Jim Collins wrote that there are three categories of people in terms of how they react when faced with significant setbacks in life. Some are temporarily derailed but eventually dust themselves off and resume their life’s path. Others are crushed by the event and never fully recover -- they remain dispirited and weakened. But there is a third group that uses the adversity to strengthen their metal and re-emerge stronger than ever.
People in this third category have emotional elasticity: a setback can stretch them to the limit just like everyone else, but they don’t lose their snap. These individuals are mentally buoyant and able to ride the waves, no matter how rough the seas. Notable examples of such individuals are Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart who rebounded from nearly catastrophic career setbacks to emerge in stellar prominence.
There are many terms that we can use to describe these people: resilient, hardy, resourceful, adaptive, etc. Regardless of what label we affix to these coveted characteristics, it all eventually boils down to mental toughness, a state of mind that we can all nurture and develop, regardless of whether or not we are facing uncertain or difficult circumstances. It’s a personal asset worth cultivating.
Here are 10 practical tips to help you do this:
1. Establish a “statement of grace document” for important relationships. This is an agreement between two people (or any two entities such as teams or groups) who co-create a document that is aimed at maintaining a quality relationships. The document is the brainchild of Maureen McCarthy and Zelle Nelson. It includes, among other things, a statement on work styles (how you like to work), warning signs (your unique triggers), expectations (core values and non-negotiables), and “state of grace questions” to return to a more peaceful stance, if need be. Examples of such questions are: “What do you need from me right now?”, “Have I let you down?”, or “What are the pluses that we have each brought to the project so far?” Improving the quality of important relationships builds emotional strength.
2. Cultivate a mindset of detachment. One of the qualities of individuals who are mentally tough is an ability to quickly let go. Know what you need to turn your back on, whether it is a project that no longer serves you and your constituents well, or a business partner who takes rather than partakes. Tenaciously hanging on to situations that have lost their luster not only becomes a source of emotional leakage, but it also prevents you from opening up space for what is more valuable to you and those who depend on you.
3. Resolve to maintain a laser-like focus only on what matters. We hear this advice so often, but do we follow it? Make this the year that you cut out the extraneous mental junk that robs you not only of time, but of mental and emotional energy. Alexander Graham Bell put it beautifully: “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
4. Boost your resiliency factor. Author Nan Henderson offers a free Resiliency Quiz based on research that shows certain life conditions that you can pursue to create a resiliency reserve, such as treating yourself with kindness and compassion, setting clear and consistent boundaries, cultivating positive bonds, and participating in one or more groups. Working to incorporate as many of the elements of this 18-point plan as you can creates a life anchor.
5. Accept mistakes with equanimity and composure. Having a steady mind under stress is a trainable trait. Take some inspiration from world class athletes who, time and time again, pick themselves up when they fall and continue to play the game until the finish. Keep reminding yourself of Michael Jordan’s famous quote: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” Intestinal fortitude is the hallmark of a person with mental toughness. One of the ways we achieve this is by deciding to accept any mistakes and failures as a part of continuing to stay in the game. This is a non-negotiable. When a mistake occurs, do your very best to fix it, quickly and completely, and then move on. Don’t let the chains of self-recrimination drag you down.
6. Consider that failure can be a badge of honor. First, remind yourself that today, there is no stigma to job loss. It is a club populated by some of the best and the brightest. Don’t waste time in the “why me?” platform. If you are an entrepreneur, take comfort from what Andrew Ward (author of Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters), said during a recent CNN Interview: Venture capitalists evaluating entrepreneurs’ background like to see that they have had startup experience, “even startup failures in their past. They can see they’ve had that experience, they will have learned from that experience and they know how to avoid those things from happening again.” The school of hard knocks can be a MBA on how to succeed!
7. Differentiate between constructive and destructive criticism. Any time you attempt to do something extraordinary, there will always be those who cheer you on and, unfortunately, one or two who might try to lower your spirit. Develop criticism savvy by learning to evaluate the quality and the source of the feedback. Focus on those who build you up. Tune out those who try to pull you down. Consider, as well, that there is a hidden gift in negative feedback. If you know in your heart that you are pursuing a worthwhile goal, then any gratuitous destructive criticism can only strengthen your resolve to continue. Use the energy generated by the negative feedback to push you forward rather than sideways.
8. Strengthen the bridges to your community and network. The classic model of coping with difficult change for all of us is SARAH: Shock, Anger, Rejection, Acceptance and Hope. Don’t let the first three stages, no matter how challenging, immobilize you and prevent you from availing yourself of anything that is offered. Stay highly engaged, go to all the meetings, start a blog, join a group. Thank anyone who eases your way and don’t neglect your social tribe. People remember most how we behave in difficult times. Don’t let these temporary setbacks cause a dint in your professional persona. Take this as an opportunity to fortify relationship bridges rather than let events weaken bridges that you spent years in building.
9. Know how to quiet your mind. Nearly 5 percent of American adults are prone to some manifestation of anxiety disorder. Anxiety is like a frozen curser. You know where you want to go but you are stuck. Reboot yourself with a program to help you develop an attitude of inner calm. This is a prerequisite for mental toughness and is a resiliency builder. Consider adopting some of the seven steps in Henry Emmons’s The Chemistry of Calm, which include balancing brain chemistry, aligning with nature, skillfully facing emotions and cultivating a good heart.
10. Listen to upbeat music. There is a large body of scientific evidence that attests to the powerful effect of music on our physiological and emotional well-being. Upbeat music, in particular, decreases the level of cortisol, the hormone the body produces in response to anxiety. Assemble a personal library of upbeat tunes and listen to them on a regular basis. Here are five songs that are mood lifters:
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of mental toughness or resilience is a stubborn determination to pursue a worthwhile goal to the finish, crossing the desert to reach the oasis, even when you know that you will be parched along the way. Once we give up, we set up a lifelong habit of giving up. Vince Lombardi, considered one of the greatest football coaches of all time, said this about mental toughness: “… it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind -- you can call it character in action.” For me, it’s character on steroids.
Bruna Martinuzzi is a facilitator, author, speaker, and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a company that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, and presentation skills training. Her latest book is The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.