Tim Ferriss and how to develop mental toughness: Lessons from 7 titans

Patrick Hechinger

By Laura Leebove (Article originally posted General Assembly)

Committing to a major life change can be scary, especially when it comes to your career — but inspiration from those who have made their way to the top can go a long way in overcoming obstacles and leveling up. Through his bestselling self-help book The 4-Hour Workweek, massively popular podcast The Tim Ferriss Show, and more, entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss has helped thousands of people design lives and careers they love.

Throughout his work, Ferriss has gleaned motivational insight from leaders in business, sports, entertainment, and the military, homing in on the habits, mentalities, and strategies they use to excel. He’s compiled some of his best learnings from those conversations into a new book, Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers.

In this post, we share ideas and anecdotes that help dispel the fear, frustration, and paralyzing mindsets that slow your trajectory to success and prevent you from taking positive risks for your career. Hear from a range of voices including Arnold Schwarzenegger on confidence and vision, retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal on using military tactics for life strategies, and more.

“Mental toughness can take many forms: resilience against attack, calmness in the face of uncertainty, persistence through pain, or focus amid chaos,” says Ferriss. “Below are seven lessons from seven of the toughest human beings I know.”

Ferriss will speak at GA in early 2017 — sign up for our email list at the bottom of this page to stay in the loop.

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Highlights from Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers:

The latest book from Tim Ferriss is In stores now.

1. If you want to be tougher, be tougher. (Jocko Willink, former Navy SEAL Commander)

“If you want to be tougher mentally, it is simple: Be tougher. Don’t meditate on it.” The simple logic of Willink’s words struck a chord: “Being tougher” was, more than anything, a decision to be tougher. It’s possible to immediately “be tougher,” starting with your next decision. Have trouble saying “no” to dessert? Be tougher. Make that your starting decision. Feeling winded? Take the stairs anyway. Ditto. It doesn’t matter how small or big you start. If you want to be tougher, be tougher.

2. If you have a clear vision of where you want to go, getting there is easy. (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

In my interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger, I brought up a photo of him at age 19, just before he won his first big competition, Junior Mr. Europe. I asked, “Your face was so confident compared to every other competitor. Where did that confidence come from?” He replied:

“My confidence came from my vision … I am a big believer that if you have a very clear vision of where you want to go, then the rest of it is much easier. Because you always know why you are training five hours a day, you always know why you are pushing and going through the pain barrier, and why you have to eat more, and why you have to struggle more, and why you have to be more disciplined … I felt that I could win it, and that was what I was there for. I wasn’t there to compete. I was there to win.”

3. Push beyond, share privation, tackle fear. (Four-Star General Stanley McChrystal)

The following from Gen. McChrystal was in response to the question, “What are three tests or practices from the military that civilians could use to help develop mental toughness?”

“The first is to push yourself harder than you believe you’re capable of. You’ll find new depth inside yourself. The second is to put yourself in groups who share difficulties, discomfort. We used to call it ‘shared privation.’ [Privation is a state in which things essential for human well-being such as food and warmth are scarce or lacking.] You’ll find that when you have been through that kind of difficult environment, you feel more strongly about that which you’re committed to. And finally, create some fear and make individuals overcome it.”

4. Put fear in line, and be pro-bravery. (Caroline Paul, luger, firefighter, and more)

In the 1990s, Caroline Paul illegally climbed the Golden Gate Bridge, rising to ~760 feet on thin cables. She’d mentioned “putting fear in line” to me, and I asked her to dig into the specifics. Here’s what she said:

“I am not against fear. I think fear is definitely important. It’s there to keep us safe. But I do feel like some people give it too much priority. It’s one of the many things that we use to assess a situation. I am pro-bravery. That’s my paradigm.

“For instance, when we climbed the bridge… Talk about fear — you’re walking on a cable where you have to put one foot in front of the other until you’re basically as high as a 70-story building with nothing below you and two thin wires on either side.

“It’s just a walk, technically. Really, nothing’s going to happen unless some earthquake or catastrophic gust of wind hits. You’re going to be fine as long as you keep your mental state intact.

“In those situations, I look at all the emotions I’m feeling, which are anticipation, exhilaration, focus, confidence, fun, and fear. Then I take fear and say, ‘Well, how much priority am I going to give this? I really want to do this.’ I put it where it belongs. It’s like brick laying or making a stone wall. You fit the pieces together.”

5. Determine if it’s a dream or a goal. (Paul Levesque, a.k.a. Triple H, WWE superstar and executive)

WWE superstar Paul Levesque said:

“[Evander Holyfield] said that his coach at one point told him something like his very first day, ‘You could be the next Muhammad Ali. Do you wanna do that?’ Evander said he had to ask his mom. He went home, he came back and said, ‘I wanna do that.’ The coach said, ‘OK. Is that a dream or a goal? Because there’s a difference.’ I’d never heard it said that way, but it stuck with me. So much so that I’ve said it to my kid now: ‘Is that a dream, or a goal?’ Because a dream is something you fantasize about that will probably never happen. A goal is something you set a plan for, work toward, and achieve. I always looked at my stuff that way. The people who were successful models to me were people who had structured goals and then put a plan in place to get to those things.

6. The toughest competitors will make you stronger. (Josh Waitzkin, chess prodigy, push hands world champion, first black belt under BJJ phenom Marcelo Garcia)

In the world of combat sports and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Waitzkin said, “It’s very interesting to observe who the top competitors pick out when they’re five rounds into the sparring sessions and they’re completely gassed. The ones who are on the steepest growth curve look for the hardest guy there — the one who might beat them up — while others look for someone they can take a break on.”

7. Achieving the extraordinary is not a linear process. (Christopher Sommer, former men’s gymnastics national team coach)

We all get frustrated. I am particularly prone to frustration when I see little or no progress after several weeks of practicing something new. While training with Coach Sommer, I expressed how discouraging it was to make zero tangible progress with an exercise I was struggling with. Below is his email response (edited and condensed for clarity), which I immediately saved to Evernote to review often:

“Dealing with the temporary frustration of not making progress is an integral part of the path toward excellence. In fact, it is essential and something that every single elite athlete has had to learn to deal with. If the pursuit of excellence was easy, everyone would do it. In fact, this impatience in dealing with frustration is the primary reason that most people fail to achieve their goals. Unreasonable expectations time-wise, resulting in unnecessary frustration, due to a perceived feeling of failure. Achieving the extraordinary is not a linear process.

“The secret is to show up, do the work, and go home.

“A blue-collar work ethic married to indomitable will. It is literally that simple. Nothing interferes. Nothing can sway you from your purpose. Once the decision is made, simply refuse to budge.

“Refuse to compromise and accept that quality long-term results require quality long-term focus. No emotion. No drama. No beating yourself up over small bumps in the road. Learn to enjoy and appreciate the process. This is especially important because you are going to spend far more time on the actual journey than with those all too brief moments of triumph at the end.

“Certainly celebrate the moments of triumph when they occur. More importantly, learn from defeats when they happen. In fact, if you are not encountering defeat on a fairly regular basis, you are not trying hard enough. And absolutely refuse to accept less than your best. Throw out a timeline. It will take what it takes.”

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