8 Stoic Secrets to Help You Build Mental Toughness

This is a guest post by Alex J. Hughes who is a writer and software product manager based in Nashville, TN. Join his reading list for 5+ monthly book recommendations–with notes so you can start to dig in–and his latest articles. 

What distinguishes the greats is the will to keep going when others start dropping off and to see through what they believe in when it’s at its bleakest moment. And this persistence requires developing mental toughness—the ability to embrace uncertainty and discomfort while negotiating the way forward.

Greatness is not always synonymous with the common indicators of success. As Seneca explains, “Success comes to the lowly and to the poorly talented, but the special characteristic of a great person is to triumph over the disasters and panics of human life.” You can be lucky or born into advantageous circumstances and appear “successful” to most of society without making any meaningful progress of your own.

But if you want to be more than a shell and develop the substance that sets apart the greats, you need the endurance to stick it out, handle rejection, and embrace prolonged periods of intense learning. There are no shortcuts. At the end of the day, the only real way to develop mental toughness is by putting yourself out there and learning how to effectively deal with whatever that comes your way.

For most, including myself, mental toughness is hard won. But once you cultivate this ability, the playing field shifts in your favor. You just have to determine what’s sustainable and what’s worth seeing through. Over the years I’ve found a few effective strategies with their roots in Stoicism that have helped me to begin developing greater resilience.

1. Life Is About Resourcefulness

“In this way you must understand how laughable it is to say, ‘Tell me what to do!’ What advice could I possibly give? No, a far better request is, ‘Train my mind to adapt to any circumstance.’…In this way, if circumstances take you off script…you won’t be desperate for a new prompting.” — Epictetus

The modern education system, with its rigid structure and syllabus for every course, does its best to train this out of us. One of the biggest obstacles I faced when I took my first job out of college was my inability to handle ambiguity. If I wasn’t assigned specific tasks and provided explicit instruction, I crumbled. As it turns out, life is far more about resourcefulness than a checklist of prescribed actions. There is no single blueprint to walk you through every step of your life. You must learn to adapt and create your own momentum–even when you encounter setbacks. Each day is an opportunity to practice making things happen–regardless of your current environment or circumstances–and to leverage the experience you’ve gained along the way.  There is no substitute in life for true resourcefulness.

2. Spend Time in Solitude

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, it better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” — Seneca

Learn to be content spending more time in your own company. Introspection is the only way you can determine what matters most and what you want out of life. The earlier you learn to do this, the more focused you will be. It’s also a tool to help you reach a deeper state of concentration and flow. Those who bounce from one distraction to another are incapable of developing the resilience required to set themselves apart. You have to establish a place in your mind that you can step back into, quiet the surrounding noise, and immerse yourself in your craft or remind yourself to show back up tomorrow. Prioritizing focused time alone is a sign of stability–a core component of mental toughness.

3. Create More, Consume Less

“We too could have some or all of that power by a patient immersion in any field of study. Many people cannot handle the boredom this might entail; they fear starting out on such an arduous process. They prefer their distractions, dreams, and illusions, never aware of the higher pleasures that are there for those who choose to master themselves and a craft.” — Robert Greene

If you’re putting yourself out there and contributing your own original work to the world, it requires an inherent degree of mental toughness. It’s far easier to opt out, but is there anything more selfish than relying on other people to create art, value, and meaning, so you don’t have to risk putting yourself out there? What you consume doesn’t make you unique. The fact that you’re a fan of the Golden State Warriors, listen to Ed Sheeran, watch Veep, and only buy Apple products, are not unique identifiers. What you create and what you’re putting out into the world is what defines you. And creating something from nothing is no small task, it demands and helps grow resiliency.

4. Show Up, Every Day

“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible–and no one can keep you from this. But there will be some external obstacle! Perhaps, but no obstacle to acting with justice, self-control, and wisdom. But what if some other area of my action is thwarted? Well, gladly accept the obstacle for what it is and shift your attention to what is given, and another action will immediately take its place, one that better fits the life you are building.” — Marcus Aurelius

Show up, every day, and put in the work. The simple act of showing up and immersing yourself in your craft does wonders for mental endurance. You build focus and come to terms with the arduous process that it takes to achieve anything great. It’s not easy and the rewards are nonlinear. You have to put in countless hours of work before you reap any of the benefits. But there are no shortcuts if you want to build your life on a foundation of substance. You must first determine what you can sustain at a high level for an indefinite period of time, because that’s what it’s going to take. Overnight “success” is unsustainable because it comes to those who are unprepared, often destroying their character in the process. Make sure you earn it, action by action, and dedicate uninterrupted time to your craft each day.

5. Measure You Against You

“I will keep constant watch over myself and–most usefully–will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil–that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” — Seneca

There’s no faster way to undermine yourself and your efforts than comparing yourself to someone focused on a completely different objective. Hold yourself accountable to you. As uncomfortable as it might be, you have to be willing to stare yourself in the face. While reflecting on each day, consider whether you made rational decisions and acted in accordance with your values at every opportunity. You’re not always going to make the right decisions each step of the way–and that’s okay. But you should always be willing to reflect on your actions so you can learn and grow. The more in tune you are with your current progress, the better decisions you will be able to make and the easier it will be to keep things in perspective.

6. Keep out the Critics

“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled–have you no shame in that?”  — Epictetus

The cornerstone of Stoicism is identifying externals and what is beyond your influence. There is no better example than outside opinion. Allowing yourself to be upset by the opinion of someone you don’t know or don’t respect is as foolish as getting upset about the weather. It’s a waste of energy. That’s not to say that you should live in denial. You should actively seek honest feedback from those you respect. But above all, you should strive to make something that resonates with your spirit. And if you create from that place, it’s bound to inspire others. Just don’t expect everyone to get it. You will get overlooked at some point in your life and brutally criticized by those without skin the game. Don’t hand over your peace of mind to outsiders to disrupt as they please. Recognize the noise for what it is and it will become almost laughable.

7. Never Play the Victim

“If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim–if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances–you are likely to have a good life.”  — William B. Irvine

Always assume responsibility. The “why me?” mentality is an enemy to mental toughness. You might not be at fault, but your life depends on you determining what’s within your control and taking those things into your own hands. You must train yourself to frame things this way instead of immediately resorting to self pity. It’s certainly easier to pawn off blame on others when something goes wrong. But only those with a degree of mental fortitude are able to step up–even when it’s not their fault–and right the ship. Be that person who steps in to take action, not the one who looks the other way and casts blame. When you victimize yourself or your current position, you relinquish control and absolve yourself of personal responsibility. And without a sense of ownership, meaningful progress becomes an impossible task.

8. Practice Voluntary Hardship

“Here’s a lesson to test your mind’s mettle: take part of a week in which you have only the most meager and cheap food, dress scantly in shabby clothes, and ask yourself if this is really the worst that you feared. It is when times are good that you should gird yourself for tougher times ahead, for when fortune is kind the soul can build defenses against her ravages. So it is that soldiers practice maneuvers in peacetime, erecting bunkers with no enemies in sight and exhausting themselves under no attack so that when it comes they won’t grow tired.”  — Seneca

The easiest way is rarely the most fulfilling. Voluntary hardship challenges us to propel ourselves forward under our own power and embrace discomfort. While it contradicts society’s obsession with immediate gratification, that’s precisely the reason it’s a more effective strategy. Most people live in fear of the slightest discomfort or inconvenience. If you’re able to practice consistently pushing yourself to the point of discomfort and sustaining at that level, you begin to build resiliency. For this same reason, physical endurance translates well into mental endurance. If you’re more prepared to handle a wider range of potential scenarios, the everyday annoyances and inconveniences begin to feel less disruptive. And if the worst case scenario prevails—which it rarely does—it won’t leave you completely wrecked.

***

If you’re content with stumbling through life and relying on your position of privilege, you might still find success. But the inevitable fall will leave you in ruins—as your rise wasn’t built on anything of substance, just dumb luck and smoke in mirrors. Only those who develop resilience and dedicate painstaking time to their craft are able to sustain themselves at the pinnacle. And when they do face setbacks, they have the mental fortitude to rebuild without crumbling. There is no single path to greatness, but there is one common element that every great person shares–mental toughness.

This is a guest post by Alex J. Hughes who is a writer and software product manager based in Nashville, TN. Join his reading list for 5+ monthly book recommendations–with notes so you can start to dig in–and his latest articles.


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