You can call it what you like—and most researchers do—but what all the words in the title above mean is the ability to navigate rough waters, stay the course, and achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Mental toughness (my favorite) is the key to happiness, success, and fulfillment in life and at work. Most people researching, writing, or talking about these ideas can agree on that, at least.
Although many have tried for years to come up with a definitive list of the characteristics or qualities of mental toughness, they all say somewhat different things. In my experience and in what I have seen in winners from all walks of life, it comes down to five essentials.
1. You Take the No-Parachute Approach
How do you approach new projects or goals? With caution and as many parachutes and safety nets as you can find? I first heard the term “no-parachute” from a speaker, Bill Glass, who presented to our high-school football team. Some people think of alternate goals as smart planning. But if you start with a plan for failing, you’ll be beaten before you start. It creates an easy out when the going gets tough. And those “possible goals” distract you from what should be your primary focus.
Once you make a commitment, you stick with it. Finishing should be a point of integrity, a piece of your personal identity.
Now, occasionally, you’ll be heading toward a goal and discover that while you thought it was something you wanted, and wanted a lot, it turns out that it isn’t. You aren’t excited about the result or where you’ll end up if you keep heading in this direction. In those—rare!—instances, make an adjustment to your path, leveraging the work you have put in so far to choose a better direction. If you find yourself shifting directions often and not achieving most of the goals you set for yourself, though, you’re aren’t committing. And that won’t get you anywhere good.
Ask yourself: Am I committed? What parachutes am I holding onto? Is one of my parachutes the thing I really want but am afraid to go for?
2. You Aren’t Afraid of the Grind
Winners do the work that others aren’t willing to do. They have perspective and know grunt work precedes glory. It’s a sign of their mental toughness, because they don’t want to do it either. They make themselves do it. They are masters of self-motivation and self-management. They focus on the payoff and what grunt work or the grind offers: experience, incremental improvement, and a series of small successes that build confidence over time.
Ask yourself: Do I accept the hard work that comes with new goals and projects, or do I try to push it off on other people?
3. You Use Facts for Guidance, Emotion for Fuel
A primary difference between people who win and those who don’t is how they handle the obstacles that crop up. Usually, the more important the goal or project, the tougher the obstacles. The mentally tough get just as frustrated, annoyed, discouraged as the rest of us—but they don’t let those negative emotions overwhelm them and push them into bad decisions. They know that if they follow the facts, the emotions will eventually fall into line. They use their emotions as fuel to drive them onward, and they use facts for guidance. The facts almost always reveal that any obstacle is surmountable, that other people have dealt with similar obstacles and still succeeded, and that those people are often willing and ready to offer guidance or advice.
Ask yourself: How do I handle the big and small hurdles that come my way? Do I let myself become overwhelmed, or do I pause, take a breath, and then figure out what to do next?
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” —Aldous Huxley
4. You Resist the Temptation to Cheat
Some people confuse mental toughness with win-at-all-costs thinking. Not the same. Mental toughness is win-despite-obstacles-and-while-maintaining-values-and-integrity thinking. In fact, I think people who cheat, trick, or manipulate their way to what they want lack the mental toughness to really win—to come out on the other side of the struggle feeling good about themselves, what they’ve accomplished, and the legacy they are building. Cheating is simply a way of ducking problems, and the mentally tough face problems, deal with them, and move on.
Ask yourself: How have I handled tricky ethical issues in the past? Do I go above and beyond to do the right things rather than build up a lot of skeletons in the closet?
5. You Cover the Last 2 Percent, Consistently
Are you a finisher? It is the surest sign of mental toughness. The last 2 percent of any project or goal is often the toughest. You’re exhausted. You just want it to be over. You can see the finish line, but it feels just out of reach. It’s easy to fall apart just before you earn the full return on your investment of time, energy, money, and other resources. But the people who finish regularly—serial winners—dig deep to find the necessary reserves of energy, motivation, and fight. They stay focused on the end result until they achieve it.
Ask yourself: What’s my record for finishing what I’ve started in the past year? Am I staying focused on ways to get the job done or looking for excuses to justify quitting?