Our mental health—how we consider the world and our role in it—is every bit as important as our physical health. And just as we must work to stay physically fit, so, too, must we work to keep our minds “in shape.”
Positive thinking. An optimistic outlook. These are great attributes for our well-being.
How we respond to an opportunity or a challenge is as important or even more important than the opportunity or challenge itself.
Much has been written about attitude, mental strength, things to avoid, self-pity, the benefits of optimism, and the problems with pessimism. A quote from Anthony J. D’Angelo in The College Blue Book sums up the outlook I want to share: “Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine.”
Leaving the bad weather behind is what mentally strong people do to avoid pessimism. In a recent Forbes Magazine essay, psychotherapist Amy Morin takes note of 13 characteristics of mentally strong people.
1. Strong folks don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves. We all have been dealt a “bad hand” at some point in our lives. Those who do well take responsibility for actions and outcomes, move on, and start the next chapter. They also learn not to do the same thing again.
2. People in control of themselves don’t allow others to demean or talk down to them. Folks in control are comfortable working with others, but don’t allow themselves or others around them to be abused. Life is not a single sum gain where one person’s loss is another’s gain. Adding to the total is what happens when folks help each other thrive.
3. Change is here to stay, so don’t resist. Resisting just adds friction and cost. Having a healthy fear of the unknown if okay, as long as the fear is not paralyzing but rather helps create an “edge” to improve performance.
4. There is much in modern society we can’t control, so don’t waste time and energy trying to change these situations. Getting a flat tire due to a nail in the road, having an airline delay, bad weather—all these things happen. Concentrate on important things that are controllable and you will be far better off.
5. Being fair and kind as a baseline to everyone is so much better for mental peace of mind, versus creating enemies or trying to please everyone. It’s true that being effective personally and professionally will mean some colleagues are not “on board” and therefore upset. No one can please everyone and still make significant progress.
6. Don’t be afraid to take risks. You don’t have to be a professional or an expert to start a project. After all, professionals built the Titanic; amateurs built the ark. Risk taking is part of life. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” goes the old saying goes. That remains true and relevant today.
7. Avoid dwelling on the past. Rather, anticipate, plan, and enjoy the future. The past, whether glorious or not, is still the past. Of course having a successful background is an asset but you can’t rest on your laurels. Today and tomorrow trump the past.
8. Learn from mistakes so you don’t repeat them over and over. Being self-reflective in an accurate and productive way is one of the greatest strengths of successful executives and entrepreneurs. Having colleagues who provide timely, accurate, insightful feedback avoids the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome. Being surrounded by adoring “yes” people might feel good for a while, but it will ultimately lead to disaster.
9. Jealousy is not a flattering trait. Sincerely appreciating other people’s success is both a positive characteristic and good for everyone. Positive feedback is rare in today’s society; taking genuine pleasure from other’s success will lead to a virtuous cycle of improvement. I have written before in these pages about taking pleasure from other’s pain. The term for this in German is “Schadenfreude,” which means being destructive for all concerned.
10. Life is not always easy, so perseverance matters. Everyone experiences failures, both large and small. Picking oneself up and moving forward is a core characteristic of successful people. Diligence in the face of adversity separates the winners from the losers.
11. Being alone, having time to contemplate, innovate, read, study, learn—are all critical activities which should be nurtured and cherished. Too often we are interrupted by “urgent but unimportant” activities which interfere with “important nonurgent” productive behaviors, according to author Stephen Covey. Staying focused is an attribute of productive people.
12. If you feel the world owes you a living, you are in big trouble. We all need to produce and be viewed as contributors. In our increasingly global competitive market, everyone will be increasingly responsible for his or her own welfare. Understanding this concept about individual productivity is key for success at any level.
13. Life is a long-term process not a short-term plan. We all need to get past the “nanosecond culture” of immediate gratification. Delaying gratification and compounding positive results are the hallmarks of people and institutions who are successful over decades and centuries.
This catalog provides as good a roadmap as any to ensure positive mental strength.
Let me close by going back to a famous 1910 speech, “Citizenship in a Republic,” by President Teddy Roosevelt. The speech emphasized his belief that the success of a republic rested not on the brilliance of its citizens, but on disciplined work and character, and the quality of its people.
One notable passage in his speech is referred to as “The Man in the Arena.” Roosevelt says:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Diligence, perseverance, compassion, and participation— that’s how mentally strong people become successful.