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Ask HN: How do you guys develop mental toughness?
53 points by theredking on Dec 10, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments
I recently got done reading David Goggins book Can't Hurt Me where he advocates being uncomfortable as one of the key factors in developing mental toughness but his book was rather focused on how to do this via physical means, what are some tactics you guys use to develop intellectual mental toughness?

Practicing MMA (but any single art like Boxing, Wrestling, Muy Thai, etc would work) has definitely boosted my mental toughness. Once you step into a ring with someone who is trying to attack you, and come out okay, you realize you can handle pretty much anything.

Even if you don't spar, simply motivating yourself to go to practice can be tough. If you can walk into a room knowing you're going to be pinned and choked, you can walk into an interview/negotiation/meeting/date no problem.

I agree with this 100%. Though I only do grappling and not any striking (BJJ and Submission Wrestling).

When I did my first competition, locking eyes with my opponent knowing he will do everything he can do to choke me, break my joints and knowing I voluntarily put myself there, it changed me :)

I especially like how you frame your last sentence. Since martial arts can sometimes be uncomfortable physically, like you I have noticed is that things that used to be uncomfortable are not as uncomfortable as being pinned down by someone much larger than you. I consciously remind myself of this if I ever feel nervous about something, and it works almost every time.

I've also read the book by Goggins (loved it) and martial arts really build up your "cookie jar".

"Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy."

The entire experience, from the first days when I got triangled by girls half my size (choking my ego as much as choking my body), to competition days, with pressure passers and crazy leglock guys... It absolutely changed me - for the better.

I practiced judo and boxing for two decades, and I still have low-confidence and anxiety. At least in my case, it's totally unrelated.

I'm sorry to hear that. What other things have you tried? Any ideas on what's causing that much low-confidence and anxiety?

Thanks. It's not that bad. I think it's just a personality trait. I don't think I'll ever get rid of this.

Have you ever to talked a therapist? Change is extremely hard, but always possible.

For those who don't agree, I think the difference may be competition experience. It's like other high pressure scenarios, but preparing for a match can teach you how to prepare for others. My level of nervousness is pretty well correlated to how prepared I feel. The best competitors go into a match "knowing" they will win because they had covered all the bases.

I don’t agree with this at all, having boxed (and sparred) for a while. Getting punched in the face hurts a bit, and that’s about it.

We should have a Hacker News MMA meetup :)

I'll give you the same advice everyone else is, but word it slightly differently, because thinking this way really helped me: Be OK in your own vulnerability.

'Toughness' implies some sort of everything-proof shield that you expose to different stimulus to gain 'immunity' from it. I've seen advice that follows this line of thought: eg you quit bathing for a week and become 'immune' to some specific social judgements, you go to some extreme sport to be 'immune' from the fear associated with it, etc.

The problem with the above is it starts feeding into this weird 'detached, tough guy' persona that cracks as soon as you realize something has gotten to you. You think "oh no, this thing isn't one of the many things I'm immune from!" and will try to counter it with some sort of extreme, tough-guy exposure. Until the next thing gets to you. Etc.

Rather than doing that, you should realize what creates the toughness in the first place: it's being vulnerable (physically, emotionally, intellectually, etc.) and realizing it's an OK state to be in. Even if you're in a vulnerable state, you've "got it", you'll make it out of it, it's not the end of the world, etc.

Now, you can practice this by putting yourself into vulnerable states and showing yourself that you survive them (but you have to remember to let yourself generalize so you don't get stuck in the 'tough guy' mentality I described above) OR you can explore the concept of vulnerability in general and learn to be OK with it. I recommend the latter :)

To that end, I really liked "the gifts of imperfection".

I think this is the best advice.

I did not go this route; I developed my own form of mental toughness. I used to be insecure as a kid, and some other kids picked on me, and eventually I learned to not care what other people thought. Especially if their opinion leads them to be negative about vulnerable people, it's their opinion that sucks, not the vulnerable people. So ignore that stupid opinion.

This has worked very well for me, but at the same time, I worry if I'm not too detached from other people, from their emotions, and from my own. My empathy exists mostly on an intellectual level, and not really an emotional level.

So it works, but now that I read your comment, I think it may not be the best outcome. Embracing vulnerability, your own and that of others, sounds like a better idea.

Being hard makes you brittle and likely to crack under stress.

Being tough means being able to bend and stretch without breaking.

Go meta. for love, health and existential fears it won't necessarily help, but everything else can't be that important.

trying to take a step back is helpful to find solutions and underlying problems anyways.

for "interpersonal hardening" it helps to understand why others act the way they do (for negative behavior it's usually fear once you dig deep enough)

for myself I approach it slightly different: I don't fight my feelings, even if it needs secretly shedding a tear at home. only after having dealt with the emotions I can again take a step back, analyse causes and consider actions.

and lastly: find someone to talk to. this could even be an anonymous internet friend, if you are not comfortable sharing things with someone close by. they can assure you you are not alone and automatically have a healthy outside perspective.

edit: and I actively avoid unnecessary social stress (toxic people, unhealthy hierarchies or simply the social pressure in some sorts of group work if not worth the pain (playing in a lovely band: yes! half assing a shared side project you are not really on to: no!))

It's not about what you can resist, it's about what you have the capacity to endure.

One tactic that helps me through the tough bits are to think of a time that's been harder/more painful/tougher and remind myself: "I've already been through worse before, and from this point forward it will only get better"

Another thing I do to try to support myself is to switch what I'm doing. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut like a car spinning our wheels in the mud - spending a lot of energy but not making and progress. Maybe it's time to step out of the car and put some branches down, or take a different tactic. If you ever feel like you're just spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere, switch up your approach! Even if progress is slow, your energy isn't wasted and you don't sit there an anguish waiting for _something_ (anything) to happen to save you from it.

Another thing you can do to get a thicker skin (toward what others say) is to hop on IRC, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Slack, or Discord, or wherever people go to be snippy and nasty to each other. It won't be long before some trolls or malicious actors come along and try to get under your skin. Don't let them. Every time it happens it's easier to do!

Learn Stoicism.

My favorite classic is Enchiridion by Epictetus and Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. For a more modern approach: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Burkman

PD:I compiled a list of quotes from the best books http://arandomquote.com/categories/stoic/

Meditations by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is a must read as well. Another addition to your modern approach recommendation of the stoicism theme is Ryan Holiday's Ego is the Enemy.

PS - There's a really captivating lecture on stoicism in the context of the life of Marcus Aurelius https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5897dMWJiSM

FYI: There is actually a MOOC going on right now called "Stoic Mindfulness & Resilience Training (SMRT)"[0]

[0] https://modernstoicism.com/stoic-mindfulness-and-resilience-...

Some ways of putting psychological stress on yourself:

- Public speaking

- Taking on leadership roles

- Do things that are counter to your personality. Eg, if you're shy, force yourself to talk to strangers on the street

- Put yourself in situations where you will probably face rejection

- Do things that will make you stick out. Eg: showing up at work one day in a suit when everyone else is wearing t-shirts. Or vice-versa

- Take a flight to a random foreign country where you don't know the local language, and where most people don't know English. No hotel reservations in advance, no laptop, no smartphone, minimal budget. Figure out how to survive, have fun, and visit the city's major landmarks over the following 5 days. Bonus points if it's a developing country

Not that I'm particularly recommending all of the above. But they will certainly put you in an psychologically "uncomfortable" spot and help expand your comfort zone.

- Take a flight to a random foreign country where you don't know the local language, and where most people don't know English. No hotel reservations in advance, no laptop, no smartphone, minimal budget. Figure out how to survive and visit the city's major landmarks over the following 5 days. Bonus points if it's a developing country

This could result in you being more than just psychologically uncomfortable. Tourists are, broadly speaking, expected to have hotel rooms booked; showing up at immigration without any advance plans is a good way to be denied entry to some countries. (Yes, even countries you don't need a visa to visit: Border officials can deny you entry on the basis of "this person's story doesn't add up".)

Most of the time, just google an address before leaving, and gives that to the border, saying you will "hand around visiting". I've set foot in almost 30 countries so far, this has never been a problem.

Yes on the visa point - can't be totally random. The rest you can.

I'm about to embark on a 3 week trip through south east asia. Aside from my liveaboard where I'll be living on a boat and diving (which I have to book in advance), I haven't booked a single accommodation. It can be done; hostels all the way.

I did it with my wife when we visited Croatia ages ago. We only planned the flight there (to Split) and the flight back (from Zagreb), and we had to figure out how where to sleep and how to get everywhere. We visited the big island at the coast near Split, we visited Dubrovnic, the big nature park in the middle of the country. It was great. Not hard to do at all.

Though I expect some places outside Europe it might get a bit harder.

Book a cheap AirBnB / hotel for one nigh. Use address. Don’t show up.

You can always make a bogus reservation on a cheap refundable hostel, and cancel it as soon as you get through immigration. That's exactly what I did when I applied for a visa and they insisted on seeing full hotel reservations.

> Take a flight to a random foreign country where you don't know the local language, and where most people don't know English. No hotel reservations in advance, no laptop, no smartphone, minimal budget. Figure out how to survive, have fun, and visit the city's major landmarks over the following 5 days. Bonus points if it's a developing country

That sounds like a wonderful way to get kidnapped or murdered. Why do people recommend this? It seems only slightly less dangerous than going to the most dangerous neighborhood in the biggest city you can day-trip to, and start hurling slurs at passers-by.

The rest of your advice seems wonderful and I'd highly recommend it!

- Do things that will make you stick out. Eg: showing up at work one day in a suit when everyone else is wearing t-shirts. Or vice-versa

If you do this prepare for a raft of questions / meetings with you asking if you have a job interview or something today. Are you thinking about leaving? Are you sure you're happy here etc etc... :D

Reminds me of this clip from Family Guy [0] where Peter decides to change his wardrobe for work

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEG-FXgAOGg

I believe most people are conformists and do not really care for those who stick out like a nail out the board; most will try to hammer it back in. If you're not a "culture fit", they might even let you go. Risky.

See they're going to be looking for army guys, cue peter dressed as a clown in the jungle

Read one book. Dostoyevsky's ‘Crime and Punishment’, concentrating on all of the various ways he portrays righteousness.

He helps you see what's right in front of you, namely that people do wrong things not because they are evil or bad, but because they are weak.

Once you understand people as inherently weak, that they do stupid shit because they are essentially helpless, not because they're bad or evil or cruel, it becomes so much easier to forgive.

Mental toughness is all about forgiving and forgetting, and you learn to forgive only by accepting that people are weak, that people are essentially incapable of doing what's right.

Here one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“She is so unhappy! Ah, how unhappy! She believes there must be righteousness everywhere. She expects it. She doesn't see that it's impossible for people to be righteous and she is angry at it.”

I wonder how much difference physical stress Vs mental stress it makes. Stress is stress. Anxiety (mental stress) causes physical symptoms. The will to continue in physical endeavours is through changing the mind and being determined to continue. Mind over matter. This want to stop doing physical stuff comes from the mind. So improving the mental toughness comes from repetitively attempting to breach this barrier.

Goggins even says stuff in his interviews with Joe Rogan that indicate that he would agree. Most people stop physical activity not when the body is exhausted but when the brain thinks the body is done. When Jesse Itzler interviewed with Joe Rogan about Goggins, he said Goggins thought people only did 40% of what they were capable of until they changed their mind.

Sorry for the bit unedited/rough comment but I don't have too much time so I'm typing pretty fast.

(1) Learning how to program

(2) Hacking hardware

(3) Learning Andy McKee Rylynn on guitar while only knowing Wonderwall (there's a YouTube tutorial).

(4) Breathing/anapana/'basic'/the-first-meditation-beginners learn meditation and Tonglen (see the book search inside yourself for instructions) meditation [1].

(5) In general: by bootcamping yourself. Also known as being woefully underprepared and then just do it for 8 to 16 hours per day (the hours depend on how the rest of your life balance is, your health must be ok).

I wasn't talented at hardware hacking and hated programming when I started with it. It was my curiosity that said: can't you learn to like it? You can create awesome things with it!

Curiosity + the promise of creating awesome things + observing myself and being rational on how to influence myself = learning how to program despite hating it initially.

But in general: focus a lot on what you're doing and focus as deep as you possibly can and do that for as long as possible. This state is in some was easier to get into if you're doing a topic that seems super hard for you to learn and that you don't know a lot about.

For physical toughness: learn the Wim Hof Method -- adrenaline whenever you want it. I'm pretty sure that will help for developing physical toughness.

[1] In my experiene the following meditations don't develop mental toughness, they only develop empathy or a form of emotional intelligence: Vipassana/body scan/mindfulness, loving kindness keditation/metta (yes the same metta as my username implies).

Thanks a ton for the reply! I was definitely thinking along the lines of a bootstrap workshop!

Get married and divorce a couple of times.

I shot skeet competitively when I was younger. I competed at a high level. Unlike many other sports where competitors affect your play, the only reason you fail in skeet is because of you. The target will fly the same. The gun and ammunition will perform.

The outcome of any one event is Boolean: you hit the target or you miss. Feedback is instant.

You have to learn to put your mind into the zone. You do that through repetition. While competing, if you worry about your competitor, or the next shot, or how you look, you will miss. Coincidentally, you learn to turn off your brain from trying too hard. A relaxed brain and body are quicker to react, and more powerful.

I leaned mental toughness through a game with small Boolean feedback, which rewards focus and rejects excessive effort. It is like instant feedback on meditation.

Protect yourself from

   Machiavellianism(manipulate/deceive others)
   Psychopathy(lack of remorse/empathy)
   Sadism(pleasure in suffering of others) 

Why would you want to develop "intellectual mental toughness", how do you define it?


Okay googling a bit, I think mental toughness is an incredibly poor name for the concept. I'm this close to put that "mental toughness" name into the "toxic masculinity" box.

My advice would be don't be afraid to make mistakes, and be kind to yourself when you make some. I've noticed that when facing failure the best pattern would be to pardon yourself and allow yourself to learn from it. Take a step back.

Practice identifying the ego underlying your rationale and the way you interact with people. The more you’re able to confront and abandon, the mentally-tougher you’ll be.

Thanks for the advice man! Means a lot!

Learn and practice meditation. It’s the only way. I can highly recommend the book Mental Resilience: The Power of Clarity [1] by Kamal Sarma It comes with a CD (yes they still make those) to help you early on with some guided meditations while you build up.

[1]: https://www.amazon.com/Mental-Resilience-Clarity-Develop-War...

+1 for your post. I DID do a double take on the author's name though. I read it Kama Sutra at first..

In my experience, learning to tolerate physical discomfort translates pretty well to mental resilience as well.

I do the things that scare the shit out of me consistently. The things that you wouldn't even consider an option and that many people might consider impossible. When things get really hard, I lean into the pain. Sometimes the pain will be overwhelming, but it will pass. Eventually you'll get used to the pain and things will get boring, you'll plateau, and then you pick the next mountain that scares the shit out of you to start the cycle all over again.

I think life might be a little like a video game. You need to make sure you conquer all your base mountains first- things like good mental health (stoicism), physical health, and healthy relationships. If those 3 are covered you can bounce back from anything. At least from my experience and my experience includes 2 suicide attempts, starting my own business, and surviving a bunch of bad stuff.

It is really really easy to develop mental toughness from physical exercise. The two go hand in hand. You can't push your body without pushing your mind. Many physical boundaries are mental boundaries. Physical exercise is the easiest way to challenge your mental boundaries if you can.

I love long-distance running. It's an easy way to see and test your boundaries and get fit at the same time. Once you hit your redline or hell when you're running- being able to push through hell and finish is key. Slowly and surely you'll be able to run through longer distances of hell. Remembering that pain, knowing that you can meet your boundaries and surpass them, can help you deal with almost everything. It's a confidence-builder. It translates to mental toughness- doing the things and confronting your personal demons, each personal demon you conquer brings you to a bigger demon, but all the small demons you conquered along the way become your allies.

Whenever I face a tough situation, it's like lol this is nothing compared to the shit I've been through. Or almost like an anime cliche, I've conquered everything that I've come up against so far, I'm not quitting now.

What doesn't kill you, literally makes you stronger. Do all the things that you irrationally think might kill you or that makes you figuratively want to die when you think about it. Your "I'd rather die than do x, y, and z".

In my experience, the figurative dying in "I'd rather die" often feels like failing. So die/fail often. I don't know if you ever get used to it, but you start to like it after a while. It feels like progress. Growth pains that you lean into I guess.

Definitely an out there response, but recreational drugs take you to a place where you build up different views on how 'everything' works. Really gives you a different perspective on what is "difficult" in life.

Oh, and meditation and video games surely.

I really recommend "The Art and Craft of Problem Solving" by Paul Zeitz, who coached the winning USA team in the International Math Olympiad: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/593458.The_Art_and_Craft...

One of the things he focuses on is repeatedly challenging yourself with problems you don't know how to solve, and to stick with them and keep trying different angles and approaches. Even if you don't make progress, you'll be conditioning yourself to tolerate longer periods spent working the problem without a payoff.

What makes you think that mental fortitude is not required for physical toughness? You got it backwards, it's the mind that says the body to quit.

Do harder things progressively. Personally I recommend a certain style of Chan meditation, but its not easy to stick to its training plan. To bootstrap, the easy way is to do it in group so you don't quit - MMA, stoicism whatever is OK but there is much more to mental toughness than that imho.

I suppose you want mental toughness because you want to achieve some task that requires mental toughness.

So, develop mental toughness by trying to achieve said task.

different things work for different people, but personally I do hard drugs

Exposure to uncomfortable situations works, but you need to do it properly.

Some people find a cognitive behaviour therapy model useful.

For what purpose? If you want to learn how to cope with having your work rejected, become an author.

i must say i am a advocate of physical suffering for developing "toughness" but, not because i'm a masochist, loving the pain of walking or suffering through cold.

the mental toughness comes from a need to ignore physical pain and drive through to the end, as you have no other choice.

in simple terms it's "drive or die".

i'm also a follower of stoic ideology, if you look into that, you can read the thoughts of many great men, but they all suffered.

i'm not sure if i can help with intellectual mental toughness, but i assume this means mental toughness without physical suffering?

Why is this a goal? Perhaps consider instead increasing your ability to have empathy, as toughness implies lack of caring about what is happening around you.

Learn to be comfortable being alone

I’ve always been a fan of deliberate asceticism and the mantra “let me suffer or let me die”

grow up in a third world country

On that i do have a head start I'm Indian

BJJ (especially sparring) and running (nearly) every morning.

Become an entrepreneur. It's MMA for the mind.

Play some Dota 2.

have a cold shower every day! (not in the tropics - I mean in places where a cold shower is genuinely uncomfortable)


been doing this for past 10 days or so.... I can't exactly say what is better but I feel like I am overall 10-20% better than before. With meditation I do wim-hof breathing for 20minutes every morning

Mediation can teach you this.

Having Asian parents.

Listen to Jocko Willink all day...

Read the Stoics. Take up an endurance sport.

What is mental toughness? It is perspective and belief to step back and realise that the suffering is only temporary and will ultimately be worth having endured.

Let's say mental toughness = mental harm/abuse resitance.

Maybe it's similar to how we develop drug resistance. By exposing yourself to difficult situation which are challenging for your mind, you might develop mental toughness.

Living in China.

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