Business will always test you. It might be the loss of an account, conflict with others – or much smaller issues that can ruin your confidence and chip away your self-esteem.
So what’s this about mental toughness? And how can we get more of it?
Let’s give it a definition first: Mental toughness is broadly perceived as the ability to deal with stressful situations and pressures and still act to the best of your ability no matter how hostile or unpleasant the environment you find yourself in.
And here’s the thing: Studies have shown that mental toughness can account for a variation of 25% with respect to quality of performance, which means it can have a huge impact on the outcome of a situation.
Translate that to the tennis court, the football pitch, the boxing ring – and yes, the entrepreneurial playing field – and we see the clear role mental toughness plays in victory.
Studies have shown that mental toughness can account for a variation of 25% with respect to quality of performance.
Just look at the stories of those elite business leaders. Steve Jobs, for example, was ousted from the company he founded – a potentially crushing blow. Did it end his career ambition? Not at all. He went on to build Pixar into a multi-billion dollar company before eventually returning to Apple to shape it into what would go on to become the world’s most valuable company in terms of valuation.
The mentally tough are indeed at a huge advantage. That grit helps them persevere to overcome challenges that would lead most to throw in the towel for good. Call it heart – and know that it is what separates the “goods” from the “greats”.
So now let’s get to what matters: Is mental toughness or that “heart of a lion” something we are either born with or not? The answer, in short, is not necessarily. Research at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, for example, has demonstrated that it is possible for humans to develop the drivers of mental toughness – including control, commitment and confidence. Furthermore, those advantages, the research finds, help with everything from improved sleep, to quicker recovery from setbacks, to greater happiness levels, to, yup, being able to deliver better performance overall.
Final question: If mental toughness can be learned, then how so exactly? As you can imagine, a lot of it has to do with your mental approach to life. Let’s then explore five things you can do to alter your approach in order to strengthen your mental armour.
1. Focus on your fears
It’s natural to avoid things you fear. But what happens when you do is that you let those things control your actions and, essentially, weaken you. The solution is rather obvious and that is to get the control back by confronting your fears by doing those things that scare you (or that you think scare you).
Obviously you don’t have to do everything that scares you. I wouldn’t cover myself in cockroaches to try and overcome a fear of those critters, for example. But if we are speaking about business and things you need to do to help improve your business, then it is important to face the challenges directly.
So if it is the fear of public speaking, of pitching, of confrontation, of saying what you mean, of risk – you get the idea – then start exposing yourself to the difficult situations more and more. Engage in those “fear zones” if you want to have any hope of conquering them, and know that you will probably end up realising that they were not nearly as scary as you thought.
There’s a great phrase used by Navy Seals: “It’s all in the mind. If I don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Make those difficult tasks easier by exposing yourself to them and you will be in more control. It’s about garnering the self-knowledge that you are capable and will prevail.
2. Don’t waste time in self-pity
One big aspect to being mentally tough is the ability to move on quickly from failure (or setbacks), bad feelings, self-doubt, etc. In other words, to move faster and be agile and continue making progress in your business, mistakes and setbacks and failures need to be seen as stepping stones rather than weights on our shoulders.
If your natural reaction is to feel weaker and to therefore deliver a weaker effort for a while after something goes wrong, then you need to retrain yourself. Those wasted hours of self-pity are good for nothing and will obviously only make things worse. Good and bad things will happen in cycles for your entire life, so be the catalyst to make the “good things” happen again quicker after those “bad things” happen. Your speed of recovery is vital to your business success.
Heed the words of the extreme athlete, Samantha Gash. At the age of 25 she was the youngest person and first woman to complete a 4 Deserts Grand Slam – a series of self-supported ultra-marathons through gruelling deserts in four countries all in a single year. She says of mental toughness: It is “having the capacity in a quick timeframe to turn a negative experience into a positive one”.
Your speed of mental recovery when it comes to dealing with setbacks is vital to your business success.
3. Take control of your emotional responses
It was the stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus who said these choice words: “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
There are two lessons at play here. Firstly, some things really are beyond your control, so accept that.
Secondly, and much more importantly, you often need to be able to step outside of complex situations to see them for what they are and decide what to do. We become compromised when we are out of control and when we cannot fathom the bigger picture. To level out your emotional response can be hard, but there are methods, including shifting your attentional focus, consciously trying to change the way you respond or interpret the event, or actively trying to alter the negative situation.
If your first reaction is to shout, moan or criticise, try and alter that to reasoning, finding solutions, and finding the positives or opportunities in bad news.
Take a lesson from one of our most beloved inventors, Thomas Edison. His plant and therefore business burned to the ground in 1914 in a terrible fire. His reaction? He told his son to “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again… It’s alright. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish”.
The story goes that Edison began rebuilding the very next day – hardly phased.
4. Be prepared to change your mind
Mental toughness is often associated with the dogged determination that you get from boxers not quitting or business bosses sticking to their guns with a single-minded attitude. While this is very often a fair association, when considering mental strength we also have to consider that it includes the need to be flexible enough to bend in the right direction whenever required.
To really cope with any situation, in other words, it might be necessary to completely change direction and strategy. The skilled boxer may find himself in a ring with an opponent who is rendering his usual strategy useless. Rather than keep charging forward and taking the punches, a more defensive approach may be called for, whereby he has to retreat and show tremendous patience while looking for the openings.
When it comes to business, it is no different. While the stubborn often get their way, being stubborn in the face of a strategy that is no longer working will result in failure. To succeed you have to recognise when change is needed and adapt quickly. It is a no brainer, but many people get stuck on this and end up spending long periods doing the wrong thing just because it is the familiar thing.
While the stubborn often get their way, being stubborn in the face of a strategy that is no longer working will result in failure.
5. Don’t sweat the small stuff
We deal with way too much “information clutter” nowadays, so be smart about focusing on what is important and dismissing (or shelving for later) that which is simply “noise” or not so pressing.
A study by Stephen Dewhurst et al in 2012 discovered that “mentally tough individuals have an enhanced ability to prevent unwanted information from interfering with current goals.” To be more mentally tough, he says, you must learn to filter out those thoughts which are not important to the task at hand and are literally just pulling you off your path.
A simpler way to put this is “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Keep your eye on the prize and make sure momentum towards your goal is your priority. Don’t feel guilty or forced to do everything – it’s okay to sometimes (or often) ignore that which isn’t helping you. It doesn’t mean you are being selfish. It just means you have limited time and cannot let the unnecessary keep getting in the way.
Be yourself but better
Aspiring to train your mind to be mentally tougher does not mean becoming a cold, emotionless person. Far from it. It is more a path to understanding what is important and how to thrive where others (or your previous self) could not cope all that well.
Mentally tough people have a sense of self-belief over which they have more control than the average person. Perhaps it is tied to a greater awareness that they can control their own destiny, and that this is a destiny which is not at the mercy of all of those challenges and setbacks that are thrown into the mix on such a regular basis.
The wisdom that comes with age can lead to greater mental strength, but we do know that we can train ourselves to be tougher at any age. So for anyone captaining the ship of a startup or established company, spend time getting stronger where you feel you need to, because the reality is that the mentally tough go further in life, and mental toughness is in fact an essential entrepreneurial skill.