Tag Archives: Self-control

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.

New Year’s Resolutions: Why You Need One and How to Ensure Success

Once again, it’s the end of the year. A time to reflect on all we’ve accomplished… then, feel inadequate and vow to do better next year. This typically involves some grand resolution that will begin on January 1st. I’ve written about my cynical outlook regarding New Year’s Resolutions; however, if you’re ambitious and need a jumpstart, there are worse ways to expend your efforts.

Recent research compared people who set ambitious goals to those who set more conservative goals. The study found that those with bold goals are happier in the “long run.” They attribute this to the result—if you set a conservative goal, you get a conservative outcome; whereas an ambitious goal has a substantial outcome.

The moral of the story is don’t sell yourself short. Aim high.—Cecile K. Cho, Assistant Professor of Management and Marketing

There’s a caveat to the “ambitious goal = happiness” theory. In order to achieve this happiness, you need to achieve your ambitious goal. Otherwise, all you did was set yourself up for failure, which is demoralizing and will negatively affect your chances of creating future ambitious goals. Thankfully, there is a solution, and it may not be what you think.

Whenever we talk about resolutions and goals, the importance of self-control is often stressed. There is pressure to muster the willpower to stay on task, persevere through the hard times, and ultimately win. But what if there was more to it than self-control?

A study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that individuals who experience fewer temptations make more progress toward their goals than those who concentrate on flexing their willpower. In practice, avoiding temptation means ducking the candy machine when you’re hungry, or turning off your phone notifications when you need to focus. The idea is to not exert any mental energy into resisting your prior bad habits.

The connection between temptations and goal attainment can be explained by emotional exhaustion. People who experience the most temptations report feeling mentally depleted. And this mental depletion is linked to a gradual diminishing of self-control until goal success is nil.

Don’t be part of the 92% of the population who give up on their resolutions before the end of the first month. Self-improvement begins with setting ambitious goals so you can make big things happen. Then resist the temptations that are trying to take you off course. If it works, happiness and a sense of self-satisfaction awaits. If not, there’s always next year.

Three Leadership Lessons from Back to the Future

back to the future posterThis week marks an important occasion in both science and history. On October 21st, 2015, Dr. Emmett Brown and Marty McFly traveled from 1985 in their DeLorean time machine to stop Marty’s son from committing a bank robbery. This momentous occurrence is a perfect time to mourn the broken promises of self-lacing shoes and hoverboards and reminisce on the many leadership lessons provided by Marty and friends.

Nobody calls me chicken

marty mcflyThroughout the Back to the Future trilogy, Marty’s perpetual downfall is his inability to refrain from a dare. If someone calls him a chicken, he’ll engage in corporate espionage, commit to racing his car down a suburban street, or agree to a gunfight with an experienced Old West lawbreaker. Marty does not reflect on this dangerous pattern until he speaks with his great, great, great grandfather.

You could have just walked away and nobody would of thought the less of you for it. All it would have been was words… hot air from a buffoon. Instead, you let him rile you, rile you into playin’ his game, his way, by his rules.

As leaders, we cannot afford to succumb to peer pressure or indulge in the behaviors associated with lacking the self-control or thin skin that plagues Marty. As Charles Duhigg wrote in his popular book The Power of Habit, self-discipline has a greater effect on performance than intellectual talent. Numerous studies show that those who exert willpower outperform their peers. They are more likely to receive higher salaries, earn promotions, and be engaged in their personal and professional lives.

Past actions affect future outcomes

Wouldn’t life be easier with a time machine in your garage that could be used whenever you need to undo a mistake? Since this isn’t an option, how can we benefit from hindsight before an event takes place? Doc Brown cautioned Marty that,

…having information about the future can be extremely dangerous. Even if your intentions are good, it can backfire drastically! Whatever you’ve got to tell me, I’ll find out through the natural course of time.

doc-brown-thinking-capMany of us can’t afford to wade through the natural course of time; the stakes are often too high and we are too ambitious/impatient. Therefore, leaders must bridge the gap between long-term intent and short-term action. This involves a fully formed vision of the future. Once this is established, you can work backwards to determine what you and your team need to be successful. Throw in a heightened awareness of plausible ramifications and you have your own inner DeLorean.

Stand for something

An inspirational scene in the first movie is when George McFly, Marty’s father, gains the confidence to stand up to Biff. He doesn’t do it to protect his ego, nor does he do it to gain tangible rewards. George takes on the high school bully to protect a woman from being assaulted.

Hey you! Get your damn hands off her!

george mcflyCharacter is an essential quality in any leader who intends to be around for a while. According to a study by KRW International, CEOs whose employees gave them high marks for character had an average return on assets of 9.35% over a two-year period, which is five times higher than those rated as having low character. This research defined character as possessing the principles of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion. You can memorize this or consider WWGMD (What Would George McFly Do).

Solid leadership does not entail knowledge about the time/space continuum, gigawatts, or properly handling plutonium. It does not require a tricked out car or a friend who is a scientific genius. And you don’t need to know how to work with Libyan nationalists. Leadership is the way we carry ourselves, the decisions we make, and the integrity we exhibit. This may not always come easy, but it’s not as arduous as building a flux capacitor.

How Brian Michael Bendis Uses Self-Control to Accomplish Self-Imposed Goals

Brian Michael BendisIf you are like me, you start the week with an ambitious list of things to accomplish. Each goal is specifically chosen as a priority and, when I’m extra ambitious, is placed on my calendar to block out time. Three weeks later, some of these goals remain on my ‘gotta get it done’ list. They are still important, but other items seemed to continuously push them into the following week. Brian Michael Bendis seems to have figured out how to work through these lapses in self-control.

On a recent Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, famed comic book writer and artist Brian Michael Bendis was discussing how he so prolifically churns out so many stories. Bendis is the primary architect of the Ultimate Marvel Universe and heads up books on such iconic characters as Spider-Man, the Avengers, and Powers. Needless to say, he has a full plate. So how does Bendis get it all done?

My plan is to write a script a week. I’m a big believer in that David Mamet movie where one man can do what another can do. I am a big believer almost as a religion. And if Aaron Sorkin when he was on West Wing could write one 88-page script…I can get to 25. If he can do it, I can do it. I’m a big believer in that. And also one week makes me feel like I did something that week. It’s an accomplishment that doesn’t feel hacky. And sometimes it’s a little more, you’re in the zone, so you keep going. And sometimes I don’t go to bed until I’ve clocked one in for Monday.

As overwhelming as one script a week may seem, it’s Bendis’ willpower that makes it happen. There is no “I’ll do it next week.” He has set an uncompromising, self-imposed goal that will (not “hopefully”, “might”, or “probably”) be realized.

On the downside, research shows most of us overestimate our resolve; the ability to refrain from tempting distractions is simply too powerful. Fortunately, research has also found that self-control can be strengthened. To be a Bendis-like superhero of discipline, build up your self-restraint with a few of these mental exercises.

Promise Yourself. Willpower is based on being self-motivated. It is not about creating situations where you rely on others to push you to perform. Therefore, impose strict goals with deadlines on yourself. Feel free to share them with others, but these promises are intended for you. The research demonstrates that those who set these clear, aspiring targets perform better than those who do not.

Reward Yourself. It’s not enough to be motivated by the end-goal; you need a prize waiting for you at the finish line. This makes the short-term sacrifices feel more energizing and worthwhile.

Punish Yourself. Just as there are benefits to successfully reaching each milestone, there must also be consequences for falling short. According to the Handbook of Motivation Science, self-imposed penalties have been found to “prevent individuals from deviating from their goal pursuit.”

Inconvenience Yourself. If cheating seems easy, make it harder. One company wanted to encourage staff to ride their bikes, so they created a key rack that holds both a bike key and a car key. If you take the car key, the bike key drops to the ground forcing you to pick it up and reconsider your decision. These little “pleasurable troublemakers” can go a long way to help you keep your focus and avoid shortcuts.

bendis key

Affirm Yourself. The benefits of a mental pep talk cannot be underestimated. Does it feel cheesy? Maybe, but it works. Positive self-affirmations remind you of your priorities, reaffirm your values, and can build you back up during challenging times.

A personal goal keeps the train running. – Brian Michael Bendis

Bendis may write about superheroes, but that does not make him one. He has the same temptations we all do. The difference is that he has the willpower and self-control to ensure that his self-imposed goals are fulfilled. We have the same capabilities; we simply need to unleash them.