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10 Takeaways from the Harvard Business Review on Mental Toughness

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

Last Sunday, I had anxiety — which is nothing new to me, anxiety and I go way back. In the past, when I felt anxiety, I would want to cancel all my plans, curl up on the couch, and hope that if I tried to suppress the thoughts vigorously enough, they would magically disappear.

But this time, I forced myself to a yoga class. While walking there, signing in, and sitting on the mat before the class, I sat with racing thoughts of “I should leave. What if I have a panic attack? What if I have a heart attack? Who could I call if I have a heart attack? I should just run home to safety.”

And that’s all that happened. I had uncomfortable physical symptoms and thoughts during the 25 minutes of walking to the studio and waiting for the class to start, but that’s ALL that happened. The second that yoga class started, I let it all go. I got out of my head and used those physical feelings to fuel my body through the power yoga class.

You, too, will survive 100% of the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings of anxiety. Being indifferent to uncomfortable thoughts and symptoms is the first step to mental toughness and resilience. It does not happen overnight, but if you practice it, it will become your standard response to anxiety, fear, or self-doubt. The following article is my thoughts and interpretations on the Harvard Business Review on Mental Toughness — a collection of articles from HBR authors on creating mental resilience.

#1 Learn to Love the Pressure

In the HBR article, “How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better,” Graham Jones compares the training of Olympic athletes to training successful executive leaders. Olympic athletes not only train for physical toughness, but they also focus on creating mental toughness. Jones states that “the real key for [senior executives] is not the ability to [think] fast or do quantitative analysis quickly in your head; rather, it is mental toughness.”

One of the steps to achieving mental toughness that Jones recommends is learning to love the pressure — in other words, switching your response to (undangerous) situations from flight to FIGHT. He believes that this is something you can learn — you don’t have to be born with it. You can learn to turn fear or the physical symptoms of anxiety that create fear and panic into a way where we can positively view these symptoms as excitement, confidence, and power.

I recently watched the VP of Fitness Programming at Peloton, Robin Arzón’s MasterClass on building mental strength. During her class, I took away three key points that I incorporated into my daily life:

Action is the antidote to anxiety. The only cure for anxiety is taking action and stepping outside of your comfort zone while accepting being slightly uncomfortable.

Will you be a victim or a victor today? Start your day and ask yourself whether you will be the victim of your thoughts or the victor who turns them into power.

Eat fear for breakfast. Not only should you not run away from fear, but you should use it to fuel your sense of power, just like a good hearty breakfast fuels your body.

#2 Defeat Builds Character

In the article “Crucibles of Leadership,” Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas wrote, “extraordinary leaders finding meaning in — and learning from — the most negative events. Like phoenixes rising from the ashes, they emerge from adversity stronger, more confident in themselves and their purpose.” The authors cleverly chose the word crucible as part of their title because a crucible is a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. Meaning that even in the toughest of situations — like the intensity of melting of metal — you will come out of the situation transformed into something new.

Bennis and Thomas interviewed 40 top business leaders over three years, all of which were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinct leadership abilities. Treating every setback as a lesson and not bad luck is when you will realize setbacks are a gift and not a curse. If you get turned down for a job you wanted, let that light a fire within you to go after a better opportunity. If you injure yourself during physical training, treat it as a time to take a break and work on training the mind.

#3 Live in a State of Neoteny

In the same article, Bennis and Thomas describe a characteristic of every exceptional leader that I felt needed its own dedicated section in this article. They believe that the most successful leaders live in a state of neoteny, which means the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adults of a species. They explain that living in a state of neoteny in leaders is having a “delight in lifelong learning” and “full of energy, curiosity, and confidence that the world is a place of wonders spread before them like an endless feast.”

#4 Unlearning Helplessness

In his HBR article, “Building Resilience,” Martin E.P. Seligman speaks about his time in the late 1960s when his team contributed significantly to the world of psychology with the famous study on dogs about learned helplessness. During this study, they found that dogs (mice, rats and even cockroaches) who were given a mild shock would learn to just accept the pain, even if there were opportunities to escape it.

Learned helplessness is when the animal will submit to a feeling of helplessness and accept it as their final fate, dismissing all opportunities to help themselves out of that uncomfortable situation. A version of this study was also conducted on humans, with similar findings. What is interesting about these studies is that about one-third of the animals and humans did not reach a state of learned helplessness. The studies concluded that if an individual had an optimistic outlook or believed that any situation could be changed, they did not succumb to the state of learned helplessness.

One of the teachings in Buddhism is that nothing is permanent. In fact, everything in the known universe is constantly in flux and impermanence. Once you accept this, you will realize that if you can learn a state of helplessness, you can also unlearn it. Anxiety can also be unlearned because no state of mind is permanent.

#5 Cognitive Fitness and Neuroplasticity

There is a widespread belief that the brain diminishes as we get older. It becomes more prone to dementia, such as Alzheimer’s. And although people are indeed more prone to adverse impacts on the brain as we age, it is not indefinite. In the HBR article, “Cognitive Fitness” by Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts, they claim that “it turns out that neurons, the basic cells that allow information transfer to support the brain’s computing power, do not have to die off as we get older. In fact, a number of regions of the brain can actually expand their complement of neurons as we age”. This process is called neurogenesis, not to be confused with neuroplasticity, which is equally as fascinating.

While neurogenesis is the process in which the brain grows more neurons, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired. Proving that we have the power to expand our brain as we age and potentially protect ourselves from nonfunctional dementia.

The trick to triggering neurogenesis and neuroplasticity is simple, always be learning. You don’t need to learn calculus or neurobiology to stimulate brain growth. It can be as simple as watching a “how-to” video, reading a book, or exploring a new country. In Gilkey and Kilts’s personal program for exercising your brain, they’ve discovered that “studying a new language puts you at the pinnacle of mental athleticism.” But learning does not have to be academic and doesn’t need to involve an expensive plane ticket overseas. It can be as simple as taking a walk in your neighbourhood and being curious about the plants you come across.

#6 The Four Pillars of High Performance

Authors of the Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, suggest that one must balance four levels of a high-performance pyramid to reach high performance in all aspects of life. In order to visually see that you need to focus on each level equally, I created the four pillars of high-performance graphics below. Without a delicate balance of all the pillars, you cannot reach long-term optical performance.

Physical Capacity is the most popular pillar that people believe that if they only focus on this pillar, they can achieve high performance. It is imperative to exercise your body to collect all the great endorphins your body releases. Physical exercise also helps you feel confident and assertive, but it must be considered equally important as the other three pillars.

Mental Capacity is also seen as necessary as physical, but many believe this is the most challenging pillar to achieve. Many of us struggle with mental clarity or resilience, but as important as it is to exercise your body, you must also exercise your mind. Read a book, learn a language, or marvel at nature.

Emotional Capacity is the ability to regulate your emotions, including the physical symptoms that certain emotions trigger in the body. You can achieve this by noticing how you want to react to emotional situations, like when someone or something angers you and then changing your reaction to come from a state of equilibrium instead. You are not your thoughts or emotions but simply an observer of them.

Spiritual Capacity can often be confused with religion, but in reality, it is a strong connection to a deeper sense of purpose. Whether you achieve that through prayers, meditation, being creative, or personal reflection, aligning to a sense of purpose is probably the most neglected pillar of high performance.

#7 Recognize, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Stress

In the HBR article, “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It,” Alia Crum and Thomas Crum reflect on how stress is often only portrayed as being “irredeemably bad — something to be avoided as much as possible.” Although unmanaged long-term stress does, in fact, have negatively damaging effects on the body, both Alia and Thomas see stress as an opportunity and not a hindrance. They have found that individuals who adopt a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset in their lives show greater work performance and fewer negative health symptoms than those who adopt a ‘stress-is-debilitating’ lens.

I have created the 4 R’s of managing and utilizing stress for peak performance:

Recognize: When you are feeling stressed, try to understand what is causing it. Learn to see how stress shows up for you, is your mind or heart racing, are you stress eating, are you not eating? Are you snapping at other people?

Reduce: There will never not be stress in someone’s life, and we must learn to accept that it is just part of the world we live in. But try to limit unnecessary worries and stresses that are entirely out of your control and turn your focus to the things you can control.

Reuse: Although it might be hard to see it this way, your body’s stress response was not intended to kill you. It does the exact opposite. It pumps adrenaline into your body, causing increased energy, heightened alertness and narrowed focus. Simply by reprogramming the brain into thinking this surge of energy in your body is actually positive or exciting, you can reuse that energy to perform better while public speaking or working out, for example.

Recycle: once you have learned and adapted the first three R’s of managing stress, it’s time to constantly start the cycle again and again until your standard response to stress is positive.

#8 Your Executive Brand Should Be ‘Crisis’

Sometimes executives who have only had a history of wins are the least prepared for when a failure arises or a major crisis happens like the 2008 financial crash. Leaders with fewer failures will tend to blame others and take no ownership or responsibility for the situation, often making the matter worse for their team. However, leaders with enough experience not only with failure, but their adaptation to failure, have the highest capacity for resilience and responding to a crisis.

In the HBR article, “How to Bounce Back from Adversity,” Joshua D. Margolis and Paul G. Stoltz suggest a change in mindset for executives. To strengthen their resilience, “managers need to shift from reflexive, cause-oriented thinking to active, response-oriented thinking. An example of cause-oriented thinking during a crisis is “was this adverse event inevitable, or could I have prevented it?” Margolis and Stolts suggest that instead of asking yourself that cause-oriented question, you should replace it with a response-oriented question like, “what features of the situation can I potentially improve?”

#9 Learn What You’re Made Of

In his enlightening article, “Realizing What You’re Made Of,” Gleen. E. Mangurian recounts the traumatic, life-altering event that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Instead of spending the rest of his life pondering the inequities of life, he took his experience and reinvented himself. Mangurian believes that “we are born with a renewable capacity for resilience — a built-in power to heal, regenerate, and grow beyond our known limits.”

As a consultant, Mangurian can take his learnings from his own experience and teach leaders that there is more to mental resilience than just toughness. The article states that “resilience is one of the key qualities desired in business leaders today, but many people confuse it with toughness.” Although toughness is an aspect of mental resilience, having toughness alone will not make a great leader because “it enables people to separate emotion [or detach themselves completely] from the negative consequences of difficult choices.”

#10 Switching From Post-Traumatic Stress to Post-Traumatic Growth

In an interview with Martin E.P. Seligman by Sarah Green Carmichael, Seligman suggests that there is another way to help individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is changing the mindset of their healing journey. Many people have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, but almost no one has heard of post-traumatic growth, the state an individual eventually reaches once they’ve begun to heal. Post-traumatic stress disorder is often thought of as a lifetime of pain and suffering, but post-traumatic growth shows that there is hope and that individuals will become stronger than before. In conclusion, mental toughness is not about how to suppress emotion and become tough or hard to break. It is the opposite. It is about how to learn from failure, grow from trauma, and become adaptive compassionate leaders. This is why the banner of this article does not feature a brain lifting weights and getting ‘tough’ — it is a seed planted in the rain that grows into something new and beautiful under the right conditioning.

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