mental toughness

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is decision-making with the full expectation to pay the cost of your decision out of your flesh and sense of well-being. The quality of toughness is defined by the magnitude of your motivation to make a less costly decision with a smaller intrinsic value. The opposite of mental toughness would be settling for something less than what you want.

Thinking About Mental Toughness

“Don’t stop when you are tired. Stop when you are done.” -David Goggins, (Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds).

Mental toughness is the quality that helps us do hard things. There’s a bit of a semantics problem, however. Different people may call it by different names—self-control, grit, drive, self-mastery, resilience. Each term means something a little bit different, but they all come back to doing hard things and persevering when we’d rather do something else. 

Toughness and Success

The main areas of research into mental toughness focus on success. Identifying successful people, examining them, and then trying to glean what we can is both a standard scientific process and a persuasive presentation. There is a long history of psychological research into successful people’s traits. Positive psychology, the study of positive human functioning and flourishing, seeks to achieve “a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities.” (Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi “Positive Psychology: An Introduction” Am. Psych. Vol. 55 No. 1. 5-14 (2000).) We have highlighted a precursor to positive psychology in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of psychological needs. Maslow studied successful people and determined the order or their motivations from basic physical needs on up to self-actualization. Proponents of positive psychology believe that

“psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness, and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best. Psychology is not just a branch of medicine concerned with illness or health; it is much larger.” (Id.)

To study the psychology of success, researchers study successful people.

The study of successful people tends to cause a circline of terms around something like mental toughness. If someone like David Goggins represents “hardness,” another popular term, “grit,” falls somewhere on the other side of the toughness spectrum. Grit, popularized by psychologist Angela Duckworth, is an attempted “determinate of everyday success” defined as “passion and perseverance toward especially long-term goals.” (Angela Duckworth, James J. Gross, “Self-Control and Grit: Related but Separable Determinants of Success,” Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Oct; 23(5): 319–325 (2014).). Duckworth and her colleagues have studied high school students, military academy cadets, and National Spelling Bee competitors, finding that “grit” a definable, measurable trait tends to predict success. The gritter the person, the more likely they are to succeed, writing that grit and self-control are more predictive of success than intelligence. 

Grit presumes a long-term, definable goal and short-term distractions, diversions, or attractive alternatives, contrasting with hardness and self-mastery in that the latter seems to seek out pain as a refining aspect of existence—neither matches our definition of mental toughness. They are, perhaps, different approaches or subsets of the same quality in specific contexts — hardness applying to the warrior mindset and grit to the academic, goal-oriented individual. 

Instead of looking at people, maybe we should look at traits like motivation and discipline. The problem is that what looks like discipline to the observer, may represent some intrinsic motivation of the person doing the act—some people thrive on pain. (Read more about “Motivation Over Discipline” from Brett Mckay at Art of Manliness.) Intrinsic motivation masquerades as discipline in people who are motivated to do things the rest of us would find difficult or arduous. The motivation vs discipline discussion uncovers an important piece of mental toughness: everyone is motivated differently and, therefore, their actions are perhaps not an accurate interpretation of either motivation or discipline or even mental toughness. Physical toughness, yes, but mental toughness is something different and, perhaps, not a metric we can track or quantify easily.

Quality vs. Quantity

Positive psychologists and self-help authors are trying to quantify or sell success. Fundamentally, their goals predispose them to treat people similarly across demographics. But, West Point students, spelling bee competitors, ultra athletes, are different types of people with different motivations, backgrounds, and goals, often self-selecting into their particular areas of proficiency. Studying competitive swimmers, one paper (cited in the AOM article above) discussed the differences between Olympic-level swimmers and club-level swimmers as a difference in quality, not quantity. He highlighted that the highest level of swimmers do things differently. They don’t just do more of the same things—more practice time, more laps, etc. Their attitude and approach to training are incomparable to less competitive swimmers. (Daniel F. Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers annotated/explained version.”)   

Duckworth and others focus on quantities. They develop questionnaires and scales to measure something intangible and, from there, to extrapolate to developing the trait du jour for success. Every quantity requires a standard, and that ultimately is the problem with trying to create a spectrum or measure of mental toughness. The standard is elusive, but people at the extremes tend to make poor case studies due to their biological or psychological predispositions. 

Whereas a quantitative difference is to do more of the same thing—in the case of the study, they used the examples of swimming more laps or practicing for more hours in the day—a qualitative difference “involves modifying what is being done, not simply doing more of it.” (Chambliss.) Comparing practices for success is helpful in understanding individuals but may be less useful if we are looking for a standard to apply to everybody else. 

What makes one person appear mentally tough in one situation cannot be quantitatively compared with a different person in a different situation. Instead of looking at what people do, we might want to look at who they are, both inside and outside of stressful situations. Perhaps this is impossible for a research paper.

Mental toughness is decision-making with the full expectation to pay the cost of your decision out of your flesh and sense of well-being. The quality of toughness is defined by the magnitude of your motivation to make a less costly decision with a smaller intrinsic value. The opposite of mental toughness would be settling for something less than what you want.

Learn to Bend but Not Break

“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”

~Robert Jordan

Somewhere between hardness and grittiness lies the quality of decision-making based on core values that I’m calling mental toughness. Foremost in this definition isn’t success (an outcome) but rather personal values (a means). 

I like this similar definition from Author Brad Stulberg  (Peak Performance, other). He writes:

“Over the past year, I’ve been having an ongoing discussion about the definition of toughness with people who are interested in peak performance, including therapists, teachers, business people, and world-class athletes. My collaborators and I landed here: toughness is experiencing something that is subjectively distressing, and then leaning in, paying attention, and creating space to take a thoughtful action that aligns with your core values. (“How to Develop Mental Toughness,” from Outside Online (Sept. 9, 2019) (Emphasis added)

Stulberg goes on to highlight the importance of core values. Mental toughness is situational. We respond to hardship and adversity in different ways, manifesting in everything from physical stress (or distress) to emotional reactions. Allowing these reactions to be on autopilot tends to lead to less valuable choices. Instead, Stulberg says, toughness “is learning to respond to distress thoughtfully instead of immediately reacting.” For this, he recommends identifying your core values, writing them down, and even developing a mantra for when the going gets tough.  

These core values are like lifting cues, things you identify as the proper reactions so that later, in the crucible of living, when you are under stress, your default reaction is to follow your core values.

  • Focus on measures and predictors of success limits much of the study on toughness to specific areas that may not apply broadly to most people, leading instead to subsets of toughness like grit, hardness, resilience, and so on. 

  • Toughness is qualitative and not quantitative, and each person is of a different quality. We can ascribe certain characteristics that come from toughness, but defining the thing itself is more complicated.

  • The standard for toughness is not in the difficulty of a person’s actions but lies somewhere within the individual choices we make that either align with our core values or settles for something lesser. 

When life is putting pressure on you, or you are in the middle of a tough decision, you can’t choose that time to review your core values. In those moments, your core values become your directives. They help you ignore distractions and quiet the voices that are telling you to stop or settle for something less than who you would be. Whether these core values take the form of mantras, as Stulberg suggests, or are the patterns you have built through “a practice of living,” these values help you make decisions. To be hard when you need to be hard, bend when you need to bend and demonstrate who you are through your choices and actions. That, to me, seems like the ultimate demonstration of mental toughness.



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