male/female reproduction odds for men in the other posts in this series. But I’m sure some of you are wondering what it means for women. Before jumping to conclusions, I recommend checking out this book–Dr. Baumeister’s theory is the most sensible, non-sexist (if still imperfect) explanation on the differences between the sexes that I’ve come across.

Switches of Manliness Series:
The Cure for the Modern Male Malaise
Switch #1: Physicality
Switch #2: Challenge
Switch #3: Legacy
Switch #4: Provide
Switch #5: Nature

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