In High Stress Workplaces, Does Mental Toughness Matter?
High stress jobs are the ones that are tied to performance, as in, if you don’t perform there are high-stakes, all-or-nothing consequences. They include entrepreneurs, commission-based sales, stock traders, executives, professional athletes, entertainers, doctors, nurses, cops, firefighters and spec-ops warriors, to name a few. In these high-stress arenas, mental toughness is what separates the lifetime achievers from the early burnouts.
Well-known examples of the mentally tough include Steve Jobs and Jack Welch in business, Harry Truman and Ronald Regan in politics, Colin Powell and Douglas MacArthur in the military, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick in coaching and Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey in the field of sports.
Related: 15 Habits of Mentally Tough People
Being mentally tough means that you’re able to take control of your thoughts, feelings and attitudes under pressure. It’s about being disciplined in how you think your thoughts, in how you deploy your emotions to drive past your worries, doubts, and fears. It’s clarity, focus and confidence and it comes from taking complete control of yourself. How? It’s actually simpler than it sounds.
Think of yourself as being “the CEO of You, Inc.” Your job as the CEO of You is to get your board of directors to act in concert for your betterment instead of your detriment. Let me introduce you to your board of directors, you know them as your body, mind and emotions.
When you have a board meeting, which board member usually wins the vote? Have you ever made a decision based purely on your emotions during a time of stress? Almost without fail, in 99 percent of the population, the emotions are running the boardroom, and the body runs a quick second. Mentally tough people, as the CEO of themselves, have their minds running the boardroom.
For the business executive, emotional decisions will bring sinus-clearing losses. For the athlete, emotional decisions bring on the humiliation of choking. For the spec-ops warrior, emotional decisions get you wounded, or worse.
The number one rule of becoming mentally tough is to stop making decisions based on emotion and instead, make them based on logic and reason.
What do we call Police, Firefighters and EMS personnel? First reactors or first responders? What if your house was on fire and the firefighters showed up and screamed, “Oh my goodness, that house in on fire!! Aaaaah, run!"
Most of us have lived our entire lives as first reactors instead of first responders. Have you ever made a 911 call or seen someone on TV make one? Does the 911 operator scream, “Oh my gosh! You’re in big trouble!”? Of course not. They answer very calmly and with control they say, “911. What’s your emergency?”
They ask questions, gathering facts and information. Once gathered, they send that information on to the first responders, who formulate an actual plan of response, not reaction.
Half your brain.
Neuroscientists have discovered through fMRI brain mapping and imaging that when a person is in fear, doubt or even worry (which is just baby fear), that half of the brain shuts down. The creative problem solving half of your brain goes completely dark. No electro-chemical pathways lighting up, no neural net traffic, no genius creative problem solving ideas or thoughts generated. All you are left with is fight, flight or freeze. The part of your brain you need to get out of whatever problem you are facing is shut down. Mentally tough people have trained their whole brain to remain active and pointed towards finding a solution.
Enter the two-minute rule.
All you need to stop being a first reactor and start becoming a first responder is two minutes.
The two-minute rule gives you the cognitive space to become a first responder, here’s how it works. When you hear that voice on the inside that says, “That’s impossible,” or “That won’t work,” or “I don’t know what to do,” consciously suspend your disbelief for two minutes and say instead, “Yes, that’s impossible, but if it were possible, how would I do it?” or “Yes, I don’t know what to do, but if I did know what to do, how would I do it?”
Related: 4 Ways to Be Mentally Tough
By taking the time to switch off your reactive brain, you give yourself a moment to separate emotion from logic. Your mind now has the time and space to take complete control.
Rinse and repeat. Welcome to the ranks of the mentally tough.
Andrew D. Wittman, PhD, is a United States Marine Corps infantry combat veteran, a former police officer and federal agent. As a Special Agent for the U.S. Capitol Police, Wittman led the security detail for Nancy Pelosi and has personally protected Hillary Clinton, Tom Delay, Trent Lott, King Abdullah of Jordan, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Sir Elton John, as well as Fortune 20 CEOs. As a security contractor for the State Department, he taught high-threat diplomatic security to former Navy SEALS, Marines, Rangers, and Special Forces.
Wittman is founder of the Mental Toughness Training Center, a leadership consultancy specializing in peak performance, team dynamics, resolving conflict in the workplace and is the author of the new book, Ground Zero Leadership: CEO of You (2016). He holds a Ph.D. in Theological Studies, is a guest lecturer at Clemson University and co-hosts the radio call-in show “Get Warrior Tough.”