Mental toughness is one of the most common traits of top performers. So how do you become mentally strong?

Let’s look at the strategy used by a world champion

One of the absolute best strategies to become mentally strong is to embrace discomfort.

Josh Waitzkin is a multi-time national chess champion who transitioned into becoming a world champion martial artist. To put it simply, this guy knows what is takes to perform under serious pressure at the absolute highest levels.

He wrote an amazing book about his journey and what it takes to be a top performer called The Art of Learning. You can also get a great summary of some of the key ideas from The Art of Learning in this incredible interview Josh did with Tim Ferriss a few years ago.

My favorite quote from The Art of Learning perfectly answers the question of how to build mental toughness:

“My whole life I have worked on this issue. Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. Left to my own devices, I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it. When injured, which happens frequently in the life of a martial artist, I try to avoid painkillers and to change the sensation of pain into a feeling that is not necessarily negative. My instinct is always to seek out challenges as opposed to avoiding them. This type of internal work can take place in the little moments of our lives. I mentioned how my style over the board was to create chessic mayhem and then to sort my way through the chaos more effectively than my opponents. This was a muscle I built up by training myself to be at peace with the unclear and tumultuous — and most of the training was in everyday life.” — Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Josh provides some incredible wisdom in that quote. Embracing discomfort and becoming at peace with it is the best way to cultivate mental toughness and resilience — and this is key — that work takes place in your everyday life.

The little moments where you can push yourself beyond your comfort zone and get uncomfortable build tolerance and slowly expand your ability to get tougher and tougher.

The Sphere of Discomfort

I call this the “sphere of discomfort” and it reminds me of this quote:

Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear. — George Addair

When you do something for the first time it’s scary. When you do it for the 10th time, you’re staring to get the hang of it. When you do it for the 1000th time, you’re practically getting bored.

When you play on the edges of your comfort zone, those edges slowly expand, and expand, and expand — and you start to be able to do more things, to push more boundaries, to achieve goals you never thought possible.

The strength and courage to break out of your comfort zone happens, as Josh said, in those little moments of your life. Take the opportunity to make yourself uncomfortable. Take a cold shower. Talk to a stranger. Ask the coffee shop for a free cup of coffee, just because. That’s how you start to get more and more comfortable with discomfort. Rejection therapy is another great tool to start really getting out of your comfort zone.

In the podcast episode below, I even tell a story of how this very Medium post would never exist without me, personally, progressively embracing discomfort!

How To Get Uncomfortable

For a few resources on how to go deeper on this I would recommend checking out the following:

  1. In this Google Talk — Josh Waitzkin explains many of his ideas and concepts around performance.
  2. In this podcast episode I break down a number of strategies for embracing discomfort in your daily life (and go deeper on Josh’s story).
  3. In this interview Jia Jiang discusses “rejection therapy” which can be a great way to familiarize yourself with discomfort (especially if you struggle with social situations).
  4. In this interview Dr. Andy Molinsky, a professor of psychology, explains a number of strategies for getting outside your comfort zone.

All of those resources, along with the book The Art of Learning, would be a great starting point toward becoming mentally tougher.

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