Management Skills: 5 Ways to Develop Mental Toughness 

“History is only the pattern of silken slippers descending the stairs to the thunder of hobnailed boots climbing upward from below.”
~ Voltaire

This guy was tough.
This guy was tough.

All Demma’s are tough. That’s what I tell my kids. Then I give them the history lesson. From my great grandpa who came to America from Italy to lay bricks in the hot sun, to my grandpa who grew up in the depression and fought in Saipan, to my old man who worked 90 hour weeks at a small business to provide for me and my sisters. All faced adversity and overcame it with mental toughness.

But what about me? Am I tough? I mean, I’ve had a pretty smooth run at life so far. I’m no rich kid, but I’ve never been poor or hungry, and I’ve been lucky to have been born with (slightly) above average intelligence, good health, and a decent eduction.

The struggle is not that real.

Toughness is so important in business (and in life in general). Also called determination, will or perseverance, toughness is the machine that overcomes the forces of friction working against executing a business plan. And valuable allies in business admire and seek out colleagues who can overcome adversity, while competitors are deterred by an adversary who never gives up. From a career standpoint, toughness is what gets high potential individuals to actually take the next step forward, even after years of ups and downs.

Maybe you’re like me. I know you have an Internet connection and you speak English, and these two small facts alone give us a massive advantage over literally billions of people in the world.

How do relatively advantaged middle class people of the developed world keep the edge, work ethic, and values their immigrant ancestors had? Here’s what I’ve done.

1. Inoculate myself to adversity through physical activity. Growing up I toughened up a bit from playing football (poorly) and wrestling, especially from grueling and grinding wrestling practices. Today I train Jiu Jitsu twice each week. Last week I got matched up with this guy who was at least 6’5″, 250. He was a visitor to the gym, so he had no technique. He just smashed me.  As I lay on the mat underneath this dump truck of a man, I really just wanted to tap (quit). But I didn’t panic. I thought about it for a second. He wasn’t going to injure me, he was just smothering the hell out me. I knew if I tapped I’d regret it, but if I could made it to the end of the round I’d be better for it. So I hung in there.

Not into combat sports? I find most forms of physical exercise build mental toughness: jogging, sprinting intervals, weight lifting, yoga, or even sticking to a strict walking routine can all build will over time.

2. Stick to a strict diet and maintain a healthy weight. I eat three times each day. That’s three times when my will is weak and I have a choice to make. I can choose the easy burger or the hard choice, a salmon salad. I hate salmon salads. But I’m eating one for lunch today. I don’t always win the daily tests of will, but I try to win more than I lose.

3. Forced privation and frugality. We’re pretty cheap. My car has over 200,000 miles on it, and I left any debt I carried on it behind about 100,000 miles ago. We don’t have cable. We grocery shop at Aldi, and almost never eat/order out.

I find people who make good money and complain about being “broke” while they drive a new $45k SUV and paying someone to plow their snow to be the most offensive types of wimps in the world. Waste is rot. I know if we were wasteful wimps and we had to face real adversity like losing a job or our health then our house of cards would quickly tumble. We’ve learned how to live within our means from my favorite personal finance blog, Mr. Money Mustache.

4. Finish everything I start. And never quit. I’m kind of wired for this. I’m extremely goal oriented. I finish books I hate even if they take me over a year to read. I volunteer for committees or projects that end up sucking, but I always make good on my commitment. I’m the guy that actually keeps New Year’s resolutions (which is why I’m actually scared to make them).

And I try to start projects or activities that are brand new to me. Getting out of my comfort zone helps me build humility, the equally valuable cousin of mental toughness.

5. Practice Gratitude. I’m glad I’m at least vaguely aware of how insanely lucky I am. I honestly feel guilty for my good fortune, like I don’t deserve the straight flush I was dealt. To stay grounded, I remind myself daily that someday we all lose everything.

I couldn’t control how lucky I was to be born me, but I can control the degree to which I honor my blessings. “There but for the grace of God goes me,” and if someone who is destitute today was suddenly given my advantages tomorrow, they wouldn’t piss them away. So I work hard at fulfilling my potential.

Will any millennials be as tough as their Greatest grandparents? I doubt it. I know I’ll never be as tough as my forefathers, but that’s not what they had in mind for future generations anyway. They worked hard, so that the next generation would have it a bit better than they did. All we can do is try our best to honor their legacy.

And I think I’m doing OK so far. I’m for sure the toughest guy on my cul-de-sac.