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Grit. Resilience. Mental toughness. We hear a lot about them these days. But maybe we shouldn’t. Why?
Because there have been good solutions to the underlying problem for about, oh, 2000 years. The ancient Stoic philosophers really knew what they were doing when it came to building mental toughness. In fact…
What’s the most effective psychological tool we have today? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. What’s it based on? Stoicism.
Stoicism provides a rich armamentarium of strategies and techniques for developing psychological resilience… In a sense, ancient Stoicism was the granddaddy of all ‘self-help’ and its ideas and techniques have inspired many modern approaches to both personal development and psychological therapy. It’s generally accepted that the modern psychotherapy that most resembles ancient Stoic ‘remedies’ for emotional problems is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and its precursor Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)… CBT also happens to have the strongest evidence base, the strongest scientific support, of any modern form of psychological therapy.
But a lot of people hear “Stoic” and think that means Spock on Star Trek. Wrong. It’s not going to turn you into a emotionless robot. Most of us get a lot of things wrong about Stoicism.
The Stoics had some great tools to help fight negative feelings. And when you’re good at dealing with the negative, you have more time for the positive. And that also helps you stay resilient when it feels like the world is out to get you.
So let’s learn the basics of what the guys-in-togas really had to say and how it can make you more mentally strong so you can get what you want out of life…
Your stoicism cheatsheet
“Stoicism.” The word even sounds serious. Don’t let it scare you.
Zeno, the guy who founded the philosophy, used to teach on what was basically a porch. The “Stoa” in “Stoicism” means porch. So if it’s less intimidating, think of this ancient wisdom as “Porchism” because that’s basically what it translates as.
Now “Porchism” encompasses a lot of different ideas but for our purposes we’ll focus on two principles that are fundamental:
First: “People are not disturbed by events, but rather by their judgments about events.” Get fired? Sounds bad. End up getting a much better job? So getting fired was good. Pain in your arm? Uh-oh. But were you just in a car accident and the doctor said you might never regain feeling in your limbs? So pain is good. Events are neither good nor bad; your interpretation of them of them is good or bad.
So when you blame events for your feelings, the toga-guys say you’re just plain wrong. The rain didn’t make you sad, your beliefs about the rain made you sad.
Second: It’s critical to know what you can control and what you can’t. And for the Stoics, the only thing you ever really have control over is your deliberate thoughts. You can’t control other people, you can’t control nature, and you can’t always control your own body. (Try wishing away your migraine and let me know how well that works.)
When you get frustrated over something you cannot control (which is most things) you’re pretending you’re God. You feel you should have power over something you don’t and that’s why you get angry, frustrated or sad. Yeah, maybe people “shouldn’t” do that, but they are. Maybe it “shouldn’t” be raining, but it is.
You have to accept you do not have control over a lot of stuff — but that doesn’t mean you give up. You can influence things and you can try to affect them, but when you delude yourself that you “should” have 100% control over an outcome, you’re almost always going to find yourself emotionally upset if things don’t go your way.
Now both of these ideas — that you’re disturbed by beliefs not events and that the issue of control is at the heart of negative emotions — are central to resilience and mental toughness. Let’s learn how to put them to work.
(To learn how to never be frustrated again, click here.)
So a big challenge is on the horizon. What’s the first step to getting mentally stronger?
Ask “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness…
Why in the world would you want to start the day with that thought in your head? Because Marcus didn’t want to be surprised. He wanted to be prepared.
We all know people can be difficult. We all know you can’t control what they do. If I just said that and nothing else, you’d roll your eyes at me and wonder why you decided to read this. And yet when people are difficult, you often respond like this was totally unexpected, and then you get angry. Does that make any sense?
Reminding yourself of the worst isn’t pessimism. Buying life insurance doesn’t mean you want to die; it means you realistically recognize it can happen and you want to be prepared. So Marcus reminded himself every morning that people were going to be difficult. That way it wouldn’t surprise him, and he wouldn’t get frustrated and just tell them all to go to hell. He could move right on to negotiating.
When we’re unrealistically optimistic, when our expectations are totally out of whack, we get frustrated and give up. But by thinking about what could go wrong in any situation, you mentally prepare yourself for it and you keep on trucking.
Seneca writes that we should contemplate events in advance so that nothing ever takes us by surprise in this way, as ‘What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster’ by magnifying the distress experienced (Letters, 91). He goes on to say that we should therefore ‘project our thoughts ahead of us’ and imagine every conceivable setback so that we may ‘strengthen the mind’ to cope with them, or as we put it today, to develop psychological resilience in the face of adversity.
And if you spend some time thinking about the downside — experiencing those bad feelings in advance — something else happens. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy calls it “decatastrophizing.” That’s a fancy word for “realizing it’s not the end of the world.”
Your first day on the job, something went wrong and you freaked out. A few weeks later, the same thing happened and you didn’t even blink. You got used to it.
So taking the time to think through the worst that could happen, to feel the negatives before you really feel the negatives, turns down the volume on those emotions when it counts. And that allows you to weather the storm.
As in Stoicism, a broad range of situations are rehearsed, so that general emotional resilience can be developed, through a process explained by analogy with viral immunization. By exposing yourself to small doses of stress in a controlled way, sometimes in imagination, you can build up stronger defences and become less vulnerable when confronted with a real-life problem. Psychological resilience tends to ‘generalize’, though, so that even situations that are neither anticipated nor directly rehearsed may be experienced as less overwhelming, as long as a wide variety of other adversities have been anticipated and coped with resiliently.
(To learn the morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
So you’ve thought about the worst and you’re prepared. Great. But now that big challenge is looming. Should you optimistically say, “I’m gonna win!”? Absolutely not…
Use a “reserve clause”
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus called it “hupexhairesis.” Annnnnnd, let’s just stick with calling it a “reserve clause”, shall we?
When someone says, “God willing…” or, “Fate permitting…”, that’s a reserve clause. They’re acknowledging that at least part of the outcome is not under their control — and you know how the Stoics felt about control.
When you use a reserve clause, if things don’t work out, you don’t crater your self-esteem and give up on your goals. You know it’s not 100% in your control and therefore it can’t be 100% your fault.
This isn’t an excuse to be lazy. It’s recognizing that you have control over process, not outcome. Saying, “I am definitely going to get an A+ on that exam” is a lie. It’s outside your control. But saying, “I am going to study my ass off” is within your control.
And by focusing on what you can control, you also give yourself a plan of action. If you’re just pollyanna optimistic about getting that A+, you can be lazy. By recognizing all you have power over is studying, then boom: you know what you need to do next.
If you think you can control outcomes, reality is eventually going to punch you in the face and let you know who’s boss. And that will make you angry with yourself or angry with the world. And you’ll want to give up.
Instead, focus on what you can control: process. Plain and simple, do all that you can. Fate permitting, you’ll do well. And if you don’t, then that wasn’t under your control. So don’t sweat it. In the words of the great Stoic, Seneca:
In short, the wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.
(To learn how 5 post-it notes can make you happy, confident and successful, click here.)
Okay, so you thought about the worst and you were emotionally prepared. You used a reserve clause and did your best. But you still failed. Time to quit and be sad? No. You’re mentally tougher than that…
Take the “view from above”
When things get you down and you want to give up, the Stoics knew that what you needed was perspective. The world is a big place. Your life is long. But when you feel like you screwed up, you forget this and your minor setback is all you can think about.
So take a step back. Look at the big picture. Here’s Marcus Aurelius:
Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous: being but creatures of your own fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe, contemplating the illimitable tracts of eternity.
Stoics like to take the “view from above.” Imagine viewing yourself from the sky. Now see how small you are compared to the city you’re in. And how small that city is compared to the country. How tiny the country is compared to the world. And the world is just a blue dot in the galaxy.
This doesn’t mean you’re insignificant. You’re getting caught in your interpretations of the events, and you’re probably mistaken about what was under your control. Your problems are small. And much like you are tiny compared to the galaxy, your current problem is likely minuscule in the grand scheme of your life.
Yes, you screwed up. But you’ve screwed up before — many times — and it felt like the end of the world then, too. It wasn’t. Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman called this common error a “focusing illusion”:
Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.
When you put problems into a bigger perspective like “the view from above”, you can resist the focusing illusion, and you can stay mentally strong under the most intense pressure.
My friend Joe, an Army Ranger and Iraq war veteran, once took a job in a Hollywood agency mailroom. Those jobs are near-impossible to get because it’s pretty much the only path to becoming a big shot agent in Tinseltown. But it’s also known for being one of the toughest jobs in a very tough industry.
You work absurdly long hours for terrible pay and the level of abuse you deal with is the stuff of legend. I asked Joe how the heck he managed to put up with all the grief. He looked at me like I was crazy and said:
Eric, in my prior job people shot at me.
That’s perspective. That’s the view from above.
(To learn more secrets to grit — from a Navy SEAL, click here.)
So you don’t let failure break your spirit. But how do you stay inspired to keep after your goals once you’ve been knocked down?
Ask: “What would Batman do?”
Fine, fine, the Stoics never talked about Batman. But they might as well have. They did think a very important ritual was “Contemplation of the Sage.”
The Sage is to Stoicism what becoming a Buddha is to Buddhism. You’ve mastered the art. You’ve beaten the final level of the video game.
Plain and simple, when you find yourself lacking strength, the Stoics felt you needed a role model. Someone to look up to, and someone to be inspired by. Thinking about that person (even if they happen to be a fictional character who defends Gotham City) can give you guidance and fortitude. In the words of Seneca:
Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.
How do you choose your role model? Ask yourself who you admire. Who you want to be.
Which qualities do you most admire in others? What sort of person, ultimately, do you want to be in life? If this is our standard then, in a sense, the concept of ‘resilience’ must be subordinate to it. ‘Resilience’ refers to your ability to remain committed to valued living, a life emulating your ideal, even in the face of adversity, and to re-commit to your values, getting back on course after a setback has led you temporarily astray.
And, for the record, this isn’t just a bunch of inspirational hooey from 2000 years ago. Research shows thinking about people you admire can help you make better decisions.
Brian Wansink teaches food psychology at Cornell University. Before kids ate a meal, he asked them to consider, “What would Batman eat?” That one question made them much more likely to pick apple slices over french fries for lunch. What about with adults? Same principle held true.
Your heroes are strong. And they can make you strong too if you think about them when times are tough.
(To learn more lifehacks from a variety of ancient thinkers, click here.)
Alright, we’ve learned a bunch from the Stoics. Let’s round it all up and find out the surprising way we can also get happier as we get mentally stronger…
Here are the four Stoic rituals that can make you mentally stronger:
- Ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?”: You won’t be surprised and you’ll be better prepared. And that’s a prescription for perseverance.
- Use a “reserve clause”: Fate permitting, it will help you persist after disappointment. (If not, it’s out of my control.)
- Take the “view from above”: Put things in perspective. Whatever occurred, it’s probably not the worst thing that has ever happened. (And if people shot at you at your last job, it definitely isn’t.)
- Ask, “What would Batman do?”: Or Wonder Woman. Heroes really do guide our behavior and give us strength.
Some people might still be a little scared to seriously think about “What’s the worst that can happen?” To be fair, “the worst” can be pretty bad at times. And even the Stoics knew thinking about this was not fun.
But oddly enough, there’s a very nice side-effect to considering awfulness: it can actually make you happier. Yes, happier.
You may have heard of a principle called “the hedonic treadmill.” It’s one of the most depressing findings in happiness research. It says that we eventually adapt to whatever good things happen to us. You get a raise… and then you take it for granted. New car? You’ll take that for granted eventually, too.
But when we imagine losing the things we’ve taken for granted, studies show the effect temporarily reverses — we become grateful. And happier:
The authors hypothesized that thinking about the absence of a positive event from one’s life would improve affective states more than thinking about the presence of a positive event but that people would not predict this when making affective forecasts… As predicted, people in the former condition reported more positive affective states.
You don’t appreciate air conditioning until you step out into 100 degree weather. So don’t be afraid to think about the worst. Much like the “view from above” it helps you put things into perspective.
And try using the phrase “fate permitting” when you’re facing a challenge. Seriously, give it shot. It’s worked for 2000 years. After all…
What’s the worst that could happen?
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