The Guide to Developing Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness

Several years ago I went to a comedy show.  A local amateur comedian got onstage in front of about 400 people to perform his stand-up routine.

About half way through the show, someone in the audience yelled out, “You suck!”

Without hesitation, he laughed it off and told a joke at the heckler’s expense.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was hilarious.

Somehow this comedian had developed the strength and composure to deliver jokes successfully to hundreds of people.

Not only that, but he had the confidence and focus to do it while hecklers tried to undermine his performance.

This is what psychologists call mental toughness.

Mental toughness is when you:

The key component of mental toughness is learning how to condition your mind to think confidently and be able to overcome frustration and negative self-talk.  It’s when nothing can mentally keep you from reaching your goal.

Building a Tough Mind – One Neuron At a Time

Mental toughness is about how you handle your confidence and determination when things aren’t going your way.

Anyone can handle it when times are good; it’s easy to keep going and stay positive.  But when things go bad, you’ll start to see those same people walk away.

What separates winners from losers is how they handle themselves in the worst of times.

Ask yourself:

How tough will you be when things aren’t going your way?

When things go wrong, will you have the mental strength to keep on track?

If you’re mentally tough, you’ll keep your composure under heavy stress.  You’ll be able to go out of your comfort zone like it was nothing.

So how do you build mental toughness?

You have to be willing to go through these things:

Willingness to look stupid

Most people stay in their comfort zones because they’re afraid that they’ll look like they don’t know what they’re doing or do the wrong thing.

Those who get the furthest in life are the ones who put themselves out there.  They’re able to go in front of a large audience and do what they need to do and not care what people think.

Yes, that means they’ll do stupid things occasionally, but they’re fine with that.  They’re happy for the valuable life experience they get out of those attempts.

Be more willing to laugh at your dumb moves than everyone else.  Do that and you remove their power to hold you back.

Willingness to be frustrated

Frustration is…well, frustrating.  It’s not something people go out into the world wishing they could get more of, but it’s a necessary part of development.

At any point, you could get smacked down with a setback.  Someone could try and put you down and tell you that you’re no good.

Here’s the thing: your greatest point of growth is at the same point of the greatest amount of frustration you’re willing to accept.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to the gym, does he do the bare minimum?  No, he picks up the heaviest weights everyone else avoids and does as many sets as he can.

He doesn’t take the easy route because he knows that he won’t get any results that way.

The same goes for any other field.  If you’re not pushing yourself to the point of frustration, you probably aren’t growing much.

Willingness to be consistent despite failure

Take a look at this quote:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

Despite failure, despite all the losses and misses, Michael Jordan kept going and going.  He was never afraid to take the lead and miss an important shot.

It’s about consistency.  Mental toughness means working on your goals regularly – no matter what happens.

Mentally tough writers write every day.  Mentally tough athletes don’t miss workouts.

When you consistently push yourself, you’ll be in an unfamiliar spot – you’re doing something you don’t know how to do.  Mistakes and failures become more likely.

Failure sucks – no one likes it and you should never set out to purposely fail.

But failure is a sign that you’re doing something right.  It should be seen as a good thing, not one that dents your confidence.

In fact, it should be the other way around.  When you push yourself to do something new and fail, you should see it as a victory – you’re developing mental toughness.

Most Importantly: Mental Toughness Takes Practice

Mental toughness takes time.  You have to consistently practice a tough mindset to develop it.

When I was younger, I had very little mental toughness.  When things got difficult, I would let them affect me and discourage me.  I quit a lot more often than I should have.

Now that I’m older, I’ve learned to trust myself and my abilities.  I’ve accepted that things won’t always go my way and that how I react is more important that what I’m reacting to.

I spent a lot of time developing a strong, focused mental attitude.

Before I got married, I used to go out to bars to meet women.  By the end of the night, I’d usually be chatting with a girl, getting a number or making plans to meet up with her and friends after bar closing.

One night I approached a girl and started a conversation.  Looking me up and down, she said in a really mean voice, “Why the hell are you talking to me?  I don’t find you the least bit interesting or attractive.”

Wow.

I had reached my moment.  Just like the amateur comedian, someone was trying to knock me down.

Weirdly enough, I laughed a little when she said it.

Instead of letting it bother me, I moved on and started a conversation elsewhere.

When you have enough mental toughness, nothing can shake you.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Sylvestor Stallone from one of his Rocky movies:

“It ain’t how hard you hit…It’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done!”

photo credit: ElMarto

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Comments

  1. Approaching girls is a great tool to develop mental toughness. Maybe the best. You get the full program out of it. Fear, rejection, embarrassment, being uncomfortable…

    Maybe military or entrepreneurship could do the job even better, but both comes around with huge lifestyle restrictions.

    • There’s definitely a lot you have to mental obstacles overcome when approaching girls. When it doesn’t work, you just have to keep trying and going.

  2. Great stuff, Steve. Similar to building walls and doing the best you can, it’s about being able to do what you need to for much longer than anyone, including yourself, thought possible. That’s what leads to success.

    • You need persistence to reach big goals. It’s about thinking in the long-term and finding the thing that keeps you going no matter what.

  3. Great post, Steve.

    Many people go to gym to lift weights, to train their muscles, but not many go out of their way to train their mind. Our mind is just different kind of muscle (neurons) which also needs training.

    Just read a great method on how we can train our mind like training a well behaved dog from Steve Palvin’s post. Check it out at http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2014/03/prime-your-brain-for-a-permanent-performance-gain-in-a-few-minutes/

    • Neurons can act a lot like muscle fiber. When we lift weights we build them and make them stronger. The mind can also be worked out. You can reinforce pathways and thought patterns too. We can’t ignore the mind.

  4. Steve – it’s interesting that we all have a mind but different levels of mental toughness. Glad you reminded us that this is a practice and that it’s something that can be built up over our lifetime. The more adversity one faces, the more opportunity they’ll have to practice preseverance, build confidence and focus. we don’t get to do this as much when things are going our way. I think I need a bit of mental toughness to break through procrastination sometimes.

    Great advice and reflections here.

    • I think that’s why I like to travel, especially to undeveloped countries. You have a lot of obstacles and frustrations to overcome. Things often don’t go as planned. When I go through it all and overcome them, it makes me tougher.

  5. If you lived with my family, you’d develop mental toughness very very quickly!

    Well, they’re not THAT bad, but they definitely spend a lot of time making fun of each other. You learn to develop a thick skin & it becomes like water off a duck’s back (end of analogies).

    • My family wasn’t like that, they were very supportive. On the other hand, my friends were like that. You had to have a thick skin around them.

  6. Great post, Steve.

    Failure is just a negative result. Life is full of negative results. All you have to do is go back and adjust your method to get a different result, maybe positive.

    It takes mental toughness to keep going after countless negative results, but that’s what makes people great.

    Love the M.J. quote too!

    • That reminds me of what Einstein said about insanity. Life seems to be a lot of trial and error. Keep trying, get errors and make corrections. Eventually you’ll find something that works.

  7. Stand up comedy is one of the toughest jobs in the world (that doesn’t involve genuine danger). I admire anyone who stands up there.

    But, interestingly, when a comedian successfully handles a heckler, it isn’t a spontaneous response – this comedian has mentally rehearsed every possible heckler scenario hundreds, even thousands of times. He has a stock response for every occasion that he can adapt.

    But this is what mental toughness is. It’s the ability to handle an obstacle through experience.

    Great article!

    • That’s a good point. He probably had a stock joke ready to use when the situation presented itself. I’m sure it wasn’t his first heckler before so he’s had time to prepare for it.

  8. Steve – enjoyed the post and it got me thinking. For me mental toughness comes from putting yourself in tough places and not quitting. It’s like a muscle that strengthens with use and benefits from progressively harder workouts.

    When I can look back and say I got through that, and I’m feeling stronger and more able to face, today, challenges I quaked at a while back, I know I’m getting mentally tougher.

    • When I look back on some of the hardest things I’ve done, I feel stronger and more resilient. I don’t feel like that about the things I quit. I think the part about not quitting is important. When you can go through something difficult and land safely on the other side, you build confidence that you can do it again.

  9. Right now I’m in a spot where I feel pretty beat down, so the thought of welcoming more discomfort is, well, discomforting. I know when I feel more myself I am much better at handling life’s curve balls.

  10. Wow, that comedian was awesome. And I bet he did it in such a smooth manner, like it didn’t even bother him.

    Steve I love your comment about being about to laugh at yourself and how it disarms others from trying to hold you back. It is so true. When you can admit you’re wrong and laugh at yourself, you take the joy out of someone trying to do it at your expense. It also adds to your resilience.

    ~Lea

  11. Great post Steve, I love your points about it taking practice. We can’t expect it to happen but have to take the time to practice and live it out. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert in something and I think we can apply that same principle into this skill/ability.

  12. Well put, also i agree with being able to hold control. Patience shows mental strength quite a lot.

  13. I often teach under-grad classes of about 150-200 young people who couldn’t care less about what I’m telling them. I still try (and sometimes succeed) to make it more lively and interesting.

    I think this is a great preparation for the stand-up comedy circuit. Mental toughness – yes, sir. I am tough. I wouldn’t say that I’m willing to look stupid and/or to feel frustrated – I’m just not too bothered about it any longer :). And my students love me!

    • I’ve taught too so I know all about how mentally tough you need to be to do it. I’ve done my share of stupid things and felt frustrated. It’s all a part of how it goes. Yeah, I’m with you – I just don’t let it bother me any longer.

  14. “Mentally tough writers write every day. Mentally tough athletes don’t miss workouts.”

    Hey, I’m tough! Thanks for a crumb of encouragement Steve!

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