“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
We all have the ability to choose how we react in our circumstances and given the situations we now find ourselves in, it is helpful to fortify ourselves so we choose wisely. I offer some suggestions to strengthen your mental toughness to help you thrive through these challenging times.
For the past eighteen months through the weariness of COVID, I have been inspired by studying the lives of those who stayed strong and compassionate through the hard times. An impressive example and role model is Nelson Mandela. The longest stretch of Mandela’s twenty-seven years in prison was his eighteen years on Robben Island where he endured harsh conditions in a cell block constructed for political prisoners. Each prisoner had a single seven-foot square cell with a slop bucket, around a concrete courtyard. They were allowed no reading materials and worked crushing stones with a hammer to make gravel in a blindingly bright limestone quarry. He endured and emerged to be one of this century’s most influential leaders.
In addition to being inspired by such stories, I’ve gained strength by becoming a more thoughtful observer of my own life through this journey. Here are six lessons I have learned about mental toughness in an age of comfort and entitlement.
1) Start with a compelling vision. When my father agreed to be my track coach in high school the first thing we did was establish an inspiring goal. As a former nationally ranked gymnast, he could see I didn’t have Olympic talent. But that didn’t stop him from challenging me to have a dream of making the Canadian Olympic team. He would say, “the purpose of having a dream is not to achieve your dream; it’s to inspire you to become the kind of person it takes to achieve your dream.” A compelling vision gives you a reason to have mental toughness. I didn’t get out of bed at 5:00 am to run ten miles in a freezing snowstorm. I got out of bed at 5:00 to prepare for the Olympics. What is your compelling vision?
2) Embrace the grind. When I look back over my sixty-five years, I recognize that the hardest and most frustrating times in my life were also the most formative. Challenges in life are unavoidable. If we help our children accept difficulty as a part of life and instead of making it easier for them, support them through it, they have a greater chance of success as adults. Children who learn to handle their own problems are also the ones who are more apt to thrive as adults. The Chinese saying, “Chi Ku Shi Fu” (eating bitterness is good fortune) highlights the idea that there is the opportunity for wisdom and growth amid misfortune. While we don’t have control over the situations that life will bring to us, we do have a choice of how we react to them. Life is tough. When you can accept and embrace that fact, life is no longer quite so difficult. The 40% rule, first coined by David Goggins, explains that when your mind and body are starting to tire and you feel like giving up, you’re only at forty percent of what you are truly capable of achieving. My dad said it this way: “Don’t pray for the world to get easier; pray instead for the you to get stronger, and then get to work.”
3) Be in it for the long game. Twenty-seven years in prison teaches you many things, but one of the lessons is to play the long game. According to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela was impatient as a young man. He wanted change yesterday. Prison taught him to slow down, and it reinforced his sense that haste often leads to error and misjudgement. Above all, he learned how to postpone gratification. Many of us are used to the opposite. Because of our aversion to discomfort, we confuse instant gratification with expressing ourselves. Getting through this pandemic with mental toughness means letting go of our need for immediate relief and trusting – with a firm resolve – that we will come through this – and we’ll be better for it.
4) Find your hidden power by focusing on what you can control. Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, walked with a limp as the result of years of being chained up as a slave. Great thinkers like him knew that the only thing you ever really have control over are your deliberate thoughts. You can’t control other people, you can’t control your situation, and you can’t always control your own body. So, the only thing you do have control over is your emotions, thoughts, and behavior—the essence of mental toughness. A hidden power from within is harnessed when we spend our time on things over which we have complete control: goals, values, and what we do with our thoughts.
5) Keep your heart open. Mental toughness isn’t the same as cold, callous grit. Mental toughness is more like tender courage. It’s realizing that it’s not determination but acceptance that demonstrates strength: letting go of the resistance and the war. And it means finding ways to express kindness at every opportunity. An entrepreneur with anxiety and depression whose business has taken a hit through the pandemic called me last week in an entirely different mood. He was confident and inspired and told me how one morning that week an elderly stranger pulled up beside him and asked for directions. After he found the directions on Google Maps and tried to explain to the stranger how to arrive at his destination, he could tell how confused this poor man was. So, my client then had him follow him as he drove there. This simple act of kindness made his whole day. It’s kindness – not cruelty – that’s going to get us through this.
6) Plant a garden. Even on a remote island, Nelson Mandela needed a place where he could be with himself and find strength. The early days on Robben Island were bleak. The wardens were coarse and abusive. The work was backbreaking. Prisoners were permitted only one visitor and a single letter every six months. So, Mandela decided to plant a garden. In his autobiography, he goes to great length to talk about the meaning it had for him to go through the arduous work of creating a garden amid the obstacles of a prison system, and then carefully nurturing it. It was not a place of retreat but of renewal. “Each of us,” he later explained, “needs something away from the world that gives us pleasure and satisfaction, a place apart… You must find your own garden.”
If you are interested in getting more of my perspective on living through this pandemic with greater mental strength, please join me for my complimentary webinar on Tuesday, October 26th: