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.

Review: HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Public Speaking and Presenting

You probably already realize how much of in-person communication is non-verbal. But did you know that audiences perceive non-verbal signals as having more weight than the words you are actually saying?

Nick Morgan notes as much in his Harvard Business Review article, “How to Become an Authentic Speaker”:

If your spoken message and your body language are mismatched, audiences will respond to the nonverbal message every time.

Why?

You’re probably coming across as artificial. The reason: When we rehearse specific body language elements, we use them incorrectly during the actual speech—slightly after speaking the associated words. Listeners feel something’s wrong, because during natural conversation, body language emerges before the associated words.

Recently in a natural conversation I tried to notice which came first—my hand gestures or the words they accompanied. And Morgan is right!

So if you’re going to script non-verbals into your public speaking, well… maybe just don’t. Those need to be natural, or the listeners will know something is off.

Morgan’s article is in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Public Speaking and Presenting, a compelling and informative read that has already helped me as a preacher.

Here is the list of articles included:

  • “How to Give a Killer Presentation,” by Chris Anderson
  • “How to Become an Authentic Speaker,” by Nick Morgan
  • “Storytelling That Moves People: A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee,” by Bronwyn Fryer
  • “Connect, Then Lead,” by Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger
  • “The Necessary Art of Persuasion,” by Jay A. Conger
  • “The Science of Pep Talks,” by Daniel McGinn
  • “Get the Boss to Buy In,” by Susan J. Ashford and James R. Detert
  • “The Organizational Apology,” by Maurice E. Schweitzer, Alison Wood Brooks, and Adam D. Galinsky
  • “What’s Your Story?” by Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback
  • “Visualizations That Really Work,” by Scott Berinato
  • (“bonus” article) “Structure Your Presentation Like a Story,” by Nancy Duarte.

I don’t think there’s a dud in here. Chris Anderson’s lead article is an inside look into the world of TED Talks. As the curator of the conferences, he’s coached plenty of speakers, and here distills some of his advice.

I especially appreciated the focus in a few articles on good storytelling. Even if data is part of a presentation, tell a story about it, rather than presenting it in drab charts and graphs. (Or use charts and graphs, but make them visually compelling.) “What’s Your Story” is about how to frame and re-frame career transitions—especially relevant to the so-called “Great Resignation” happening across workplaces today.

Harvard Business Review and its books have always appealed to me, though as a church leader I often have to translate the wisdom into a somewhat unique context. This particular volume, however, is immediately relevant to anyone speaking or presenting to people.

Check it out here.

Review: How to Invest Your Time Like Money

How to Invest Your Time Like MoneyEven if you got only one thing out of Elizabeth Grace Saunders’s How to Invest Your Time Like Money, her idea of a Why are you awake? alarm makes the 75-page ebook well worth the purchase.

But there’s a lot more sage advice packed into the highly readable offering by HBR Press.

Saunders’s basic premise is a simple but compelling one: “You need to learn the skills to invest your time like money.” She elaborates:

When you invest your time as if it were money, you look at the reality of how much time you have available and the truth of activities’ time cost. You then make decisions that allow you to get out of time debt. And with this balanced budget in hand, you can then set up the structure to consistently invest your time in what’s most important.

Five chapters and an inspiring epilogue help the reader to consider how to best use her or his time in the service of identified values and priorities:

1. Take Control of Your Time and Your Life
2. Identify Your Time Debt
3. Create a Base Schedule
4. Set Up Automatic Time Investment
5. Maximize Your Time ROI
Epilogue: Remember What You’re Working For

I’ve read enough time management books to nearly expect the kind of introductory statement in the first chapter: “Most time management methodologies fail….” However, Saunders really does offer a unique angle on time management, writing, “Time, like money, must be invested to work for you now and support your ideal future.” This is what sets Saunders’s book apart from other task management writing. She boldly begins: “What will need to change is you.”

She helps the reader address psychological “barriers to success,” such as accepting the role of victim of other people’s expectations, playing the rescuer (and therefore taking on other people’s tasks), or even somehow thinking “a sane and sustainable schedule with (gasp!) free time” is an undeserved luxury.

I can imagine a hurried executive reading, “Accept the past and forgive yourself” and balking at an emotions-based approach, but I think Saunders is right on the money. We can’t fix how we manage our time without taking a careful, hard look at what’s behind our time-spending (and time-wasting habits).

So only after a full chapter devoted to examining the ways we undermine our effectiveness–and suggesting practical ways to combat this–does Saunders write:

Now you’re mentally and emotionally primed to authentically evaluate your time investment. So, it’s time to take a serious look at whether you’re in time debt and, if so, how you can move toward a balanced budget.

For the rest of the book, Saunders serves as the temporal equivalent of a financial advisor. What turned me on to the book in the first place is an excerpt HBR posted, where Saunders suggests a “formula to stop you from overcommitting your time.”

Chapters 2 through 5 then walk the reader through setting both a daily and weekly “time budget” and schedule. Saunders suggests how to help the actual match the envisioned. (One juicy nugget, via Arianna Huffington: “You can complete a project by dropping it.”) There is a difference, Saunders notes, between, “Do I have to do this?” and, “Do I have to do this now?

Even as the author deftly guides the reader through the nuts and bolts of scheduling, she continues to keep an eye on some of the deep-down causes that prevent us from spending time well:

[Y]ou need to uncover what’s at the bottom of your emotional resistance so that you can let go of it and make time investment decisions that serve your greatest and highest good.

Each chapter ends with a really helpful summary checklist, making it easy to translate ideas into actionable progress.

One thing that seems to be missing in this book is more specific advice on how to tally how much time various tasks will take. After all, part of the issue is that we often underestimate how long it will take to complete a task. Saunders does give advice here (a section called, “Improve Your Estimation of Time Costs”), though it is largely of the just estimate via trial-and-error variety.

That said, there may simply not be much else to do but to follow her sound advice to track one’s time to be able to “look back at the totals for similar past projects for data on realistic estimates.”

Even in book form Saunders is interpersonally and psychologically sensitive and insightful. And she so often calls the reader back–in an inspiring way–to the big picture:

In the end, getting the best return on your investment is not about whether you got the most tasks done but about whether you put time and effort into what’s most important to you.

By all means, go download this book right now. Schedule five 20-minute blocks to read it (this is what I did, and it worked great). And then schedule some more time to sit down with your calendar and put into practice all that Saunders recommends.

 


 

Thanks to HBR Press for the review copy of this awesome, succinct ebook. Find it here on Amazon, here at HBR’s site, and learn more about the book here at Elizabeth Grace Saunders’s site.

 

 

I Just Found a New Life Habit: “Why Are You Awake?” Alarm

How to Invest Your Time Like MoneyI just found a new life habit: a daily “Why are you awake?” alarm on my phone, set to 30 minutes before the time I want to go to bed.

The idea comes from a short ebook I just read, How to Invest Your Time Like Money, by Elizabeth Grace Saunders (published by Harvard Business Review Press).

Saunders’s idea is simple but brilliant. She makes this point about habits:

Habits reduce the amount of time that you spend deciding what to do, lower the energy needed to take action, and ensure that you’re spending time on what’s most crucial.

Applying the idea to the decision we make each day as to when to go to sleep, she writes:

How do you make going to sleep a routine so you have fewer decisions to make and more hours resting? (This is the question all parents ask about their children’s bedtime routine but rarely direct toward themselves.)

A very simple approach is to set a “Why are you awake?” alarm on your phone for fifteen to thirty minutes before your ideal bedtime. This reminds you what time it is and prompts you to get ready for bed, unless you’re doing an activity that’s worth losing sleep over.

I set this new alarm in my phone just minutes after reading this section of the book.

Speaking of which… my “Why are you awake?” alarm just went off five minutes ago–sharing such a simple but brilliant idea is surely worth losing five minutes of sleep over… but off to bed now!

 


 

Thanks to HBR Press for the review copy of this awesome, succinct ebook. Find it here on Amazon, here at HBR’s site, and learn more about the book here at Elizabeth Grace Saunders’s site. Full review forthcoming!