Mental toughness is “the ability to work hard and respond resiliently to failure and adversity; the inner quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals.”1
In an article about this trait in Inc., Jeff Haden uses a word that perfectly captures the concept: grit. He explains:
The definition of grit almost perfectly describes qualities every successful person possesses, because mental toughness builds the foundations for long-term success.
For example, successful people are great at delaying gratification. Successful people are great at withstanding temptation. Successful people are great at overcoming fear in order to do what they need to do. (Of course, that doesn't mean they aren’t scared—that does mean they’re brave. Big difference.) Successful people don’t just prioritize. They consistently keep doing what they have decided is most important.
All those qualities require mental strength and toughness—so it’s no coincidence those are some of the qualities of remarkably successful people.2
At all times, and especially during times of change, distractions abound. We need to cultivate the ability to stay focused on what’s most important and block out the noise. When you watch an NBA player stand at the free-throw line when his team is playing an away game, quite often the home team fans behind the goal wave towels or long balloons called “thundersticks” to distract the shooter. I know how that feels, and so do you. Seasons of transition multiply distractions because little things suddenly become big things, and there are a lot more decisions, disappointed people, demanding people, and delays.
As spouses, parents, and leaders, it’s up to us to handle the strain of change so others aren’t adversely affected. A counselor commented that the vast majority of couples who come to him for help are wrestling with one or more of four issues: children, money, in-laws, and contrasting sexual desires. From my interactions with leaders who are in the process of a transition, or just considering one, they feel shaken by a similar list: family expectations, conflicting personal desires, financial uncertainty, career insecurity, and self-doubt. When we don’t have the ability to focus and respond wisely, we internalize the stress and show internal symptoms such as irritability, rash decisions, poor lifestyle choices, and physical problems like recurring headaches or chronic stomach issues, and we externalize the stress by blaming, attacking, criticizing, smothering people with too much attention, or withdrawing.
When we focus, we maintain the ability to hear competing narratives and see conflicting realities without jumping to extreme reactions. In other words, the thinking part of our brains continues to function at a high level instead of us giving in to powerful emotions. We live in truth, not suspicion, and rumor. Even when others are losing their cool under pressure, we don’t lose ours. We don’t fantasize about catastrophes, assuming the worst will happen, but neither do we rationalize, assuming bad things can’t happen.
Today, social media is metaphorically like a tale of two cities, or to use a different but just as accurate metaphor, smoke, and mirrors. When people accurately depict their real lives, with their joys as well as their struggles and fears, we’re inspired by them. Yet many people post images that reflect one thing when their realities are another. Some post glowing accounts and photos of dinners, vacations, and parties that portray an exciting and glamorous lifestyle, when in reality their lives are empty. Such unrealistic, unattainable images foster frustration for followers.
Social media also allows people to say things to or about others that they’d never say face to face. Hateful comments and videos are shared that elicit extreme reactions. In fact, hate has become the drug of choice for millions who use social media to elicit a rush of adrenaline. Those in the public eye know that at any given moment, you can be misunderstood, misrepresented, or the subject of bitter condemnation, and you can be trending without a hint of warning. I’ve gone viral a few times—once because I missed a transition in a song I wrote called “War.” Even my friends made memes about me! It never feels good, but I evolved and got tougher so now I can laugh them off (most of the time).
Mental toughness is essential for the schoolkid who experiences bullying or peer pressure, the single person who is trying to find where she fits, the husband and wife who are juggling the demands of relationships and careers as they raise their children, the boss who has to achieve production standards and meet payroll, the employees who live under the strain of meeting the boss’s expectations, those who face the uncertainty of a pending diagnosis, and anyone facing a big presentation, a big life change, a big decision or a big transition.
But there’s another side: as we become more successful and advanced in our careers, we need mental toughness because the spotlight is on us more than ever. Every step up the ladder brings greater responsibility, more complexity, and increased chances to fail. We need to cultivate rigorous thinking, carve out time to recharge our batteries, spend time with people who add to our lives instead of draining us, and learn to make minor corrections before we get too far off our flight path. When we’re successful, people often see us as something other than a regular human being. They put us on a pedestal, which may feel great for a while, but we soon realize it’s a long way to fall. We need at least a few people around us who are peers and friends, people who catch us when the pedestal shakes and we fall. They love us, not just our talents or fame.
No matter who we are, where we’ve been, or where we’re going, whether highly visible or obscurely invisible, grit isn’t optional. When we see famous people on television or in public, we may think they’re invincible, but high-profile people are human beings. Influential people are human beings. Successful people are human beings who have scratched, scraped, fought, learned, sacrificed, adjusted, twisted, turned, pushed through, bounced back, got back up, researched, bet the house, shook off fear, wiped away tears, elicited prayers and made it to their goal.
In our culture, we often treat celebrities and other successful people like they’re aliens. We’re enamored with people who entertain us, inspire us, empower us, enlighten us, motivate us, and journey with us on stage, on screen, or on the field or court. I totally get it. But remember, those are people who have had—and still have—determination to face the next opportunity, the next role, the next release, the next deal, the next appearance, the next attack, or the next set of pressures—and the responsibility of visibility on top of everything else. The more you have, the more grit you need. Courage must multiply as your life amplifies!
This article was extracted from Issue 6 (Summer 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
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