Category Archives: Persistence

How Much Can You (Mentally) Bench? Six Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness with Ron Howard

When discussing the characteristics of successful leaders, one trait is often overlooked. It’s not the need for charisma, confidence, or communication skills, we talking about those incessantly. No, it is the need for mental toughness. Famed filmmaker and actor Ron Howard discussed this undervalued attribute during a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones:

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s always been a bond trader. He said that when he recruits young talent, they have to understand math, but he loves to get men and women who are athletes, highly competitive athletes. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s because you are trying to win, right? It’s kind of a zero sum thing.’ He said, ‘No, they know how to lose. They know how to lose and get back up and go, and go hard. No one reaches that caliber of athletic achievement without losing a helluva lot more than they win. And they learn how to cope with that.’ And I think if we’re doing this type of work and you want to make it your life’s work, you have to have that mental toughness or at least that understanding.

Mental toughness is the ability to respond resiliently to pressures, setbacks, adversities and challenges. It involves remaining emotionally steady and focused while continuing to make rational decisions under pressure. Like Ron Howard’s friend, mental toughness is often associated with athletes. After all, they spend a significant amount time in high-pressure, highly competitive situations, with arenas of onlookers and the objective to achieve a specific goal within a compressed period of time.

This unique atmosphere compels athletes to learn how to conquer fears and evade despondence in their quest for victory. For instance, a recent study examining professional baseball players found that players with greater mental toughness performed better in on-base plus slugging, a key performance metric that reflects a player’s ability to get on base and advance base runners (and is considered among the most predictive metrics of team wins). They also performed better under stress, kept their emotions in check, and were able to bounce back quicker when things did not go well.

Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.—Grant Jones, Sports Psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions in seven games

This is not just applicable to the sports world. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research shows that this skill set is more reliable than cognitive or technical skills when predicting success. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider the results of her study. Focusing on new cadets at West Point military academy, Duckworth examined the student’ high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score, Physical Aptitude Exam, and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals). What she found was that while intelligence, strength, and leadership potential were beneficial, those scoring highest on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to successfully finish the initiation program than their peers.

These results were replicated in a number of other studies:

In the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers concluded, “mental toughness can be a significant indicator of potential for level of achievement and managerial position attained.”

A study in the Journal of Management found that leaders exhibiting mental toughness are more successful in obtaining their followers’ trust, respect, and buy-in. They are also more likely to be perceived as influential, while less resilient leaders who appear ambivalent or emotionally-unfulfilled are less likely to be seen as persuasive.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Price Pritchett where CEOs were asked to name the most important traits of their company, the top answers were staying power, can-do attitude, and resilience, all characteristics associated with mental toughness.

And good news! Research has found that mental toughness can be developed. Professional athletes regularly engage in training their psychological readiness. Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, coordinates daily “mental workouts” with players, including such practices as controlled breathing, visualizing a personal “highlight reel,” and imagining successes that are going to happen in the next game. You can also consider:

Practice self-control. To be mentally tough, we need to be able to manage our thinking and emotions. This means not allowing the business environment or the opinion of others to control our decision making. To do so, when experiencing pressure, immediately stop, take a few deep breaths, and assess the situation.

Be inner-driven. Mentally strong people harness their internal motivation so they can decide how/why to push themselves. They do not allow negative outside forces to hijack their thoughts and emotions.

Practice flexibility. Do you know why the Caribbean has so many palm trees? Because they bend in a hurricane. Just like the palm tree, success in our dynamic work environment depends on our readiness to adjust quickly. To remain mentally elastic, approach new situations with a creative mind, be aggressively curious, and be open to alternatives.

Seek challenges. You cannot become mentally tougher if you are not inserting yourself into situations that test your intellect, skill set, or ego.

Don’t be an expert. One trap of ambitious professionals is believing they’ve reached “expert status.” Experts fall into a routine; they see things a certain way and stop considering alternatives. Retain your probing, creative mindset and don’t let experience blind you from new possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty. Mental toughness is not synonymous with being all-knowing. But it does mean that we cannot allow ambiguity to cloud our judgment or spur panic. Think through the options and act on them. Avoid knee-jerk responses and keep your sights on the end-goal.

While we may not be able to compete with professional athlete on muscle strength, we are capable of being contenders in mental strength. Don’t let adversity thwart your confidence. Practice resilience so when the next challenge transpires, you can flex those skills and tough it out.

Weekender: Mickey Rourke on the Value of Excessive Effort

mickey-rourkeWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a round of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just one round? Because it’s the weekend!

When discussing ways to be a better leader, we cannot undervalue the emphasis placed on hard work. Becoming “the leader” often involves competing with other capable peers who want the role just as badly as you. So the question becomes, who is willing to put in more effort to get it.

On the podcast Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin, famed actor and screenwriter Mickey Rourke was discussing his early days in acting. Rourke had recently retired from boxing and was finding his way in his new career.

I use to see Al Pacino at the [Actor’s] Studio and Chris Walkin and Harvey Keitel, guys I really admired, [so] I said to my acting coach, ‘Can I ever be as good as Al Pacino?’ And she said, ‘You have to work harder than the rest.’ And I could understood that in relation to boxing.

You don’t win the fight on the night of the fight; you win the fight the 10-12 weeks that you do your road work… So with the acting, I would go to the Studio late at night, I had a key. What I would do, there’d be a bum on the street, and I would pay him $5 to read lines with me… and I was there every f—king night and I would work and I would work harder and harder.

Rourke is naturally talented. Like you, he was born with a gift. But a lot of other people are, too. Determination and some long hours are all that will separate you from the competition. Think about that the next time you take an extra long lunch or start binging your next show or decide to do a little extra shopping online at the office. No one is stopping you, but while you’re relaxing, someone else is getting the edge on you. As Rourke said, you win the fight in the time leading up the match; if you wait until it begins, it’s too late.

Weekender: Billie Joe Armstrong on Sustainable Effort

_3S21943.JPGWelcome to another addition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a boulevard of thought to start your weekend off on the right track. Why a boulevard? Because it’s the weekend!

For the more competitive leaders amongst us, our greatest and most frequent adversary is ourself. We may try to blame it on the opposing counsel of a contract dispute or that one VP who’s battling for our turf, but we are really trying to “win” because that’s what we do.

One way we own our conquests is by outworking everyone else. This is viable for a while, but as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong discussed in a recent Rolling Stone interview, its long-term sustainability is not as practical.

Armstrong started the band with a strict rule—each album and subsequent tour had to lead into the next. He felt that bands who took breaks were never the same when they returned. This led to 25 years of success until things (both personally and professionally) began to crumble. Now, coming off the longest break of Green Day’s run with a soon-to-be-released album, Armstrong has gained a new perspective.

You can’t be enthusiastic for the sake of enthusiasm. You have to get out of trying to outdo and one-up yourself all the time. [Green Day] had to break that habit, because suddenly we weren’t really being ourselves anymore… I was a little burnt out on being in Green Day. We needed to stop.”

I like his phrase enthusiastic for the sake of enthusiasm. It implies a need to prioritize efforts, work smarter (versus harder) and present a sincere version of ourself. It does not say that we need to lower expectations or embrace laziness, but that we need to conserve the fight for the times when fighting is necessary.

Eminem on Improving your Ability to Influence Others

Eminem bannerWhen trying to make a convincing argument, how would you describe your style? I’m not referring to your level of assertiveness or ability to find common ground; today, I’m more interested in how long can you speak? I use to aim for brevity, but maybe we should aspire to be more like Eminem.

Eminem has a talent that directly leads to more effective persuasion—he talks… a lot. A 2015 study by Musixmatch found that after analyzing the 100 densest songs of the 99 bestselling artists of all time, Eminem used an unparalleled 8,818 unique words throughout his catalog. This study took into account vocabulary size (the number of unique words), lyrical density (the total number of words used), and “new word interval” (the number of words after which a new word is used). The remaining top five artists included Jay Z with 6,899 words, Tupac with 6,569, Kanye West with 5,069, and Bob Dylan with 4,883.

Eminem’s ability to pack songs with so many words is not much different from the skill leaders need to appear more credible. According to research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and published in the journal Cognition, you are more likely to be perceived as convincing if your explanation includes useless (though accurate) information. This complements similar studies that found longer explanations are more effective than short ones, and audiences are swayed by explanations that point to rationale for cause/effect, even if the rationale doesn’t help us understand the occurrence.

If you’re trying to explain why someone did something, you can count on neurobabble to make you sound more convincing.—Drake Baer, Tech Insider correspondent

Before you prepare to win over your team with immaterial data and irrelevant facts, the UPenn research includes additional recommendations and exceptions that you will need:

  • Good explanations were rated better than bad explanations, even if the bad ones contained more pertinent information. Takeaway: Hone your communication and presentation style.
  • Adding psychological explanations had less of an effect on increasing credibility. Takeaway: Stick to science-based facts that are quantifiable and tangible.
  • People who are more informed on the subject matter more readily distinguish good explanations from the bad. Takeaway: Know your audience so you can speak to their level of knowledge and experience.
  • Those with advanced logical reasoning skills are more adept at sifting through superfluous information to accurately evaluate an explanation. Takeaway: Know your audience so you can speak to their level of intellect.

The next time you need to persuade an employee, team member, or client, forget about being concise. While they may ask for the “short ‘n sweet” version, adding scientific details will give you a better chance of winning their support. Eminem may be the wordsmith winner on the radio, but with your encyclopedic industry knowledge, you can prevail in your organization.

Weekender: Michael Phelps on Achieving Greatness

michael phelpsWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a wading pool of inspiration to start your weekend on the right track. Why just a wading pool (versus a Olympics-compliant lap pool)? Because it’s the weekend!

With everyone in the midst of Olympic fever, I am always inspired by the athlete’s stories of overcoming obstacles to attain greatness. Some had rough childhoods or family situations, while others had to overcome themself. I recently read about Michael Phelps and all he’s experienced in the last few years.

After becoming the most decorated Olympian in history after the 2012 games, Phelps’ personal life began to unravel. After another DUI and successfully completing rehab, Phelps had a new sense of clarity and maturity. In an interview with his agent and friend Peter Carlisle, Phelps was quoted as saying, “I’ve never really given it everything I have.” 22 Olympic medals and he didn’t feel like he had been fully dedicated.

Phelps isn’t the only one to experience this. Lenny Krayzelburg, who won four Olympic medals and roomed with Phelps at the 2004 Games, says, “Sometimes you look back on your career and say, “Did I ever swim my best race? Did I ever really maximize myself?”

This epiphany led Phelps to attempt one more Olympics, Rio 2016. Instead of “slacking” like he had in the past, Phelps committed to an intense preparation schedule where he did not miss a single practice. He also vowed not to drink alcohol until the Games were finished.

Haven’t had a single sip and will not have a sip. My body fat has dropped significantly, and I’m leaner than I’ve ever been. The performances were there because I worked, recovered, slept and took care of myself more than I ever had.

If you want to go from good to great (or in Phelps’ case, great to greater), consider what’s holding you back from reaching your potential. You then need to stop it, mitigate it, or learn how to work with it. Either way, retain the insight to see the issues and the discipline to remain vigilant against it’s negative influence.