Tools for the Self Directed Life

Developing Mental Toughness. 

Get on track.jpg


Under my other voices heading I present to you an article,  brought to my attention by one of my clients on obtaining objectives and success through consistency. 

The article or blog was called "The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life."  by blogger James Clear. whos work and be read on

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a good athlete? Or a good leader? Or a good parent? Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

What makes the difference?

Usually we answer these questions by talking about the talent of top performers. He must be the smartest scientist in the lab. She’s faster than everyone else on the team. He is a brilliant business strategist.

But I think we all know there is more to the story than that.

In fact, when you start looking into it, your talent and your intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. The research studies that I have found say that intelligence only accounts for 30% of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end.

What makes a bigger impact than talent or intelligence? Mental toughness.

Research is starting to reveal that your mental toughness — or “grit” as they call it — plays a more important role than anything else for achieving your goals in health, business, and life. That’s good news because you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, but you can do a lot to develop mental toughness.

Why is mental toughness so important? And how can you develop more of it?

Let’s talk about that now.

Mental Toughness and The United States Military

Sun Run  Fort Bragg, N.C., Army photo by Sgt. Gin-Sophie De Bellotte

Sun Run  Fort Bragg, N.C., Army photo by Sgt. Gin-Sophie De Bellotte

Each year, approximately 1,300 cadets join the entering class at the United States Military Academy, West Point. During their first summer on campus, cadets are required to complete a series of brutal tests. This summer initiation program is known internally as “Beast Barracks.”

In the words of researchers who have studied West Point cadets, “Beast Barracks is deliberately engineered to test the very limits of cadets’ physical, emotional, and mental capacities.”

You might imagine that the cadets who successfully complete Beast Barracks are bigger, stronger, or more intelligent than their peers. But Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found something different when she began tracking the cadets.

Duckworth studies achievement, and more specifically, how your mental toughness, perseverance, and passion impact your ability to achieve goals. At West Point, she tracked a total of 2,441 cadets spread across two entering classes. She recorded their high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score (which reflects participation in extracurricular activities), Physical Aptitude Exam (a standardized physical exercise evaluation), and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals).

Here’s what she found out…

It wasn’t strength or smarts or leadership potential that accurately predicted whether or not a cadet would finish Beast Barracks. Instead, it was grit — the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals — that made the difference.

In fact, cadets who were one standard deviation higher on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to finish Beast Barracks than their peers. It was mental toughness that predicted whether or not a cadet would be successful, not their talent, intelligence, or genetics.

When Is Mental Toughness Useful?

National Spelling Bee

National Spelling Bee


Duckworth’s research has revealed the importance of mental toughness in a variety of fields.

In addition to the West Point study, she discovered that…

  • Ivy League undergraduate students who had more grit also had higher GPAs than their peers — even though they had lower SAT scores and weren’t as “smart.”
  • When comparing two people who are the same age but have different levels of education, grit (and not intelligence) more accurately predicts which one will be better educated.
  • Competitors in the National Spelling Bee outperform their peers not because of IQ, but because of their grit and commitment to more consistent practice.

And it’s not just education where mental toughness and grit are useful. Duckworth and her colleagues heard similar stories when they started interviewing top performers in all fields…

Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.

—Angela Duckworth

You have probably seen evidence of this in your own experiences. Remember your friend who squandered their talent? How about that person on your team who squeezed the most out of their potential? Have you known someone who was set on accomplishing a goal, no matter how long it took?

You can read the whole research study here, but this is the bottom line:

In every area of life — from your education to your work to your health — it is your amount of grit, mental toughness, and perseverance that predicts your level of success more than any other factor we can find.

In other words, talent is overrated.

What Makes Someone Mentally Tough?

1936 Olympic workout of Jesse Owens and Frank Wykoff

1936 Olympic workout of Jesse Owens and Frank Wykoff

It’s great to talk about mental toughness, grit, and perseverance … but what do those things actually look like in the real world?

In a word, toughness and grit equal consistency.

Mentally tough athletes are more consistent than others. They don’t miss workouts. They don’t miss assignments. They always have their teammates back.

Mentally tough leaders are more consistent than their peers. They have a clear goal that they work towards each day. They don’t let short–term profits, negative feedback, or hectic schedules prevent them from continuing the march towards their vision. They make a habit of building up the people around them — not just once, but over and over and over again.

Mentally tough artists, writers, and employees deliver on a more consistent basis than most. They work on a schedule, not just when they feel motivated. They approach their work like a pro, not an amateur. They do the most important thing first and don’t shirk responsibilities.

The good news is that grit and perseverance can become your defining traits, regardless of the talent you were born with. You can become more consistent. You can develop superhuman levels of mental toughness.


In my experience, these 3 strategies work well in the real world…

1. Define what mental toughness means for you.

For the West Point army cadets being mentally tough meant finishing an entire summer of Beast Barracks.

For you, it might be…

  • going one month without missing a workout
  • going one week without eating processed or packaged food
  • delivering your work ahead of schedule for two days in a row
  • meditating every morning this week
  • grinding out one extra rep on each set at the gym today
  • calling one friend to catch up every Saturday this month
  • spending one hour doing something creative every evening this week

Whatever it is, be clear about what you’re going after. Mental toughness is an abstract quality, but in the real world it’s tied to concrete actions. You can’t magically think your way to becoming mentally tough, you prove it to yourself by doing something in real life.

Which brings me to my second point…

2. Mental toughness is built through small physical wins.

You can’t become committed or consistent with a weak mind. How many workouts have you missed because your mind, not your body, told you you were tired? How many reps have you missed out on because your mind said, “Nine reps is enough. Don’t worry about the tenth.” Probably thousands for most people, including myself. And 99% are due to weakness of the mind, not the body.

—Drew Shamrock

So often we think that mental toughness is about how we respond to extreme situations. How did you perform in the championship game? Can you keep your life together while grieving the death of a family member? Did you bounce back after your business went bankrupt?

There’s no doubt that extreme situations test our courage, perseverance, and mental toughness … but what about everyday circumstances?

Mental toughness is like a muscle. It needs to be worked to grow and develop. If you haven’t pushed yourself in thousands of small ways, of course you’ll wilt when things get really difficult.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to create when it would be easier to consume. Choose to ask the extra question when it would be easier to accept. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have enough guts to get in the ring and do battle with life.

Mental toughness is built through small wins. It’s the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle.” We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.

3. Mental toughness is about your habits, not your motivation.

Photo Artist Jason Beamguard during  his Book Challenge 2018

Photo Artist Jason Beamguard during  his Book Challenge 2018

Motivation is fickle. Willpower comes and goes.

Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again.

Mentally tough people don’t have to be more courageous, more talented, or more intelligent — just more consistent. Mentally tough people develop systems that help them focus on the important stuff regardless of how many obstacles life puts in front of them. It’s their habits that form the foundation of their mental beliefs and ultimately set them apart.

I’ve written about this many times before. Here are the basic steps for building a new habit and links to further information on doing each step.

  1. Start by building your identity.
  2. Focus on small behaviors, not life–changing transformations.
  3. Develop a routine that gets you going regardless of how motivated you feel.
  4. Stick to the schedule and forget about the results.
  5. When you slip up, get back on track as quickly as possible.

Mental toughness comes down to your habits. It’s about doing the things you know you’re supposed to do on a more consistent basis. It’s about your dedication to daily practice and your ability to stick to a schedule.

How Have You Developed Mental Toughness?

Artist Juan Coronado photo of Actor/Model Jimmy Flint-Smith

Artist Juan Coronado photo of Actor/Model Jimmy Flint-Smith

Our mission as a community is clear: we are looking to live healthy lives and make a difference in the world.

To that end, I see it as my responsibility to equip you with the best information, ideas, and strategies for living healthier, becoming happier, and making a bigger impact with your life and work.

But no matter what strategies we discuss, no matter what goals we set our sights on, no matter what vision we have for ourselves and the people around us … none of it can become a reality without mental toughness, perseverance, and grit.

When things get tough for most people, they find something easier to work on. When things get difficult for mentally tough people, they find a way to stay on schedule.

There will always be extreme moments that require incredible bouts of courage, resiliency, and grit … but for 95% of the circumstances in life, toughness simply comes down to being more consistent than most people. 

Life Coaching: The Razor's Edge of Mentoring

This post could also be titled as “The Catch-22 of Telling People What to Do.” For in my work with people, topics such as


seem to come up all the time. Also questions such as :

“Am I in the right job for me?”

"Should I marry this person?"

"What can I do to make my body look better?”

“Is this a better career choice for me to make the money?”

In my practice of helping people come to their sense of Holistic Living these are just a few of the typical questions I tend to receive from clients who come to me for insight into the workings of their lives.

Years ago, in the 1980s, which were in my early days of working with clients in the use of self-help classes, one such course I designed and taught was the male-oriented Grooming Dynamics course (which to my surprise and delight worked equally well with female clients).  Back then I would have done my damnedest to answer such questions as those posed above and done it with some sort of definitive “yes” or “no” response. After all, these people were paying me for that type of advice, right? 

Over the years, an evolution and maturity have taken place in my practices of Life Coaching and Mentoring. With expanded listening techniques I now find myself being subtler, more cautious, in my answers and, I hope, more responsible in my approach toward my duties as a Mentor / Coach, for I’ve thought long and hard about what these duties really entail. Such as: Am I truly there (as a Mentor / Coach) to make up my clients’ minds for them concerning significant life decisions? More importantly, perhaps: What are the real consequences – for both the client and myself – of saying things that could alter a person’s life forever? As tempting as it may sometimes be to “help” a person through a genuinely difficult period, there is a thin line between truly helpful counsel and unwise interference with another person’s destiny.

I can think of an example that may show what I mean: Many years ago, a friend called to say he was signing up to join the Peace Corps and within the next few months would be traveling with a group through South America. He had never set foot outside the United States, so he was eagerly looking forward to this opportunity and began preparing for his trip. Just out of curiosity, and without telling him, I decided to check international news sources to find out what I could about the current situations in those countries – and was somewhat uncomfortable to find a host of challenging diplomatic, political, and / or military challenges occurring that could impact him while he was on this trip. Yes, there was the matter of safety that was being addressed by the Peace Corps, but by and large it was the sort of backdrop I myself would probably have avoided were I planning a trip and had this information.

What to do? My first reaction was to do the “altruistic” thing by telling him what I had found and then go on a volunteered rant of my advice on the matter, hopefully sparing him the problems of a potentially terrible trip. A few days later, before I had the chance to tell him what I found, he came in so excited about his plans, what it meant to his future, on and on . . . . His words caused me to take a step back from revealing my intel and to think about words that I have heard from many sources before, “Never volunteer advice or teaching uninvited.” These were words that seemed so timely in that situation. It made me reflect all the more deeply on my tendency to offer counsel to friends or family even when it wasn’t asked for.  So I buttoned my lip and wished him the best trip possible.

Well, as it turned out, my friend’s trip proved to be a life-changing experience in ways neither of us could have foreseen. While he was in one of those remote regions of South America, a local villager had an accident and suffered serious injuries; my friend, who had already gone through American Red Cross basic first aid training and had a working knowledge of the Spanish language, became involved in the life-saving efforts until medical assistance could arrive. The scene, I could imagine, was one filled with chaos and anxiety. Yet for my friend this experience marked a key turning point in his life. Not only did it bring him into contact with an aspect of a foreign culture he wouldn’t have experienced otherwise, but it also served as a catalyst for his becoming more involved with humanitarian activities on a global scale. And there was a slim chance none of this would have even happened had I opened my mouth and volunteered my sage opinion.

A Fine Line

Since then, I’ve attempted to be much more conscious of how and when I go about freely dispensing advice to people. But what if a client asks me for advice on a major life decision? Does that violate a principle of noninterference?

If it becomes as strong a question as to send a flag up my emotional pole, then I have to stop and ask myself, “What then would my motivations for giving the advice be?” Sometimes giving advice makes a counselor, or Mentor, or Coach feel important and knowledgeable, but then the advice becomes ineffective. Sometimes it may even foster a non-therapeutic dependency such that the client does not learn how to solve problems himself or herself but merely how to ask for more advice. The sage saying, “Teach a man to fish,” comes to mind.

My goal with my clients is to be consciously nondirective. After all, who among us is truly wise enough to know all the ramifications of any given situation, whether acted upon or not? I know that no human is omniscient. We certainly cannot know all the variables of any situation, so we need to approach our discipline with a certain humility regarding our own grasp of “what is best” – or what isn’t.

I find myself asking more and more if a certain experience should be avoided simply because it may prove physically or emotionally difficult? How can we really know for sure what lessons a person might need to learn from a certain challenging situation? The history pages are filled with challenged individuals whose lives were changed – or whose lives, in turn, changed the world – by seemingly difficult experiences. Much as I hate to admit it, I fear that, 40 years ago, I probably would have done all I could to steer such a person away from potentially difficult situations.

So we find ourselves on the Razor's Edge as to what is the solution. Do we simply refrain entirely from giving advice or pointing the client in one direction or another?

Not necessarily. But first we realize that we cannot think about the clients questions from the viewpoint of our own values and well-being. The question has to be reframed.

First, I try to remember that I am consciously playing a role. My role could be as simple as a passenger in a car with a map on my lap of the destination. The driver of the car (the client) has come to a fork in the road. I can point out the different prongs in the forked road, with the amount of miles each has, as well as curves, hills, switchbacks, and scenic views each would have, but it is ultimately the driver that must decide which course to take.

Secondly I and the client are in a state of conscious investigation of our Emotional Intelligence. (That is, coming to recognize the part emotions play in the decision-making process and how that play of emotions might have unconscious factors attached that affect decisions in thoughts and behavior.)

Thirdly, I provide my clients with strategies for how to come to the Truth of their problems. I am not there to make up my clients’ minds for them, nor to tell them how to live their lives; rather, it’s to draw out of them accurate information vs. unconscious playback loops of what they believe to be best: help them make their own decisions by drawing out their own inner wisdom and intuition in situations.

An example to illustrate how this might work is: An individual comes to me, tells me he is an A-Type personality and asks whether he should marry someone who, it turns out, is also a heavily A-Type personality. Taking a simplistic and judgmental approach, I might well look at this situation and tell him that two A-type individuals forming a partnership could make for a fairly competitive or volatile combination and, for that reason, might best be avoided. But taking a more nondirective, non-coercive approach, I could instead engage the client in what he is looking for from this relationship. I could ask the client to point out the potential problems he could encounter along with the potential perks that could arise from such a union. Indeed, such competition and or volatility might prove to be the very thing that a given individual might want in a relationship. Once clarified it is the client’s decision as to which way to go with it.

I can recall hearing my teacher say: “If you want to end a relationship with such and such person, simply stop arguing with them. They’ll get bored and go search out someone else to do battle with!” The key here is not to tell the client what to do, but merely help to illuminate his choices.

Helping Clients Help Themselves

The other point I want to make, which is many times so simple or apparent that it is disregarded, is best illustrated by a quote from Douglas Adams, who said, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Which is in keeping with the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, those fictional characters from the book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Alice asks the Cat “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

There is no such thing as the one right choice. It is more to do with the uniqueness of each of us. We must learn to get to know and then honor our authentic selves; then comes a realization that at the root of the things we desire is the authentic self within. It is that driver, that evolutionary impulse that has driven humanity forward and expresses within us, through us, and as us; that spark that drives us to want to be ourselves and know ourselves through the symbols of our desires. Decoding the symbols leads us to who we are meant to be. This is the only way we can ever find true happiness and fulfillment.

In some ways, even more importantly: My job as an Ontologically-based consultant is to help clients to get in touch with their own reserves of intuition in situations and to draw upon those reserves when making their decisions regarding these situations. Like our fairytale characters Alice and the Cheshire Cat these archetype symbols prove a useful analogy. The symbol is never really intended to simply answer questions about major life decisions, but rather to provide a series of metaphorical images that could serve to unlock an individual’s own inner wisdom regarding those problems. By reflecting on a symbol that arises in response to a question, one begins to understand the hidden dynamics underlying everyday situations.

Archetype symbols have been with us for centuries, in every culture and on every continent.  There is profound wisdom contained within them, that draws on unconscious resources about life or our hidden talents - if we could but learn to trust and tap into them by slowing down the mind chatter to accept this input when contemplating a decision; to be aware, to listen for that certain “yes!” whispering from deep within as you contemplate your options. More often than not, I find that people already know at an intuitive level the right thing to do – they’re just looking for an outside confirmation of that inner knowing.

How I’ve come to see my role as Mentor in the lives of people who come to me for advice or insight is to realize that each person that I engage with has a unique life, as vivid and complex as my own, with their own calling, which is a calling demanding to be drawn out and realized by them.

The stance I take regarding my role in this process isn’t popular with every one of my clients, especially those who are looking for someone to take responsibility for their lives. But with each passing year I’m convinced that this is the wisest approach both for them and myself. It leaves me with a clearer conscience about my impact on others’ lives and in my own role as a Mentor / Coach.