“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Mental toughness can take many forms: resilience against attack, calmness in the face of uncertainty, persistence through pain, or focus amidst chaos.
Below are eight lessons from eight of the toughest human beings I know.
All are taken from the hundreds of tips and tactics in Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers.
#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.”
TIM: These words of Jocko’s helped one listener—a drug addict—get sober after many failed attempts. The simple logic 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. I WASN’T THERE TO COMPETE. I WAS THERE TO WIN.
TIM: In my interview with Arnold, 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 5 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.
(4-Star General Stanley McChrystal)
TIM: The following from Gen. McChyrstal was in response to “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.’ [Definition of privation: 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.
(Caroline Paul, luger, firefighter, and more)
TIM: In the 1990s, Caroline 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.
“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.
Fear is just one of many things that are going on. For instance, when we climbed the bridge, which was five of us deciding we wanted to walk up that cable in the middle of the night. Please don’t do that, but we did. 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 – IS THAT A DREAM OR A GOAL?
(Paul Levesque/Triple H, WWE superstar and executive)
“[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, ‘Okay. 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. I think that’s what impressed me about Arnold [Schwarzenegger]. It’s what impressed me about my father-in-law [Vince McMahon].”
#6 – PAIN TOLERANCE CAN BE THE FORCE MULTIPLIER
(Amelia Boone, 3x World’s Toughest Mudder champion)
“I’m not the strongest. I’m not the fastest. But I’m really good at suffering.”
#7 – WHO DO YOU SURROUND YOURSELF WITH WHEN YOUR EGO FEELS THREATENED?
(Josh Waitzkin, chess prodigy, push hands world champion, first black belt under BJJ phenom Marcelo Garcia)
Back in the world of combat sports and Brazilian jiu-jitsu:
“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.”
#8 – THE MAGIC OF THE SINGLE DECISION
(Christopher Sommer, former men’s gymnastics national team coach)
TIM: We all get frustrated. I am particularly prone to frustration when I see little or no progress after several weeks of practicing something new. Despite Coach Sommer’s regular reminders about connective-tissue adaptations taking 200 to 210 days, after a few weeks of flailing with “straddle L extensions,” I was at my wits’ end. Even after the third workout, I had renamed them “frog spaz” in my workout journal because that’s what I resembled while doing them: a frog being electrocuted.
Each week, I sent Coach Sommer videos of my workouts via Dropbox. In my accompanying notes at one point, I expressed how discouraging it was to make zero tangible progress with this exercise. Below is his email response, which I immediately saved to Evernote to review often.
It’s all great, but I’ve bolded my favorite part.
“Dealing with the temporary frustration of not making progress is an integral part of the path towards 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.
If the commitment is to a long-term goal and not to a series of smaller intermediate goals, then only one decision needs to be made and adhered to. Clear, simple, straightforward. Much easier to maintain than having to make small decision after small decision to stay the course when dealing with each step along the way. This provides far too many opportunities to inadvertently drift from your chosen goal. The single decision is one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox.”
The above is a small sample of hundreds of tips in Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers. Check it out!
Tools of Titans is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books-A-Million, iBooks, Indiebound, Indigo, and more.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)
40 Replies to “How to Develop Mental Toughness: Lessons From 8 Titans”
Looking forward to reading this book! I imagine it will take a place of permanent residence … for those times when we need a little boost to keep moving forward 🙂
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”
A call to arms grin crept over my face while listening to your interview with Ezra. We all need to learn more about politics, whatever our views. You continue to make me proud.
I’ve tres copies of Tools of Titans coming as stocking stuffers (anchors?) for friends and family, so when grandma yells out “What pulled all the decorations down from the mantel!?” the only appropriate response will be “Tim Ferriss did, grandma.”
Mental toughness, if you want to be tougher, be tougher… I got that. I successfully (as of right now), fought against my previous supervisor because I knew what was going on was wrong and I fought it. Him? A highly decorated law enforcement official who is now fired. Me? A college drop out with a nose ring. Most would say” hey! You won!”. No. The fight is just beginning since that one person was only 1/3 of the problems, and the other 2/3 are much less “obvious”. So, what should one do when one is fighting and everyone else is saying “leave. Just leave, nothing you can do will change anything, just go.”
I would say it depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to change something, stick around and keep fighting. If it really doesn’t matter that much, then don’t waste time. Just gotta be honest with yourself
We want to invite you as a speaker in Russia.
At March 2017 on a conference for event managers.
How we can talk to you about this?
Love this post Tim – the power to tolerate is very strong. The best athletes, authors and entrepreneurs have this.
I would love to do a guest post for The Four Hour Work Week – can you let me know where I can send in some ideas?
Hey Tim, are there any books or articles you would recommend that elaborate upon the different forms of mental toughness?
Definitely. Tools of Titans, Extreme Ownership, and Mental Toughness Training for Sports.
Great post! I can’t wait to read the book. I start the new year unemployed and first thing I’m going to do is read the book. Tim… WHERE CAN WE GET THESE QUOTES AS STICKERS!!!?!?!?!!? You mentioned it on FB and I think that would be awesome
I know you must get a lot of feedback from many people whose life has been impacted positively by your work. I am one more of them.
I was adrift in my thinking on many aspects of my life before I read the four hour work week and started listening to the fourhourworkweek podcast.
I was disengaged and unsatisfied at work and when I first read the 4 hour work week it gave me a whole new perspective on how to evaluate my work life. So much so, it started the chain of thinking that lead me to immigrate continents and create a new life in a whole new country.
I was struggling with my workouts and diet and then I read the 4 hour body. It got me on to the slow carb diet and that was a game changer in how I ate.
Then I started listening to the podcasts 12 months ago and it blew me away to suddenly discover a world of super achievers and their life and habits. Right at that time I was diagnosed with a brain a tumour. However, the listening to these ‘titans’ greatly impacted how I approached my situation and I fought it out coming relatively fine on the other side – I was listening to the BJ Miller podcast before my op in the hospital. Intermittent fasting, trying to keep my IGF1 low through ketogenic diet has become a normal for me. I discovered Stoicism, mindfulness, meditation (headspace is my tool), cold showers and journaling! Also bought an indoor grill based on Naval’s recommendation. Now I cook daily and wife couldn’t be happier.
Having listened to so many podcasts I was struggling with how to accumulate all the knowledge into one journal. It was tough since I listened mainly in the car and couldnt take notes. And then ‘Tools of Titans’ came out. I got my pre ordered copy – and now – my life is set.
Thanks for everything Tim. You don’t know how much your work has impacted my life and what it means to me. Love you brother.
Thank you so, so much for the kind and thoughtful comment, Taimur! It made my week. Best wishes to you and yours 🙂
This is a great post. Really looking forward on reading the book
Christopher Sommer’s statement made me pause for a very long time. It perfectly reflected the need to have a timeline to success when in reality, it is completely out of one’s control. The goal is the singular commitment and the process.
I wasn’t planning on buying the book, but I will now after this episode. Great post.
Do you have a preferred point of purchase (if your publishers will let you say)
Tim, if you had to choose one supplement for mental performance enhancing which one would it be ?
Tim, if you had to choose one supplement for mental performance which one would it be ? one to rule them all !
“Success is a decision.”
Love this takeaway. Great post! 😉 #keepgrowing #keepcreating
I just finished Tools of Titan and it was a blast. The book is so incredibly inspiring. If you want to achieve amazing things in life, you have to be able to move through amazingly though situations. People romance success a lot, mostly from a lack of practical understanding. Tools of Titan brings ‘titans’ down to a human level so you can learn from them and raise to a titan level yourself. Doing so you’ll realize you’re just a small human currently doing crazy things to become a better human. Being a titan is being a small human in ACTION.
I survived a tsunami once. Seen hundreds of people die around me, bodies everywhere. Going through it gave me incredible strength later in life. Though situations put us under pressure. When under pressure, you can either collapse or transform yourself in a more refined, more evolved, clearer and braver version of you to withstand the pressure. Diamonds don’t become diamonds by laying in the sun all day.
The point is not to get your ass kicked by the swell, the storms and the waves for days on a tiny boat. It’s about getting to the other side, crossing the ocean, Doing it! You will get your ass kicked doing it but it’s just part of the deal. These folks in Tools of Titan dreamed big. They had to cross some crazy oceans to get where they are and looking at how brave they have been, it makes you self reflect on your current coziness. Reading about badass people might not be the most comfortable feeling per say, as it makes you feel inadequate but being inadequate means you have to get out of your stagnation and move. Movement = fire, warmth, action, living to the fullest. Stagnation = cold, slow, death.
Life is short my friends. Go read a book that will make you feel ‘not though’ , raise the bar, get moving, get going, start experimenting.
P.S Thank you Tim. Most respect to you for being brave and putting out a book like this. You are crazy.
There are most likely countless people who use these very strategies – but never become “titans”. The assumption underlying Tim’s work is that idiosyncrasies of successful people are causal to their success. This has the value of a very small observational study, which to be fair, isn’t that high.
The book doesn’t purport to be a peer-reviewed, double-blind study in the effectiveness of each subject’s personal beliefs and strategies. It’s simply successful people talking about the things *they* feel are important to their success. Take it for what it’s worth.
Good point. I think I am expecting too much from it. Tim strikes me as a “how-to” advice kinda guy, but looking at it as a collection of anecdotes is probably more appropriate.
No matter the strategies used, there are no guarantees to success, not even for currently successful people. But if you are not curious, unwilling to try new things and narrow minded, you are guaranteed to stay where you are now.
I might be wrong but I don’t think Tim’s work is to convince us that idiosyncrasies of successful people are causal to their success. After meeting many successful people, he found himself inspired to try new things and open his horizons. He then shares what inspired him so it may inspire others.
It doesn’t take a scientific study to determine that the chances of succeeding are enhanced by trying strategies that are working for some people.
If you want to live a risk free life where each steps is taken only after it has been thoroughly verified by current scientific methods, maybe Tim’s work isn’t a good fit for you.
I agree with you about expanding horizons. I think there is an implicit claim in Tim’s work that if you try this, you too will succeed – accounting for much of his popularity. To me, it just feels like it implicitly promises much more than it could ever deliver. Your view of it, simply as inspiration, is probably much more realistic.
Experience is the best teacher and that’s why I get the feeling of being in a class of reality. Advise is the echo of having wrestled with adversity and now holding the torch of triumph.
First and foremost, thank you so much for all the wisdom, inspiration and practical tools that have helped immensely with adding more health, joy, wealth and productivity to my daily life! Kettlebells, TI, low carb/keto eating, Tony Robbins, Bulletproof Coffee, Brene Brown and fasting are just some of your recommendations that have significantly improved the quality of my life!
I am so excited to be receiving Tools of Titan in the mail any day now!!
What I love most about your work, is how well researched it is. This leads me to my questions regarding your research methods. At the moment I am doing my PhD (human-wildlife relationships) so would really value any strategies/advice/insight into how to be a more productive student! For instance:
1) Do you have a description of the micro-processes you use to search for, read and takes notes on, journal articles?
2) How do you stay focused when reading volumes of scientific papers that are often technical and dry?
3) How do you assess whether you’ve had a ‘productive day’ when the main goal is to (e.g.) do a literature review? For instance, do you assess yourself on how many hours you’ve been sitting in front of your laptop? Or is it to do with how many articles you’ve read?
4) How do you determine where to start when delving into a new topic/question in terms of mining scientific journals?
5) Do you have problems with concentration and procrastination? If so, how do you reduce or eliminate them?
6) Are there any hacks you can recommend to a PhD student who often feels she is not being ‘productive enough’ (yet has no way to measure or even define this!).
Thanks so much again for all your amazing work Tim!
With much gratitude,
If we start with first, all others will fall in line. Don’t talk, do it, awesome.
This crystalized a lot of why I do what I do to be be successful naturally. This structured approach will take me to the next level at 63.
I am very impressed reading how others are able to neutralize fear.l shall certainly put it to practice. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Tim, First of all i would like to thank you for writing such an inspiring article. If i had to choose one of them, i think i would go for the 5th one especially. ” Is that a dream or a goal” Of course all of them are important. Thank you
I received this book December 6th.
I’ve been reading the sections that intrigue me. It’s fantastic so far!
Recap of Coach Sommers: “decision” and “incision” have the same root. May we all have such courage to share our struggles and to empower those who struggle. Good luck on your journey. And thank you for sharing.
Tim Ferriss you diamond.
I’ve never commented on here before but your book is helping me in so many ways.
After discovering the 4hww in the summer I’ve bought the 4hbody and listened to quite a few podcasts. This book is the book I always wanted before I knew what I wanted.
I genuinely believe you have a good heart and wants to help empower people to push themselves through the trials of life in the best way possible.
The range of issues this book can help with range from starting a business, strength and fitness, fighting cancer, depression and anxiety, finding your creativity, and gaining confidence. The list is endless as Tim says it’s principles that will stick with you for life not airy fairy wishful thinking self help. It’s practical.
On a serious note Tim’s chapter on suicide brought a tear to my eye and was a brilliant touch and in my opinion will make a difference to people’s lives, especially people who need that chapter. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean.
On a practical note I’ve now listened to new podcasts after reading about them in the book and it gives you a good start and you feel like you know the person so much better.
All in all this is a great book. Healthy, wealthy and wise is all you need in life. It’s all here.
Thank you Tim great job great book. Your work is changing me for the better. It’s too be proud of.
I got the book today!! Long road to Switzerland…
Tim, no words to express my gratitude. You are the person who have the most influence and difference in my life (probably after my parents, haha. I still remember reading the 4-hour work week long time ago while walking in the forest in Florida… little could I know back then…
Thank you, you are a true inspiration.
Tools of titans is your 4th book, and the chapters goes as follows
So it ends up being 4HWW – Coincidence? don’t think so.
RE: Acupuncture vs Dry Needling in the Amelia Boone chapter of “Tools of Titans.” The statements made here were very disappointing to read, and are incredibly inaccurate. Dry Needling is in fact, nothing but acupuncture renamed and practiced by those with limited training. It is untrue that “in acupuncture the goal is not to feel the needle.” There are many forms of acupuncture, and whereas a few value less sensation, a good portion absolutely seek out sensation. It is referred to as de qi, qi arrival, qi sensation. “In dry needling, you are sticking the needle in the muscle belly and trying to get it to twitch.” Acupuncture utilizes points in muscle bellies, trigger points, etc and gets this “twitch” release all the time. An acupuncturist will simultaneously, however, treat the patient constitutionally, meaning they don’t just release your traps in the visit, but release your traps while treating the underlying mechanisms that keep them tightening, while giving the rest of you body a tune up. The big difference to note is that dry needling involves a non-acupuncturist practitioner with 300 or less hrs of training vs an acupuncturist with 3,000 hours or more of training. These non-acupuncturists attempting to practice acupuncture with limited training have increased the risks associated with acupuncture substantially, causing way more injuries than those caused by licensed acupuncturists. I don’t mean disrespect to those practicing dry needling with good intentions, however I did think that it was important to point out the inaccurate statements comparing the two. Thanks!
I pre-ordered six. One for me, and five for the friends I knew would make use of this amazing collection of knowledge. It didn’t disappoint! Thanks, Tim.
Much obliged for sharing this data for mental quality. It is truly useful when you are in melancholy. At some point Psychotherapy accommodating to beat yourself and know your mental quality.
I was wondering if somebody ever did experiments to increase/test the mental strength. This may be more grit, more discipline and even stoic calm. Developing a kind of endurance for a certain kind of mental activity like forcing oneself to solve big multiplications in a short time etc will develop a kind of strength. But what would be more interesting would be if the mind can be trained to just endure, and perform better when presented with new challenges like taking a bad news, working continuously with accuracy for a long period over an uncomplicated task( being bored produces errors), learning something quickly etc.
Thanks for the blog-post, Tim. I’ve been searching for something from people who have walked the talk, than any BS reporter from a mega-blog. Oh! thanks for all the books you have written, they have helped me in every aspect of my life. Thank you.