The role of mental toughness in facing life’s challenges


I have always been intrigued by why some individuals are able to withstand and thrive through severely challenging circumstances, while many others wilt under pressure.  Why do setbacks often serve as the springboard for success for some and drive others into depression, fatigue, and failure?  Let me cite a couple of examples:

  1. I have seen the short story recently about twin sons that were born into and lived through a childhood that included an alcoholic father that struggled with addiction throughout his life.  Whereas one son fell into the same habits of his father and became an alcoholic that struggled through life, the other used his father’s weakness to strengthen his own resolve to succeed in life without a reliance upon alcohol, drugs, or addiction to any other substance.  Why did one son follow in his father’s failing footsteps, while the other used his father’s addiction as a springboard to success? 
  2. Individuals often attempt to start their own business which ultimately fails.  Rather than fall into a cautious shell and refuse to ever take another business risk, some individuals use this failure as a learning experience.  They quickly begin anew and, this time, by applying what they’ve learned, they see tremendous success.  Others, upon a single failure, resolve to avoid all future risks and never see their dreams of owning their own business fulfilled.

I believe the answer to these questions about overcoming failure or a personal disaster is mental toughness.  An individual with mental toughness is not deterred by failure or disaster or disappointment.  An individual with mental toughness has a long-term viewpoint, tends to persevere, will fight to be successful, and is not easily brushed aside.  A mentally tough individual will use life’s challenges to become better, become stronger, and become more diligent.

I recently toured the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.  It was an amazing experience!  While there, I was privileged to hear the grandson of a holocaust survivor (Burt Newman) tell the story of his grandmother Sophie that emigrated to the United States from Germany to escape the holocaust in her native Germany.  Though most of her family members (parents, seven sisters, their families, and many others) perished in the holocaust, Sophie and her two sons plus two sisters were able to emigrate to the St. Louis area.  Though she lost most of her family and all their earthly belongings in this historic disaster, she made a new life for her remaining family members by starting a business, working hard, and making the best of her new life.  Sophie persevered through her personal disasters, while many individuals experiencing much less of life’s challenges would wither under the strain.  In fact, there are individuals in society today that simply cannot exist if they experience any setback, disappointment, or challenge.  Sophie exhibited mental toughness that, despite the challenges she faced, allowed her to focus on a more positive future.  It was told that Sophie lived out her life helping others, encouraging her family, and demonstrating a love for others that is nearly unfathomable given her life experiences.

Mental toughness is not easy.  It often means we set aside our personal preferences, ambitions, and desires to push forward toward what we know is best overall.  It means putting one foot in front of the other, step-by-step, until we reach our destination.  It is tolerating a bad boss, bad breaks, and negative circumstances for a time until we can, hopefully, eventually turn things around.

Many today are quick to conclude or generalize that mental toughness is not as prevalent as it was in previous decades.  I disagree.  Surely, there are many today that have not HAD to exhibit mental toughness.  But, I argue that the young family separated by military service has mental toughness.  So does the young, single mother trying to get through the day.  The elderly couple facing another bout with cancer exhibits mental toughness every day.  The police officer struggling to persevere is mentally tough.  And, so is the teacher that works year-after-year in under-resourced classrooms to serve our children.  Mental toughness is all around us, if we choose to look for it.

So, when you are faced today with a challenge that makes you feel like giving up, cutting a corner, or wilting in frustration, consider others that know they cannot just go to the sidelines.  Mental toughness may be the difference between success or not.  Mental toughness may determine whether you make good decisions or poor, short-term ones.  Consider for yourself the role that mental toughness plays in your life and, potentially, your future.

Have a great day!  It might still be your best yet… there is still that chance!


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