This post is in response to a particular person’s situation but it’s also an area of inquiry that doesn’t receive anywhere near as much formalization as it needs. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of mental toughness, but very little discussion of technique because people just rely on their natural strengths and plateau at a comfortably amateur level. Melonheads typically over-rely on their executive function and vast reserves of willpower, leading to overambitious goals and burnout. Neanderthals over-rely on the guidance and strength of their obsessions, leading to supervaluation, unbalanced reasoning, and therefore frustration at the ineffectiveness of their promotion and marketing efforts to produce market adoption. Conscientious cro magnons over-rely on structural social validation for cultural ideals, leading to unbalanced and extreme levels of competition in overcrowded niches, such as virtue signalling, earning ability, or healthfulness.
In order to build a mental toughness that can be applied to self-directed behavior, we will need a more structured approach, and one that is both broader and deeper. What follows are simply a beginner’s observations based on my reading and experience.
1. Mental toughness is a set of practiced, internalized thoughts that are used to reframe a subjective experience of hardship to motivate executive function and performance.
2. These reframes are usually visualizations or stock phrases, and often based in idealized fantasies, goal achievement, or fear of failure. One visualization I like to use for sprint workouts is to imagine I’m chasing a fleeing criminal who’s going all out, so that I have to go just as hard or harder while maintaining perfect form to catch up (or else justice won’t be done!). A stock phrase I like to use for static hold exercises is “I can’t be perfect, but I can have perfect form for the next ten seconds.” A friend of mine who’s afraid of getting Alzheimer’s like a family member might reframe the choice of riding his bike each day as choosing between Alzheimer’s and a little temporary discomfort.
3. Reframes always fall into Seligman’s categories of either distraction or disputation. For example, during a long distance run a man might distract himself by imagining he’s been transported into the past to relive the feat of Marathon, immortalizing the Greek triumph with the most famous distance run in history. Or he might dispute with his feelings of hardship, by telling himself “I ran this distance last week and didn’t have a problem” or “Maybe I’ll stop but I’ll do another five minutes first” or “It would feel ridiculous to stop at 55 minutes and not be able to say I did a full hour.”
4. Mental toughness techniques are situational, specific to both the activity and the intended effect. My fantasy about chasing a fleeing criminal will not help me to refocus on my homework exercises or remain socially fluid under stress. Insofar as toughness techniques generalize into an abstract quality of all-around toughness in life, it is due to a large crystallized store of techniques having broad application and an acquired fluency in generating new ones for novel situations. If you have an IQ north of 130 it will generalize quite well after use in only two different areas of life.
5. Due to this property of situadedness, it is best to learn and deliberately practice mental toughness techniques within the context of another current obsession, rather than as a discipline of its own. If it’s something academic, use it to increase the average difficulty of your reading material, the length of time you’re able to focus on your work, and your discipline in organizing your material. I record which ones I use along with my workouts in my training journal as an essential element of improvement in those activities.
6. The difference between the organic practice done by anyone who ever attempted a difficult task and the serious, intentional practice of a professional is in maintaining a written list of your preferred visualizations and stock phrases. Track which ones you actually use, the subjective experience of using them, and objective data showing which actually work better for you. For each entry, write a description, situation, and intended concrete effect.
Description: Imagine I’m Duterte chasing down a fleeing Purdue Pharma salesman.
Situation: 20 and 30-second wind sprints.
Intended effect: Subjective experience of at least a 9/10 effort. Get heart rate into zone 4 for 20 seconds.
I keep my list in a text file on my phone and occasionally upload snapshots to Dropbox.
7. The ones that work will be idiosyncratic to you, so prefer the ones that occur to you organically if possible. My fantasy of throwing big punches in the pilot’s seat of Big O as I chest-press dumbbells probably isn’t going to do it for you if you aren’t an anime dork. That said, even the ones you like can get old after several uses so it’s better to have several on hand to rotate through, and that means you’ll have to steal ideas from other people. If you’re looking for them, you’ll see examples everywhere (especially in the idealized fictional characters you prefer).
8. There are two ways I’ve found that are good for generating new reframes from my personal creative drive: pushing through a difficult spot with pure willpower and observing my self-talk grandiosely rationalizing the performance, and paying attention to and repurposing my daydreams. It’s important to remember to transfer the idea to your written list and test it a couple times (because you’re a trained professional tough guy now, remember?).