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The Secret To Overcoming Adversity Isn't Discipline

I’ve been asked before the “secret” to building mental toughness and overcoming adversity. The “secret,” I say, isn’t a secret but a simple, timeless truth that bears repeating (and remember, simple isn’t easy). That secret is this:

Make a decision and go with it.

That’s it.

I remember waiting for Hell Week to begin in BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training) and students asking an instructor the secret to making it through the miserable five and a half days. “The secret," the instructor said, "to making it through BUD/S, is knowing you’re going to make it through BUD/S.”

In other words, the "secret" was belief.

If You Don't Believe In Yourself, Why Should Anybody Else?

You need to believe that you’re the type of person who has the capability and the capacity to make shit happen--to achieve the goal(s) you set for yourself. Don’t worry about what might happen or what could happen and definitely DO NOT play the "what if?" game ("What if I'm wrong? What if XYZ happens? What if XYZ doesn't happen?"). 

It's important to consider alternatives and possibilities, yes, but be careful. The pursuit of possibility is an endless chase that doesn't catch anything--except frustration.

The key to doing anything extra-ordinary is belief. More specifically, it’s belief in two areas:

1. Your self-image

2. Goal feasibility

In other words, are you the type of person who’s capable of achieving said goal, and is doing so likely? If you’re a marathon runner and want to run an ironman, for example, chances are that your self-image supports your goal because you’re already the type of person who enjoys self-inflicted punishment (that’s part sarcasm, part truth). The feasibility part, however, is a different story. If you only focus on running and don’t build the other ironman components of biking and swimming, then the feasibility of finishing that ironman ebbs away.

Try the following five practices to build your mental toughness:

1. Reframe success.

If your definition of success feels a bit fleeting at the moment then find a way around your own perspective. In other words, the only thing holding you back is how you see the problem, so ask yourself what about this endeavor seems unrealistic. Don’t spend too much time on the negative here but definitely dedicate enough focus to identify what’s holding you back. That way, you can rectify it. If you can’t identify the enemy then you can’t beat him (or her). Oftentimes just the simple act of naming a fear or anxiety is powerful enough to quell it.

2. Visualize “right.”

Being mentally tough means having a clear end state, a clear definition of what “success” looks like. The beauty about visualization (other than the fact that it’s free — that's a joke) is that the brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. This means that the more detailed your mental rehearsal is, the more you trick the brain into thinking you’re in the moment such that when the situation actually occurs, you don’t have to think. You just act.

3. Think big, act small.

It’s okay to have a grand vision. It’s not okay to have a vision so grand that it overwhelms you to the point that you’re stuck in analysis paralysis and do nothing about it. The time to start is now. At the risk of sounding cliche (okay, it totally is) the best way to eat an elephant is in small bites. Think about the bigger picture and work backward from there.

4. Control yourself.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves — people with zero self-control (and they typically lack self-control because they lack self-awareness). If you’re unsure how you’re received by others, here’s a challenge for you: ask for feedback. If you really want to grow yourself (the mental component is only one aspect — there’s physical, emotional and spiritual, too) then take a big bite of humble pie and ask others if they receive you the way you perceive yourself. That’s a challenge — and an exercise in self-control not to get bent out of shape.

Since this isn’t exactly easy (nothing good ever is), here’s an exercise you can do to calm those nerves. Whenever I approached a hairy target in the SEALs I would perform the following breathing exercise: Inhale four seconds. Hold four seconds. Exhale four seconds. Hold four seconds. Repeat. Do this until your heart rate decreases to that of a reasonable human’s.

5. Talk to yourself.

Just don't be weird about it. Along the same lines as visualization above, the brain believes A) what it sees and B) what it hears (among many other things). So, the second a self-defeating belief pops into your head, crush it. Just push it out. Say "thank you for coming" and immediately replace it with a reason to win. This isn't the same as positive thinking. I don't personally subscribe to "positive thinking" because it can serve as a mask for reality. Engaging in positive thinking is good right up until reality sets in (you begin having a heart-attack or decide not to look both ways before crossing the street). Positive thinking is a vehicle to get around unwelcome territory, but it does nothing to get you out of that territory because it's superficial; it lays at the surface of conscious thought but does nothing to change deep-rooted beliefs.

Nothing else builds mental toughness more than consistently setting challenging goals for yourself and knocking them out of the park, consistently. Mental toughness is a muscle, and like all other muscles, it demands consistent exercise to get stronger.

When you get tired, keep going—and then keep going some more. That’s when you know you’ve hit the mark.

Adopt from my Forbes column

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