How to Develop Mental Toughness

I was reading a blog post not too long ago about the differences between generations when it came to childhood. In the comments section, somebody wrote something like “parents today are a generation of whiners raising a generation of wusses.”

I thought about that a while. I thought about whether, as society has evolved, modern conveniences and philosophical changes have led to generations of softies. Grandpa might tell you how he had to walk five miles to school every day — uphill both ways — to illustrate how easy kids have it nowadays.

But does having it easier make people wusses? Was grandpa’s trek to school each day something that made him tougher than the generations that succeeded him?

And Grandpa also might have faced things like the Great Depression, mandatory military drafts, the cold war, disease and despair that his heirs have not. We all tend to think of our grandfathers as tough guys — was it adversity that made them that way?

It sure seems possible.

A while ago, a friend gave me a book titled “Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court.” It’s by a former basketball player named Jay Bilas.

It’s easy to agree that if we all added a little toughness to ourselves, it might not be a bad thing. And Bilas makes some outstanding points in that regard. Since this isn’t a book review or anything like that, I’m just going to share some of his poignant views on toughness and offer my own opinion on it.

Hardness vs. toughness

One of the more interesting things Bilas wrote regarding toughness was the definition of it.

There are a lot of entries in the dictionary for “toughness,” the best, in the context we’re using it, perhaps being: “capable of great endurance; sturdy; hardy.” Another is: “strong and durable; not easily broken or cut.”

But Bilas stresses that there’s an inherent difference between hardness and toughness. Some materials are hard, he writes, because it takes a lot of energy for them to change their shape. But most of these can be broken at some point, whereas tougher materials – though not necessarily as hard – don’t break as easily, although they may bend and change shape more easily.

Bilas writes:

“In fact, I would argue that being able to bend or flex under pressure without breaking is a more important attribute than hardness. An athlete who bends without breaking and bounces back up will prevail over the hard athlete – someone who is resistant to bending under pressure but will break with enough force.”

This shows that there’s some flexibility to toughness. A lot of times, when we think about someone being “tough-minded,” we’re really thinking of a nice way of saying “hard-headed” or “stubborn.” A more polite way of saying either of those terms doesn’t make the quality any less a problem to have. Being hard-headed, which implies being inflexible, doesn’t equate with being tough. Instead, being able to withstand pressure by moving and bending with it – without breaking might be a better indicator of toughness.

I think this idea can be specifically applied to real estate. During the inflation of the “bubble,” real estate was easy. Appreciation was through the roof and financing was everywhere. Obviously, things changed and those involved in real estate professionally or as a homeowner or investor – faced new and different challenges. I’d say that those who adjusted and “bent” with the new forces of the markets, made it through and even prospered. Those who wouldn’t change their long held ideas, attitudes or practices, were broken by the real estate downturn.

Resiliency seems to be synonymous with toughness, and being resilient is much different than being hard. Adjusting to and adapting with change requires a nimbleness that simply being strong on the outside can’t measure up to.

Developing toughness

Bilas’s main (and most interesting) point is that toughness is a skill. A skill is something you’re more likely to learn than to be born with. It’s something you pick up through experience, and it’s something you can work to improve.

That theory fits in with our general notion of Gramps’ toughness. That march to school, the depression, maybe a World War — those are things that fortify a person against other adversities. If you’ve been fired at by soldiers with guns, for example, how much pressure do you feel when you have to deal with an unruly customer at work? If you’ve been through a depression, how big a deal is it to you when they’re out of the soup of the day at your favorite restaurant?

I can’t see Grandpa getting on Facebook or Twitter with a “Out of the soup I wanted. Grrrrr.”

Typically, when you go through tough times and survive, you come out of them tougher. Bilas credits his parents for instilling toughness in him. Even though they provided a comfortable, upper-middle class upbringing for him in sunny San Diego, their work ethic and, especially, his father’s way of confronting things head on, showed him what it meant to be tough.

Which brings us to his other most salient point: Toughness is not being stronger than everyone else, certainly not physically stronger. When some people think about “tough,” they might picture the big, burly guy who can beat everyone else up, or the guy no one wants to mess with.

That’s not what Bilas means by “tough.” To him, and I agree, toughness is a mental measure. Mental toughness is required in far more of life’s endeavors than physical toughness. Having the mental toughness to withstand a difficult situations and still perform at a high level — that’s what we’re talking about here. That will help you get ahead.

Here’s a paragraph Bilas wrote that sums up pretty well the need for mental toughness. It also touches on the idea that this mental toughness can be learned:

“In anything important, there will be pressure. Everybody feels it, but the toughest competitors react positively to that pressure. Competitors want to be at their best under pressure, and by putting yourself in pressure situations as often as possible, you are acclimating yourself to that pressure, and the pressure will be less likely to get in the way of your performance. In time, you will learn to seek out pressure.”

In the book, there are quite a few examples of how coaches build up this mental toughness by putting their players in pressure situations during practice, so that in pressure game situations, they have the mental toughness to handle it. This meant timed drills, drills with winners and losers – with the losers running – even practices with loud music to simulate game-condition noise.

It might be difficult to produce similar scenarios in a non-sports parts of life, but the “pressure-builds-toughness” theory is interesting enough to at least try to test in other areas of life.

For example, could one deliberately add pressure to work situations so that when they come up naturally, they’re no big deal? Instead of closing your office door or putting your headphones on when it gets too loud, could you start getting accustomed to working in the noise? Instead of getting a project done way before deadline, could you wait to start it so that you put yourself up against that deadline?

I know someone who, while training for long-distance running races, eats as cleanly as possible. Yet, she purposely keeps donuts in the house so that she can stare at them every day and still say “no.” The reasoning is that by practicing this sort of in-your-face discipline, she will be better prepared to say no when she’s unexpectedly faced with a junk food choice. In a way, she’s building her toughness.

This approach is sort of in-line with the Grandpa-tough idea. If it were things such as rough financial times, or war or the lack of modern conveniences that helped forged that generation’s toughness, you could argue that purposely depriving ourselves of certain things – at least occasionally – could build our own toughness. I’ve written plenty in the past about doing things outside of your comfort zone, and maybe operating outside our comfort zone helps build toughness.

Ingredients for Toughness

Learning self-discipline through deprivation or delayed gratification, however, is not enough on its own to develop toughness. There are what seem to be some necessary ingredients when concocting a recipe for toughness. Bilas wrote enough about certain attributes that one can kind of come up with a formula that might develop toughness. I think if you can develop the following, you can increase your toughness:

  1. Accountability. Be willing to accept both positive and negative feedback, and hold yourself accountable for successes and failures.
  2. Persistence. The easiest way to demonstrate an ability to bounce back from any setback is to keep going.
  3. Preparedness. As Bilas points out, those who possess toughness are confident. And one way you build confidence in yourself is through preparation.

The last of those points was highlighted in the book by a great comment made by hall of fame coach Bobby Knight: “Everybody is prepared to be great, but not everybody is prepared for the preparation it takes to be great.”

Bilas also mentions a commonality among several athletes and coaches he recognizes as tough: a willingness to face a problem or challenge immediately and head-on.

I have not listed this as an ingredient that helps develop toughness, however, because while vital, this quality is more a product of toughness than an ingredient of it. Accountability, persistence and preparation will help develop toughness, which, in turn, will help a person take things on rather than shrink from them. Tough people don’t shrink like that.

There’s not a person on this earth who hasn’t been knocked down in some way. It happens to everyone. Toughness doesn’t lie in the ability to not get knocked down, necessarily, because that’s something beyond your control a lot of the time. The toughness lies in the ability to get back up AFTER you’ve been knocked down. All too often, you see life deal someone a blow from which they never get up.

Toughness is also much less about imposing your will on others than it is refusing to allow others to impose THEIR will on YOU. Who’s tougher, Apollo Creed, who kept knocking Rocky down, or Rocky, who kept on getting up every time?

There are plenty of people in this world who will try to knock you down. There are also plenty of people who get knocked down enough that, eventually, they just stay down.

That’s where the old saying comes from: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Toughness is not being broken by pressure, not even the pressure of huge adversity. This kind of toughness can be learned, and it’s something that SHOULD be learned.

We could all, at times, stand to have a little more toughness.