Mental Toughness: A Review

First, a three-sentence review of the idea of “mental toughness”:

  1. I want it, I work toward it, and I want my kids to have it—especially given the global and local challenges facing us in 2022.
  2. As a practicing Christian, I wonder what “mental toughness” looks like in light of 2 Corinthians 12:9: “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’”
  3. Those lines come from the Apostle Paul, who was as mentally tough a person as I know of, and yet he rejoiced in his weakness, because—perhaps counterintuitively—his weakness was the site of God’s strength made perfect.

Even with that re-framing in mind, “mental toughness” is a desideratum for me. So I read in its entirety HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Mental Toughness, from Harvard Business Review Press. At 160 pages—and with compact trim size—it’s one of the shorter volumes in the 10 Must Reads series, but it’s full of powerful and inspiring ideas.

Here’s the list of 10 (actually 11, counting the “bonus” article) articles in the book:

  1. “How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better,” by Graham Jones
  2. “Crucibles of Leadership,” by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas
  3. “Building Resilience,” by Martin E.P. Seligman
  4. “Cognitive Fitness,” by Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts
  5. “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
  6. “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It,” by Alla Crum and Thomas Crum
  7. “How to Bounce Back from Adversity,” by Joshua D. Margolis and Paul G. Stoltz
  8. “Rebounding from Career Setbacks,” by Mitchell Lee Marks, Philip Mirvis, and Ron Ashkenas
  9. “Realizing What You’re Made Of,” by Glenn E. Mangurian
  10. “Extreme Negotiations,” by Jeff Weiss, Aram Donigian, and Jonathan Hughes
  11. “Post-Traumatic Growth and Building Resilience,” by Martin Seligman and Sarah Green Carmichael

Every article has good ideas worthy of implementation. And across the 160 pages there are a handful of ideas I could probably do without. Here are some highlights:

  • In Martin Seligman’s “Building Resilience,” he talks about “post-traumatic growth” (my emphasis), a phrase I’d never heard before reading this book. He mentions post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and then asks: what about the growth that can ensue after traumatic events? The best sentence in the whole book describes people who have post-traumatic growth: “They, too, first experience depression and anxiety, often exhibiting full-blown PTSD, but within a year they are better off than they were before the trauma” (29). Better off than they were before the trauma!

  • Similarly, “Crucibles of Leadership” (Bennis and Thomas) is encouraging, as it tells stories of leaders who “emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose” (11).

  • “Cognitive Fitness” (Gilkey and Kilts) offers a two-page spread (48-49) titled, “Exercising Your Brain: A Personal Program.” Many of the ideas they offer are common sense but easy to forget (“ready funny books,” “play games,” “try new technologies,” “learn a new language or instrument,” etc.).

  • “Stress Can Be Good Thing If You Know How to Use It” (Crum and Crum) was such a good article, I emailed a link to it (with my own reflection) to my church’s elders right away. Best line: “[W]hat did you expect—that climbing Everest would be a walk in the park?” (73) The authors recommend “reframing anxiety as excitement” (74).

  • Scattered throughout some articles are pep-talky ideas I’m ambivalent about. On the first page of the first article (“How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better”), for example, there is, “[I]n sports as in business, the main obstacle to achieving ‘the impossible’ may be a self-limiting mind-set” (1). Yeah, may be. But for some things “mind over matter” may itself be a limiting approach, since it may fail to take into account external factors.

  • “How to Bounce Back from Adversity” (Margolis and Stoltz) is excellent, although I disagree with the authors’ conclusion that when analyzing setbacks, we need to stop thinking about their causes and focus instead on our response. Why not both? Interestingly, another article (“Rebounding from Career Setbacks”) has a section called “Figure Out Why You Lost” (90). On the upside, Margolis and Stoltz’s “resilience regimen” offers a series of practical and empowering questions that almost ensure forward movement. For example:

       “Visualizing: What do I want life to look like on the other side of this adversity?

       “Specifying: What can I do in the next few minutes, or hours, to move in that direction?

       “Collaborating: What sequence of steps can we put together as a team, and what processes can we develop and adopt, to see us through to the other side of this hardship?” (86)

  • Glenn E. Mangurian’s “Realizing What You’re Made Of” is the most inspirational of the articles. It begins with the provocative (ridiculous?) claim: “Those who have survived a traumatic, life-altering event often convey a curious sentiment: They wouldn’t have it any other way” (97). He then talks about working through (and with, not against) his own experience of paralysis. It’s a moving read. “In my new life,” he says, “I am able to use all of my assets, including my paralysis, to be a new kind of leader” (106).

  • There is some overlap between this and other published HBR collections. As HBR continues to publish its 10 Must Read series, and multiple other best-of collections, they’ll want to keep an eye on not overusing certain articles.

I’ll refer back to this volume again, and it took me about a year to work through it, because I kept savoring/procrastinating working through the ideas and exercises.

Find the book here, and thanks to HBR Press for sending the review copy, which did not (at least not consciously) affect how I reviewed the book.

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