Monday, September 20, 2010

Mental Toughness

Everyone wants success and the happiness that comes with it. Is it best acquired by increasing your sensitivity or by building up your mental toughness? Link here.

Therapy values caring and compassion. It values enhanced sensitivity. It traffics in pathos. It wants you to feel everyone's pain, empathically.

But do these values serve you well when you are competing in a chess match, a football game, a military campaign, or a product launch? Will your competitive spirits be enhanced by participating in yet another day of sensitivity training?

Sensitivity and caring have their places. In the nursery, in the home, in intimate relationships, and in religious and spiritual experience. They prevail in the arts, in drama, and in fictional world.

Move these values into a competitive environment and you are going to start having problems. If your therapy has taught you to be more sensitive, your career is going to suffer.

Sensitivity is counterproductive in business. It is going to hold you back. And it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman. So says a new article in the Harvard Business Review. Link here.

It makes good sense. If you are so sensitive, the very soul of empathy, that you do not feel comfortable inflicting ignominious defeat on a competitor, you will lack mental toughness, the will to succeed, and the perseverance to soldier on in the face of adversity.

According to Andrew O'Connell, women have more difficulty maintaining mental toughness than men. They seem to be drawn, by nature or by nurture, to be caring and empathic.

And yet, for many years now men have been beaten down by a culture that wants them to develop their sensitivity, empathy, and caring. To the point where many of them do not even understand what mental toughness is.

It is strange indeed. Say what you will about women being sensitive and caring, but surely Margaret Thatcher was a role model for mental toughness. In a world where men have been persuaded to wear their feelings on their sleeves, we are now seeing more and more women take up ... the slack.

Especially in politics, women are displaying a mental toughness that men no longer feel they can show.

Is Sarah Palin mentally tough? Isn't that one of the qualities that is most impressive about her? And isn't the nation transfixed to see a woman who is both mentally tough and feminine at the same time?

Didn't Peggy Noonan explain that the Tea Party, to say nothing of the Mamma Grizzlies, is taking over for Republican men who have become too squishy, too eager to give in, too willing to surrender their principles, too quick to compromise. For my comments on Noonan's column, link here.

Thatcher and Palin have shown that mental toughness does not require a constant display of brutal aggressiveness. The boss who adopts an aggressive persona is playing a role; his one-note aggressiveness is a sign that he lacks mental toughness.

Mental toughness requires flexibility. The mentally tough change tactics when situations change or when the initial plan is not yielding the desired results.

People who are mentally tough want to win and will do whatever it takes, within the rules, to effect that outcome. They do not adopt a macho persona and maintain it no matter the outcome. You might show that you are tough by driving your car off the cliff, but mental toughness is not about crashing and burning.

In the article I linked in my first paragraph, Christine Riordan offers some excellent guidelines for mental toughness. She bases her analysis on her experiences as dean of a business school and as the mother of a son she is helping train for soccer.

Sports, business, the military... the concept of mental toughness comes to us from the world of competitive striving. Its values have largely been occluded by therapy and its culture.

You may think that the therapy culture is emphasizing female friendly values. And yet, at a time when women are more fully participating in the world of business, therapy would seem to be hawking a value system that would, if anything, make them dysfunctional in that world.

A great competitor directs his energy, his focus, his concentration, and his intelligence entirely to the task at hand. He will do what it takes to win within the rules. He will not be defeated by adversity, but will quickly move to change a plan that is not working. He will stick with his project, keep the goal in mind, and persevere until he achieves it.

The mentally weak will be too quick to accept defeat. They will take it all personally, become emotional, fail to adapt, feel everyone's pain, or else will simply refuse to change tactics when reality keeps telling them that they are wrong.

Sticking with a losing plan might feel like toughness; it is really a way of consigning oneself to ignominious defeat. There is no mental toughness in futility.

Mental weakness may also manifest itself in cheating to get ahead, cutting corners, taking what you can without earning it, and seeing what you can get away with.

When a mental tough individual sees an opportunity to win by bending the rules, he demurs. When great golfers inadvertently break the rules they are the first to turn themselves in.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter does not write about "mental toughness," but her article on five powers that will help you achieve success falls within the bounds of the concept. Link here.

You can develop your mental toughness, Kanter advises, by evincing the five ups: showing up, speaking up, teaming up, looking up, and not giving up.

By the term "looking up" she means having strong ethical principles, principles like fair play and sportsmanship.

When she adds "not giving up" she means persevering in the face of adversity.

If we get over the cult to sensitivity, perhaps we can also accept that mental toughness has a place in the home, in nurturing, and even in romance.
Christine Riordan talks about how she, as a mother, helps to instill mental toughness in her soccer-playing son. Admittedly, a mother nurturing a baby relies more on sensitivity and instinct than on more competitive energies. Still and all, after a time the sensitivity will become cloying and a good parent will work harder at building mental toughness and good character than in teaching the virtues of deep feelings.

We all believe that dating and mating are really about how much you two love each other. And yet, if we ignore the gamesmanship that is involved in these activities, we will end up the poorer for as much.


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: I Understand....

....that the Army is experiencing an increase in suicides.

I wonder if it is related to the touchy-feely sort of 'education' our young people are getting from the vaunted American education system.

This leads me to wonder how someone inculcated with the idea that THEY are 'special' and everyone else is 'special' too will react when they come to the harsh reality of modern combat. How will the respond to the idea that someone REALLY wants to KILL them?

Will they 'break' from the pressure? As Billy Joel says in the song....

You'll come to a place where the only thing you feel are loaded guns in your face.....


[Someday someone may kill you with your own gun, but they should have to beat you to death with it because it is empty. -- Marine Corps Rules for Gunfighting]

P.S. I wonder if the Marines are having this problem? I suspect they don't. Why? Because I think their basic training program washes out those who don't have the sort of 'mental toughness' necessary to conduct a frontal assault on a fortified position.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I don't know much about military suicides, but your hypothesis makes a lot of sense.

Apparently, today's recruits are far less fit, far more likely to be overweight, and more likely to fail their entrance physicals.

As I read, in 2000 4% of recruits failed the physical. In 2008 the number was 20%.
It certainly seems that these recruits lack basic discipline.

You cannot be mentally tough without being disciplined.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it is related to the touchy-feely sort of 'education' our young people are getting from the vaunted American education system.

From Chuck's own link:

Thirty-two soldiers took their own lives last month, the most Army suicides in a single month since the Vietnam era.

It's the worst since the "good-ol days" when even women were men, sheep were scared and Chuck was a LT....

(Dear God, I have seen Chuck P. flog his military record for so long on so many websites that I could probably write his DD214...)


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Gray
RE: [OT] Perhaps....

....I have seen Chuck P. flog his military record for so long on so many websites that I could probably write his DD214...) -- Gray could.

But I'd more interesting in knowing if you have one of your own.


P.S. One correction to your post. That description SHOULD read....

It's the worst since the "good-ol days" when even women were men, sheep were scared and Chuck was a SGT....


....based on that, I guess you couldn't write my DD214, after all.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: GWOT vs. Viet Nam

Gray makes a point about the comparison with Viet Nam. However, he doesn't take it to it's logical conclusion.

Compare Viet Nam to the GWOT, specifically Afghanistan and Iraq.

Though the situation is somewhat similar, i.e., asynchronious warfare, there are significant differences.

THEN, in Viet Nam we were up against not just the Viet Cong, but the North Vietnamese regulars as well as Communist China and the Soviet Union.

NOW, we're up against the Islamists backed, directly, by Iran and indirectly by Saudi Arabia. I have not seen serious evidence that the Russians or the Communist Chinese are backing them....yet. And I doubt if they will, because they KNOW that anything they give them to fight US will eventually end up fighting THEM as well.

There are no NVA regulars coming down what would pass for the Ho Chi Minh trail from Iran into Afghanistan or Iraq. We'd see them coming. Our tech is THAT good.

So the warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan is hardly as intense as it had been in Viet Nam.

Therefore, the 'stress' on these young men is not nearly as intense as it had been back then.

The conclusion is that these young men do not have the 'mental toughness' that their predecessors had.


[All your life is channel 13;
Sesame Street;
What does it mean? -- Billy Joel, Pressure]

Anonymous said...

Thanks for making my point, Chuck...


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Gray
RE: Making the 'Point'

Which one?

[1] That you can't write a DD214?

[2] The good doctor's idea that generation X and/or Y lacks 'mental toughness'?


P.S. Still waiting to hear about YOUR DD214....

Anonymous said...

P.S. Still waiting to hear about YOUR DD214....

Of course you are.