The Complete Beginner’s Guide To Mental Toughness

December 19th, 2016 by LaRae Quy

In the 1930’s FBI agents needed mental toughness to hunt bank robbers like John Dillinger and mobsters like Al Capone.

As the world became more complex, FBI agents started working complex and sophisticated cases like terrorism, organized crime, cyber, and counterintelligence to better address the threats to American lives and interests.

It’s no secret that business and life are not as simple as they were, either—even a few years ago. It is no longer just a matter of knowledge, ability, and skill to succeed.

As entrepreneurs and business owners you need to be psychologically prepared to deal with strong competition, recover from mistakes and failure quickly, tackle tough situations, devise strategies, and collaborate with others.

In other words, you need mental toughness to manage the emotions, thoughts, and behavior that will set you up for success in business and life.

People define mental toughness in different ways. Often, they think it is plowing through obstacles and roadblocks. While that mindset might work in football, it is not an effective way to succeed in business and life.

Here is a complete beginner’s guide to mental toughness:

SKILL #1: MENTAL TOUGHNESS REQUIRES EMOTIONAL COMPETENCY

Most of the FBI agents I worked alongside would never sputter the phrase emotional intelligence—much less attribute their success to it. While they considered themselves mentally tough, they preferred words like competence and alertness to describe the skills they carefully honed over the years.

I prefer the term emotional competency rather than emotional intelligence. I know of lots of people who are intelligent but not necessarily competent. Competency requires more than just information; it requires the practical wisdom to put that knowledge to work in real life situations.

Let’s break emotional competency down:

1. Self-Awareness—know what fuels you. I am not talking about fluffy ideals or stuff that gives you the warm fuzzies. Training at the FBI Academy at Quantico is constructed to filter out those who do not feel deeply attached to upholding our federal judicial system.

To be mentally tough, you must know what you feel down deep in your bones. If you are not pursuing something that really holds value and meaning for you, you will not have what it takes to keep going when the going gets tough.

If you are self-aware, you have clarity about your values, operate from a place of authenticity, and go after the things in life that are hard-wired to give you a purpose.

2. Communication—you know how to interpret the words and body language of others. This means you are a good listener and know how to build genuine trust with others. An essential element of mental toughness is the ability to accurately read the emotions of others and then adapt your behavior accordingly.

To be successful, match your personality to your boss, employee, or client. Assess whether they are introverts or extraverts, analytical or a visionary, purpose-driven or security-driven, goal-oriented or people-oriented. If you’ve been a good listener, you will be able to make these distinctions.

3. Empathy—it’s not feeling sorry for the other person; it is feeling their sorrow. If you can understand the emotions of others, it is easier to create empathy.

Sometimes we don’t really want to hear what other people have to say! We love our own opinions and thoughts and would prefer to shut out those of others.

Once we close down, however, we risk becoming judgmental and opinionated. More importantly, we miss out on what others have to share with us.

SKILL #2: RESILIENCE — MENTAL TOUGHNESS MEANS WE ADAPT TO OVERCOME

The ability to pick ourselves up when life knocks us down is called resilience. In today’s competitive culture, resilience has become a critical skill because it takes more than talent to succeed.

Resilient people do not blame others, whine, or complain about how unfair life is. Yes, life can be unfair but that is no excuse to give up.

As a new FBI agent, I learned to be bold, take risks, move into my discomfort zone, and put myself out there, even when scared to death of what I might face. The way in which we adapt to overcome our adversity determines how we will achieve success.

More than talent, more than education, more than experience, the ability to bounce back from setbacks determines who will succeed and who will fail. That is true in the classroom, in sports, and in the boardroom.

Here’s a breakdown of resilience:

1. Confidence—if you don’t believe in yourself, how can others believe in you? When you’re knocked down in life, you must have enough confidence in yourself to get back up, find a way to move forward, and adapt to overcome.

Lack of confidence can rear its ugly head at any time. No one is immune because we are most vulnerable any time we’re out of our comfort zone or experience change in our life. We must face our fears. If we have confidence in ourselves we are not afraid of how others perceive us, afraid of commitment, or afraid of failure.

Confidence is a critical building block for a successful career because it is the one mindset that will take you where you want to go.

2. Take Risksmost of us don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re truly challenged. And most of do not want to be truly challenged because we don’t want to fail.

But failure can be very beneficial for building confidence because it allows you a perfect opportunity to 1) learn why things went wrong, and 2) see how you can make adjustments next time.

When learning how to make an arrest or interview a terrorist I needed to take risks, fail, and learn from my mistakes as much as possible before I found myself in the actual situation.

If you think you never make mistakes, you are a narcissist—either that or stupid. But if you are humble and self-aware, you recognize that taking risks, making mistakes, and failing will help you understand that there is always something you can do to be better.

3. Self-Limiting Beliefs as children we think we can conquer the world, but somewhere between childhood and adulthood, our enthusiasm and natural inclinations to dream big are squashed. Parents and teachers start imposing their own beliefs—about what we can and can’t do in life—upon us.

It’s tempting to give up and not try for anything beyond the predictions and admonitions of others. While many of these people are well-intentioned, they feed negative, limiting, and inaccurate narratives about what it possible once you put your mind to it.

If the instructors at the FBI Academy were not pushing us past our self-limiting beliefs, they weren’t doing their job.

SKILL #3: WILLPOWER — MENTAL TOUGHNESS ENABLES PERSONAL MASTERY

The capacity to say “no” to the call of temptation and desire to quit is called willpower. It is the ability to find the energy, motivation, and enthusiasm to keep going even when you’re tired, anxious, and looking for a way out.

Many people could improve their lives if only they had more of that mysterious thing called willpower, but most of us do not believe we have enough of it. In the American Psychological Association’s annual survey on stress, people cited lack of willpower as the No. 1 barrier to following through with changes that would improve their lives.

Willpower is something that can be learned and can be strengthened with practice. It’s also a vital component of mental toughness.

Here’s a breakdown of willpower:

1. Grit—it keeps FBI agents on a case when there is no easy answer in sight. Sometimes, in order to find a kidnapping victim or arrest a terrorist, agents need to rely not only on their skills and training, but also on their sheer will and determination to cross the finish line.

Jack Dempsey once said, “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.” He was talking about perseverance, persistence, and determination—grit.

Researcher Angela Duckworth has found that grit is more predictive of success than IQ in military academies like West Point. In fact, grit is unrelated, or even negatively correlated, with talent. When working with West Point cadets, she found that those who scored higher in grit had the mental toughness to keep going when times got tough.

The high score on grit surpassed other tests such as SAT scores, IQ, class rank, leadership, and physical aptitude when it came to predicting retention rates.

2. Performance Focus—unless you know your limits, you will not be able to prepare either your mind or your body to move past them. To move toward peak performance, you need to stretch your current skill level—but not so hard that you want to give up.

Experts agree that this magic stretch is 4% greater than our skill. For most of us, that’s not much at all. However, it’s important to keep that continual tension between stretch and skill if we want to move toward our peak performance.

Managing time wisely and developing good habits are essential if we want to push our limits and reach peak performance.

Never be content with mediocrity.

3. Mastery—research on elite athletes has found no correlation between innate talent and trainability. Mental traits were just as important as fitness level in differentiating top athletes from amateurs.

Successful people spend their time thinking about what they want to do and how to make it happen. And it doesn’t always take talent; it needs flow to make it happen. Flow is described as a state of deep absorption in the activity during which performance seems to happen effortlessly and automatically.

According to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow happens when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge so it acts as a catalyst for learning new skills and increasing challenges.

SKILL #4: ATTITUDE — CHAMPION MINDSETS ARE THE PRODUCT OF MENTAL TOUGHNESS

There’s a long-standing belief that happiness makes people achieve more. However, a study by sports psychologist Tim Woodman shows that happiness is not the key to success. In fact, it didn’t factor anywhere in the results.

Instead, those who were most successful had experienced a negative, critical event in their life—such as death, the divorce of parents, disease, or some other perceived loss—all fairly early in life.

This is when they kicked into high gear and began to develop their talents and skills, and in the process, changed their life course almost immediately. As a result, they felt valued, important, and inspired—perhaps for the first time.

What stands out in Woodman’s study is that these same individuals also experienced another critical turning point in mid-life. It could have been positive, like finding the right marriage partner, or negative, like the death of a loved one; but it caused these successful people to redouble their efforts.

The study also implies that those who do not experience trauma or tough times earlier in life are less likely to have the drive necessary to achieve peak performance. The mid-life event reminded them of the original loss and motivated them at a deep-seated level.

This is a common finding among successful people; they have a deeper motivation that pushes them toward fame, happiness, or money.

Here’s a breakdown of attitude:

1. Positive Thinking—positive thinkers are not optimists. Positive thinkers believe they will prevail in their circumstances rather than believing their circumstances will change; optimists believe their circumstances will eventually change for the better.

FBI Agents are not optimists who hope or expect an arrest to go without a hitch—instead, they prepare for the worst and practice ahead of time.

When they do come across adversity, they don’t wait and hope things will change for the better. They adapt quickly to the new situation and remain flexible by choosing to remain positive so that they will find a solution.

Visualizing your successful performance is based on solid science. By visualizing your performance repeatedly, your brain stores that information as a success.

The way in which we look at ourselves, and our circumstances, dictates our attitude when faced with adversity. To jettison those negative thoughts, you may find it necessary to express your situation differently. When you rethink, or reframe, your adversity, it helps to move it into a context that is more favorable.

This is not to make light of tragedy. It’s perfectly normal to be sad when we are immersed in a negative situation. That said, we do not need to let the crap moments produced by adversity sabotage our efforts to keep moving toward success.

2. Growth Mindset—mentally strong leaders have a growth mindset that looks at success as hard work, learning, training, and having the grit to keep moving ahead even when faced with obstacles and roadblocks.

When facing uncertainty, you have two choices: You can dread it because you are afraid of failing—you believe that failure sends a negative message about your abilities, or…

You can anticipate it because you interpret failure as an opportunity for learning and improvement.

The first choice describes a fixed mindset that does best when there is a heavy hand running the show. That way of leading may have been efficient years ago, but today’s leaders are learning that the brain power of their workforce is a terrible thing to waste.

The second choice describes a growth mindset that looks at success as hard work, learning, training, and having the grit to keep moving ahead even when faced with obstacles and roadblocks.

3. Gratitude— is a positive emotion that encourages reciprocal altruism, well-being, and appreciation. The strong and unequivocal support of others produces gratitude, and it is powerful because gratitude increases an individual’s self-confidence, provides a safety net for those times when they fall, and enhances their belief that they can overcome obstacles.

As Sebastian Junger wrote in his book, “Tribe”—“We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding–tribes. This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.”

Bonding strongly with others in a tribe provides greater security than if we strike out on our own.

Emotional competency, resilience, willpower, and attitude are the four essential components of mental toughness. Building mental toughness is a life long task, but here is the good news: Mental toughness is not something we were born with—it is something we can learn.

© 2016 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” and “Secrets of a Strong Mind.” 

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4 Responses to “The Complete Beginner’s Guide To Mental Toughness”

  1. LaRae – You have branded yourself so well. Every single time I think of Mental Toughness – I think of you. This is another excellent resource that I will be sending others to.

    Happy New Year!

    Chery

  2. Karin hurt says:

    What an incredibly comprehensive post! What struck me here is how we can build mental toughness by focused practice on key behaviors. You build confidence by having success doing things that scare us. We build empathy through compassionate practice. We build mental toughness, by practicing the behaviors that strengthen our heart and mind.

  3. Terri Klass says:

    Outstanding job LaRae in explaining the depths of mental toughness! I love the importance of being resilient because we all face challenges yet we may deal with them differently. Those of us who can bounce back and give the challenge a name and a place to park it, will often rise above the defeat.
    You have shared with us a practical yet powerful guide that every leader can grow from.

    Thank you LaRae!

  4. Alli Polin says:

    This really is an exceptional resource, LaRae. The reminder that mental toughness isn’t something that you have or not but instead is something that we should and can all cultivate over time is an important one. I know I see room for my growth here and am grateful.

    Feeling inspired 🙂

    Alli

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