PILLAR 1: Ditch the Facade, Embrace Reality
Accept What You Are Capable Of
True toughness begins long before we reach the playing field or the conference table. It starts with how we assess the situation and our capabilities. Our expectations set the stage for our biological reaction. Our assessment can affect every step along the toughness chain, biasing us to feel more pain and leading to a premature freak-out. Before we get to the point where we need to bounce back off the turf after a brutal tackle, we need the right frame of mind. Our biology is already primed and biasing us in a particular direction before facing any sort of challenge. What direction we end up going is largely up to how we see ourselves and the world around us.
True Confidence Is Quiet; Insecurity Is Loud
the key to true confidence. Acknowledging the good and bad, our weaknesses and strengths. Living with and dealing with reality instead of putting on a front. Setting our own standards. And realizing that, as Alain de Botton said in his book On Confidence, “The way to greater confidence is not to reassure ourselves of our own dignity; it’s to come to peace with our inevitable ridiculousness.”
PILLAR 2: Listen to Your Body
Your Emotions Are Messengers, Not Dictators
A systematic review found that the better our interoceptive abilities, the better we can handle stress. From elite athletes to military personnel to adventurers who experience extreme stress, researchers found that one of the keys to performing under such conditions was an ability to listen to and understand their internal state. They were able to match the feedback their emotions were giving with an appropriate response. Those who seemed to succumb to the perils of the situation struggled to read their internal signals. They were like a new athlete who can’t distinguish between pain that will go away and pain that signals a likely injury.
When we have clarity on what we’re feeling, we can keep that signal as informational with a little nudge, versus an alarm bell that dictates and enforces. Uncertainty sounds the alarm. Clarity allows us to find the appropriate button to push. Are feelings and emotions messengers relaying information? Or are they dictators pushing us toward a reaction with little or no control over the outcome? Our goal is to keep them largely as messengers.
Own the Voice in Your Head
When we are in the midst of a situation that requires toughness, our goal is to make sure the right self is in charge, that whatever inner voice will push us toward our desired action is winning the inner battle. Sometimes that means we need to combat negativity with positivity. Other times it means we need to tune out our crazy inner self or put distance between ourself and our thoughts. But what’s clear is that in difficult moments, how we respond to our inner dialogue is of the utmost importance. During challenging situations, it’s all too easy to let the devil on our shoulder win the day and cause us to spiral toward a desire to quit or throw in the towel.
PILLAR 3: Respond Instead of React
Keep Your Mind Steady
It’s the ability to keep your mind steady, so that you can choose how to respond. Whether we call it equanimity, a calm conversation, patience, or responding instead of reacting, cultivating the space to choose the way forward is key to developing toughness.
In his book Transcend, Scott Barry Kaufman, defined equanimity as “a cultivation of mindfulness and observation, of not pursuing one’s purpose with blinders on but constantly being open to new information, constantly seeking wisdom and honest awareness of reality, and constantly monitoring your progress and impact on your own personal growth as well as the impact on others. . . . Radiating warmth and openness as you encounter the inevitable stressors of life.” Equanimity and toughness work in concert.
Turn the Dial So You Don’t Spiral
We tend to think of it as a singular method: push through, persist. But as we’ve come to realize, that’s a false constriction. Being tough means being able to choose the right strategy, given your abilities and the situation. How do we square the push for equanimity and the flexibility to suppress, ignore, accept, or redirect as needed?
In discussing growing from adversity in his book Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman stated that the key is to “have equanimity as your default, but to retain the capacity for defense, fighting, and taking a forceful stand.” Equanimity is about creating the space to be able to respond. And sometimes, that means choosing to flip the switch.
PILLAR 4: Transcend Discomfort
Build the Foundation to Do Hard Things
When we satisfy our basic psychological needs, we allow ourselves to reach their full potential, to utilize the tactics and strategies discussed throughout this book to work through challenging times. Our basic needs give us a stable platform to venture away from and come back to. We can handle fear and pressure because we know that if we do fail, we will still be loved and valued. We feel that we can make progress not just in our performance-related pursuit, but as better human beings. We don’t get to this place through control; we get there through belonging, acceptance, and being allowed to be who we are.
Find Meaning in Discomfort
Real toughness is living in the nuance and complexity of the environment, bodies, and minds we inhabit. There is no one standard pathway to inner strength, no formula for making difficult decisions or dealing with the extremes of discomfort. Real toughness is about acceptance: of who you are, what you’re going through, and the discomfort that often comes with it. It’s living in that place of tension so that the needed space can be created to find the best path forward.
Here’s to embracing reality, being secure in who we are, embracing our feelings and emotions as information, fulfilling our basic human needs, and finding purpose and meaning in life to carry us through life’s challenges. As biographer Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote about the man who had to figure out how to help the country he loved navigate its toughest period, “Lincoln, by whatever combination of habit and choice, took his own path. He did not pretend to be anything other than he was.”
Be who you are. That’s real toughness.