Hang Tough

UPDATED: April 5, 2010
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2010

They say resilience is a boxer’s best friend: As a fighter, you have to roll with the punches, and when you hit the mat, you need to bounce back. Even if you come out with bruises and some broken bones, staying on your feet and in the ring is a victory in itself. The same can be said for the business world—especially in today’s economy. “There are upheavals in career prospects, economic climate and relationship dynamics. Frequently, it becomes overwhelming,” says Srikumar Rao, author of the new book, Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated and Successful—No Matter What.

Take, for example, a salesperson who encounters nine “nos” for every one “yes.” To get from Point A (rejection) to Point B (that one sale), she must endure daily tests of her beliefs, confidence and determination. To face it all, mental toughness is key.

“The real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head,” says Graham Jones, business author and sports psychologist. “Rather, it is mental toughness.”

Gordon Johnson knows how true that is. As a commissioned sales rep in the alarm industry, he was “beaten in the face with rejection day in and day out,” he says. “Staying positive can be difficult, but not impossible. You have to remind yourself after every sales call that it is all a numbers game.”

Easier said than done, right? Johnson managed it, and during his 18-year career, he worked his way up from sales rep to branch manager to corporate executive and now owner of his own company. Johnson’s mental muscle—his resilience and confidence—got him to where he is today.

Think Positive

So what does the face of mental toughness look like? First of all, it’s smiling. Having a positive outlook is the foundation of resiliency.

But be careful of the company you keep. Johnson warns that the negativity of others can easily snuff your own optimism. “It’s important to surround yourself with positive people,” he says. “If you have that one co-worker who comes in every day and never stops complaining, stay away from them. That negativity is contagious, and, if you listen to it, it will only cost you.”

Rao says it’s important to stop viewing and labeling everyday experiences—a flat tire, a failed sale, a heated conversation—as “good” or “bad.” “There is the notion that negativity and rejection are ‘bad.’ Perhaps they are not ‘bad’ at all,” he says.

“Let’s say that you are a chess grandmaster and have entered a tournament. If everyone is a novice you beat easily, the tournament is not fun. It’s only when you have other players, some who are better than you, that the matches become interesting and you play your best. So, treat life as a game where you are constantly being challenged. Then nothing fazes you.”

In fact, that chess grandmaster likely performs at his best when facing players at or above his own skill level—when the pressure is on. “Elite performers thrive on pressure,” Jones says. “They excel when the heat is turned up.”

Again, instead of viewing challenges as negative, consider them a chance to grow, a chance to become a stronger, more resilient you—even if you fail.

Rao encourages an approach of “extreme resilience,” which he illustrates through the example of a Daruma doll, which “is armless, legless and has a wide, heavily weighted bottom. Knock it down, and it instantly springs up. Flatten it 10 times, and it springs up 10 times.… You cannot keep a Daruma doll down.”

Establish a Vision

College football coach Scotty Kessler once famously wrote: “True champions are made, not born.” His Champions Manifesto goes on to say, “A champion is single-minded in purpose. A champion lets nothing interfere with their priority—becoming the best they possibly can become. A champion is not sidetracked by distractions or by things that do not help them reach their goals.”

To establish your vision—your goal line—sit down and take some time to think about where you are now and where you would like to be within a set time frame.

“Clarify the vision you have for your business and life three to five years from now,” says Steve Siebold, internationally recognized expert in the field of mental toughness training. “What will it feel like living your dream? How will you feel about yourself when your fantasy becomes reality? How will it feel to be universally admired for your success by people you respect? Let your emotions fuel your motivation in the face of criticism and rejection.”

Once you have established your ultimate goal, divide it into manageable, bite-sized pieces, Jones says. “You should have long-term goals that inspire you and keep you going when times are tough. You should break your goals down so you have short-term goals, which provide you with quick wins and keep you motivated on a daily basis. This will enable you to see progress toward your long-term goals.”

Reinforce Your Belief System

If positive thinking is the foundation of mental toughness, then your belief system is the structure, the load-bearing framework. These are the values that keep you standing, even when you’re getting pummeled. If you sincerely believe in what you’re doing—that your actions are necessary to accomplish your overall goals and that your goals are worthwhile—you’ll have the confidence to persevere, even when faced with rejection and naysayers. “Over the past 26 years, I’ve interviewed some of the most successful people in the world, and the most common trait they share is a world-class belief system,” Siebold says. “Most of them learned these beliefs from mentors and others who were successful. The fastest way to build empowering beliefs is to copy them from people who are where you want to be.”

To reinforce existing beliefs or establish new ones, take some time to discuss and brainstorm with those you respect. Ask them what philosophies or truths keep them going when times are tough. Write them down, and then deliberately repeat those positive affirmations on a regular basis. Some examples include: “I cannot fail. I can only learn and grow,” “Every ‘no’ gets me closer to a ‘yes,’ ” and “Every rejection makes me stronger.”

“When beliefs like these are in place and a setback occurs, the mentally tough performer sees it as a steppingstone,” Siebold says. “As these beliefs grow stronger, the performer realizes that failure is simply a perception that can be altered to serve their best interests and help them move forward.”

Bolster Self-Confidence

While having the emotional support of friends, family and colleagues is an asset to any businessperson, not everyone has it, especially when embarking on a path fraught with risk or challenges. Even well-intentioned friends and family might focus more on the pitfalls than the prize you envision. That’s why having self-confidence is a requisite. When you believe in yourself and your self-worth, no amount of setback or doubt can deter you from your goals.

When Johnson left a steady job at GE to co-found LifeLine Security and Automation Inc. in 2005, he had his share of naysayers. “Some people thought it was a little crazy to walk away from a decent guarantee, but, fortunately, over the 13 years that I had been in the industry, I had seen many companies fail and some succeed,” he says. “We have found that it has been just as beneficial to us to learn from all the mistakes that have been made in this industry as well as the successes, and we have built our business on both.”

Johnson was realistic about the risks, but confident in his knowledge and abilities, and certain his goals were worthwhile. Now, his company has two locations and employs more than 40 people.

He acknowledges that everyone’s confidence flags at times, and one tip he offers for boosting mental fitness is to improve your physical fitness. “If you feel good about yourself, it will only show through as being positive and confident,” Johnson says.

Reflecting on past success also is valuable exercise for boosting confidence, Jones suggests. “Identify and write down your achievements in your career and life in general. Keep it close to hand as a reminder, and look at the list when things are going wrong.”

Another way to bolster confidence is by practicing the art of public speaking, suggests Siebold, possibly through a local Toastmasters club. “Ninety-five percent of the population is terrified to speak in public because they’re afraid of being rejected or looking foolish,” he says. “Once you move past the fear, you’ll experience a level of confidence that will shock and amaze you.”

Sometimes, turning your focus outward and away from yourself can be beneficial. “Become passionately involved in a cause that is bigger than you and that brings a greater good to a greater community,” Rao says. “When you lack self-confidence, you are wrapped up in yourself and what others think of you and whether you are meeting their expectations.”

Ultimately, it’s critical to keep things in perspective: Know that you’re not alone in your struggle, and that the journey is just as important as your destination.

“Remember that you’re traveling down the same lonely road every great businessman has endured,” Siebold says. “The biggest benefit of your future success will be the mental toughness you develop during the struggle.”