September 13, 2011

I recently read an interesting write-up from Men’s Health Magazine with six Navy SEAL tips on achieving mental strength. It’s not so much an article as it is six bullet points with brief thoughts from Navy SEAL Master Chief Will Guild on his six principles. I think the six principles he lists are so fundamentally important to the development of mental strength in people from any background, that I felt compelled to expand on his thoughts.

First, it is important to draw a distinction between mental strength and mental toughness. I used to talk about the importance of mental toughness and how it must be developed in young people so that they can achieve their fullest potential. I now believe that I was wrong in advocating for mental toughness. From now on I will be advocating for mental strength.

You see, mental toughness refers to one’s ability to endure hardship. There are thousands of examples of folks who have perfected the art of enduring difficult circumstances due to their impressive level of mental toughness. It may be admirable, but it is hardly ideal. I believe that to truly triumph, one needs to develop mental strength rather than just mental toughness. Mental strength refers to one’s ability to overcome hardship. The difference is not so subtle – it is the difference between a lifetime of sustained pain and a lifetime of sustained achievement.

The mentally strong individual is one who is not satisfied with enduring hardship. The mentally strong individual is one who has developed the ability to confront hardship and manifest positive outcomes by exerting power over circumstance. The key here is power. Think of the following boxing analogy. A “tough” boxer is one who can endure a beating without quitting, while a “strong” boxer is one who can project “power” over his opponent in order to win the fight while only enduring as much of a beating as is necessary to prevail.

In order to reach our goals, we must become powerful people. And power is the key to mental strength. The following are Guild’s six principles for achieving mental strength with my analysis on why each principle matters.

1. Put Teammates First!

According to Guild, we all have an exoteric responsibility to take care of other people, an ethic that is largely missing in our American culture. It seems as though we live in an increasingly narcissistic, self-aggrandizing society which places the “me” ahead of the “we”. Just think about how many folks you know who spend hours every day on Facebook and Twitter boasting about how awesome they are without bothering to take a few minutes to write a thoughtful note to their friend who just completed her first 10k marathon. It’s sad, but true.

One cannot achieve mental strength without first reaching an understanding of what it means to be a team player. And that means putting others first. It doesn’t mean that you have to fade into the background or play a supporting role. It simply means that life is a team game. You cannot win if your team is losing. Understanding this concept is the first step in achieving mental strength.

2. Second-Guess Yourself!

The Internet is littered with articles encouraging you to stop second-guessing yourself. These articles want you to believe that your first impulse is often your best self. Doubtful. Going with your first impulse (or with your gut) doesn’t make you courageous. More likely it means you are impetuous and naive. Navy SEALs and elite thinkers everywhere are taught to second guess themselves. The best answers often take time to determine.  According to Guild: “who you are is your second or even third thought.”

Pacific Ocean, heading south to the Navy ship yard. The USS Midway waiting at the dock

3. Allow Yourself to Fear!

Fear is a tricky emotion because it can completely debilitate us or cause us to act irrationally. Most people think that by locking fear away inside of themselves (or completely ignoring it) they have overcome their fears and are now prepared to think rationally. This doesn’t work. Fear has a way of reconstituting itself as hostility, despair, or even hatred. You cannot overcome one negative emotion by assuming another.

Instead, you should allow yourself to be afraid, understand what it is that you are afraid of, and then recognize that most fear comes from a lack of information. Once you have gathered sufficient information, you will have positioned yourself to overcome your fear. If you are mentally strong, you will put fear in its place instead of allowing fear to dominate you.

4. Control Your Emotions Physically!

We all understand that the mind controls the body, but so few of us understand that the body also controls the mind. Science is proving that simply tightening our muscles helps strengthen our willpower. There are many ways that your body language will affect your emotions instead of the other way around. Simply clenching your fist can help you deal with stress and improve your self-esteem.

Haven’t you ever wondered why military warriors and corporate titans are obsessed with perfect posture and strong body language? Guild suggests you ask a friend to study your posture when you are happy and then practice using that posture. Mental strength requires harmony between body, mind, and spirit.

5. Break Big Goals into Small Targets!

It is so easy to become overwhelmed with life that many of us simply retreat into a dark corner and surrender to the forces of apathy. This is a losing strategy. Life can be difficult and obstacles standing in your way may seem insurmountable, but if you take time to plan your approach, things become much more manageable. Breaking big goals down into small, manageable tasks allows you to work toward your big goals in an empowering instead of an intimidating way. Even if you aren’t sure how to accomplish your big goals, it is still important to keep moving forward. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

If you haven’t yet identified any big goals you are trying to work toward, I often advise people to make sure they accomplish one significant thing every day. It could be something as big as doing your taxes or as small as taking a relaxing walk in the park. The point is that every day should be at least somewhat productive. If you find yourself getting ready for bed and still feel as though you haven’t accomplished much that day, it may be time to drop to the floor and bang out a couple of sets of situps and pushups. Anything to keep your momentum going as you head off to dreamland.

6. Have Faith in Yourself!

If often shocks me how easily people undermine their own dreams by allowing self-doubt to enter their personal space. It doesn’t matter where that self-doubt comes from. It can come from the people you surround yourself with, the movies and television shows you watch, or it can even grow from within, origins unknown. Once self-doubt enters your world, it quietly infects your subconscious mind and slowly chips away at your confidence, eroding any ability you once had to compete.

According to Guild, faith in oneself is the most important part of the mental strength formula. Guild reinforces this idea to his Navy SEALs by reminding them that “you are a lot stronger physically and mentally than you think you are.” You don’t ever want to look back at your life and wonder what you could have done if only you had more confidence. You must be proactive and immediately remove any haters or negative influences from your life. You were born to be great in your own way. Every mentally strong person understands this.

Will Smith sums it up better than I can…

Read more: The Daily Garriga