15 Takeaways on "Mental Toughness"

I guess we'll never know what Harvard gets us--until now! Recently, I read "HBR’s 10 Must Reads: On Mental Toughness". I came across this book in the airport bookstore, and I am glad that I did. The concept of mental toughness is not new to me. I had first learned of it in Officer Development School, maybe 3 weeks into attempting the float test. As a requirement of ODS, I had to complete a swim test. I had successfully jumped from a 10 foot platform into 12 feet of water (scary) and swam 50 yards, but the five minute float test became a giant. Every day, I would go to the pool at 0600 and attempt to float for five minutes. This went on for 4 weeks until I passed the test on the last possible day to do so. 


When I was about eight years old, I went to my first pool party and jumped into a pool, because I had seen many people do it on tv. I didn’t realize this was a skill that had to be learned, because, well, they never showed that part on tv. It goes without saying that I had never learned this skill and quickly realized it as my vision turned blue and I was swallowing the second liter or so of pool water. My big cousin pulled me out, thank God.


This episode, scary to recall now, did not frighten me at the time. I did not know what fear was at eight years old. So how could it be blocking my progress now, many years later? These are questions I asked of my ODS swim buddy, a trained clinical psychologist, and former U.S. Coast Guard. In order to pass my float test, I needed mental toughness. I had to believe I could do what I did not know I could do. It took me four weeks but I floated and passed my test on the last possible day to do so.


Perhaps this is why the idea of “mental toughness” was so appealing to me. Growing up, I was only ever seriously encouraged to be academically tough. To read, write, study, apply and earn awards and scholarships that would position me to be a health professional. I am grateful for this study, but now wish to apply myself to other goals. To be mentally tough, physically and emotionally tough. Below are some gems from “On Mental Toughness” that I found intriguing:


1.     “I never made any sacrifices, I made choices"

2.     “Elite performers are masters of compartmentalization”

3.     “Another thing that helps star performers love the pressure is their ability to switch their involvement in their endeavors on and off. A good way to do this is to have a secondary passion in life.”

4.     “Make sure you train with the people who will push you the hardest.”

5.     “Without victory, celebrations are meaningless.”

6.     “One of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances.”

7.     “Happiness is not a function of your circumstances, it’s a function of your outlook on life.”

8.     Four essential leadership skills: (1) ability to engage others in a shared meaning (2) distinctive and compelling voice (3) sense of integrity (4) adaptive capacity

9.     “Failure is a nearly inevitable part of work; and along with dashed romance, it is one of life’s most common traumas”

10.  “People who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable”

11.  “Your brain is not an island—it is part of a system that benefits from cardiovascular exercise, good diet, and proper sleep habits" 

12.  “The enemy is not stress, it’s linearity—the failure to oscillate between energy expenditure and recovery”

13.  “Visualization can literally reprogram the neural circuitry of the brain, directly improving performance” Laura Wilkinson

14.  “Use facts and the principles of fairness, rather than brute force, to persuade others"

15.  Interview with Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology:

1.      usual response to trauma is resiliency, and sometimes growt

2.     (1) Mental toughness (2) leading with strengths (3) new social skills for leadership