Mental Toughness is Totally Overrated


My blog post titled “Triggering Feel-good Hormones in Times of Stress” relates to the following article by Michael Easter:

Mental Toughness is Totally Overrated

The underlying motivation

Why do we feel like we need to be more mentally tough in the first place? What problem do we think mental toughness will solve?

Our individual answers help us identify the real issue. From there we can find proven approaches that are more likely to work. Perhaps we become anxious while presenting at work: Here’s a low-effort way to break an anxious rut. Or we may feel like we’re not productive enough: Here’s a way to reach peak flow and get more done. Or maybe we’re feeling depressed after a recent breakup: Here’s a tool to better cope with depression.

Find the rate-limiting step

Weller continually failed a timed swimming test as he was entering the special forces. The advice his sergeants gave him: Swim harder and don’t quit.

So, he did. He swam so hard he literally passed out, sank to the bottom of the pool, and had to be rescued. His problem, obviously, was not a lack of mental toughness.

“And that’s the drawback of mental toughness in isolation,” says Weller. “You can work really hard doing something badly for a long time and break yourself doing it. Applying an inefficient process harder is not helpful.”

One day a new sergeant showed up at training. “I got out of the water, and he said, ‘First of all, this is your parents’ fault for raising you somewhere without the ocean or water.’” Weller had never learned to properly swim, a fact he was completely unaware of.

“Rather than some nonspecific ‘just try harder’ advice, he gave me specific and measurable things I could do to swim better.”

Chemists call the least efficient step in a reaction — the one that most hinders an entire process — the “rate-limiting step.” We’re often unaware when we’re approaching challenges inefficiently. This extends to all domains in life, from weight loss and exercise to productivity and learning. If something isn’t going the way we want it to, we should scrutinize every part of our process, looking for our own rate-limiting step. If we can’t see flaws, we should bring in an outside perspective for feedback.

Lean on others

The modern idea of mental toughness, as those U.K. researchers pointed out, hinges on us believing we’re heroes who can do it all. But the reality is all of us are bolstered by a larger human ecosystem.

Consider special forces soldiers. “Virtually every selection and training scenario in the special operations community is designed to reinforce teamwork,” wrote my friend Doug Kechijian, who is a former special forces soldier. The soldiers who behave like mavericks, no matter how many selection camps they pushed through, don’t fare well and are rarely chosen for teams.

The military is onto something: “If people suffer together, they have stronger bonds,” says Trevor Kashey, PhD. “Which is one of the keys of military training. So, this ‘mental toughness,’ ironically, breeds a necessarily practical dependency on others. But then those soldiers will work harder and rise to many occasions for their brothers.”

We can adopt this when chasing our own goals or solving our own problems. Find an ally with similar goals and work together.

Draw on a wide variety of experiences

“Gifted athletes often don’t do well in military selection,” says Weller. “They’re used to being naturally good at things and have become accustomed to always receiving positive feedback. And then they get to the selection environment and all of a sudden, no matter how fast they run or how many pushups they do, everything still sucks. And everyone is telling them that they’re too weak to keep going and that they should just quit. And they believe them and quit.”

“A paradox is that you often see the farm kids do well,” Weller adds. “The kids who never excelled naturally at anything, but who are good at suffering and are used to continuing to work without anyone giving them positive feedback.”

This highlights a key shortcoming of mental toughness: It seeks a silver bullet, when life’s challenges are composed of many individual challenges wrapped into a larger whole. We should prepare for challenges, whether speaking in public or running an ultramarathon, in a way that most closely mimics the actual challenge. This will better prepare us for all the stressors that will be thrown our way.

Article written by Michael Easter

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