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21 May 2019

On improving your mental toughness

by Wojciech Gryc

In Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Long Rain”, a group of astronauts are trudging through a jungle on a planet where rain falls incessantly and aggressively. The water pours over the astronauts, and they are slowly going insane while looking for a military outpost with an energy source – light, heat, and food. The hike is depressing, and astronauts on the planet are known to simply give up: to sit down in the rain and let it overtake them, breathing in the water and literally drowning themselves in heavy water vapor as they give up the will to walk on, and on, and on.

We don’t often look at people and call them “mentally tough”, but we do use synonyms. A role model of ours might have grit, determination, vision, or she might maintain confidence against all odds. We admire leaders for their ability to withstand adversity, to persevere, and to motivate.

We often think of these qualities as innate, but in reality, they are things we can work on and improve.

What exactly is mental toughness?

What do we mean when we call someone “mentally tough”? Mental toughness is a multifaceted characteristic. My favourite framework for this is presented in a triathlon training book1, which lists five aspects of mental toughness:

Leaders struggle with different aspects of mental toughness. Some leaders have confidence and motivation in spades, but lack focus and thus meander along despite their best intentions. Others might have clear focus and visualization, but struggle at the first sign of trouble, and so need to work on their confidence and thought habits.

Choose what to work on, and start with small behavior change

Most people don’t realize how much power they have to improve their mental toughness. Like any skill, it can be practiced; and knowing which elements you need to work on will help you improve.

To begin, think back to a time when you felt emotionally and mentally weak. What happened? Were you motivated and focused, but lacked the confidence to follow through? Or were you unfocused and thus didn’t know what to do in a tough situation? Making a list of your behaviors and what went wrong in a challenging situation will help create a recipe for the next time you face the challenge.

Next, begin making small behavioral changes. Countless research papers3 that behavior is a precursor to attitude. You can hack your attitude by simply acting in a way that encourages the proper mental characteristics above. For example, you might wake up demotivated every morning; that’s OK – just get up and ensure you do something productive first-thing in the morning. You might have poor thought habits and as such be paranoid about failure; that’s OK – describe five emotions you’ll feel if you achieve your goal to plant the seeds of those feelings now.

Life rafts

Every person is different, and so our strategies around mental health, wellness, and toughness need to be personalized. If you follow the guidance above, you’ll decide which aspects of your mental toughness you need to work on. You’ll also be able to brainstorm strategies on how to improve this. Not every approach will work, however. Make sure you note which strategies you try and which ones work or don’t work, and eventually over time you will have a mental toughness strategy that will work for you.

In “Deep Survival”, Laurence Gonzalez4 explores scenarios where people survive difficult situations. Whether it’s fighter pilots, those stuck in life rafts in the middle of an ocean, or hikers lost in a forest, much of their survival depends on their ability to maintain a positive outlook, to work towards a goal, and to do so even if the circumstances imply you’ll fail. In other words, survival depends on mental toughness as much as the actual physical circumstances we find ourselves in.

…and when we lose that grip on reality, the results can be devastating. In one example, Gonzalez discusses how one potential survivor, after days spent floating on a life raft, simply gets up and tells his mates that he’s going to a convenience store to buy a pack of cigarettes, jumping into the water and drowning.

Back to our astronauts

Of the three astronauts trudging through the jungle in Ray Bradbury’s short story, only one survives. The other two succumb to their weaknesses – they begin by resting their tired legs, then realizing how nice it feels to simply sit and let the water vapour overtake them rather than continue a hopeless search for a possibly non-existent bunker. The planet did not kill them – they simply gave up, sat down, and waited for the rain to overtake them.

Getting mentally tough is, well, tough. If you ever want any help or have an idea to share, please let me know. I want to help.


Notes:

  1. Top photo is by John Towner.
  2. See Joel Friel’s Triathlete’s Training Bible. Working on my mental toughness is one of the reasons I do endurance sports.
  3. See Carol Dweck’s work.
  4. Some examples and discussion.
  5. Laurence Gonzelez has written about this a number of times and has fantastic and stories and examples of survival based on mental toughness.