Diane Nyad is a pretty impressive lady.
In 2013, Diane swam from Florida to Cuba — a distance of over 100 miles — in an open ocean filled with deadly box jellyfish, sharks, and tropical storms. It took her over 50 hours to complete the swim.
She was 64 years old.
Reading stories like Diane’s has always made me wonder: what makes extreme human performance possible?
In this article, we’re digging into what I believe are just a few of the necessary ingredients: grit, resiliency, and presiliency, or mental preparation.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE MENTALLY TOUGH
If you ask any competitive athlete, they’ll tell you that mental stamina is often more importan than purely physical.
Diane Nyad’s swim proves this, as most 25-year-old swimmers at their peak couldn’t accomplish what she did at 60+.
When we study elite military training, we see the same principle: whether it’s the the Navy SEALS, SAS or Green Berets, it’s the mental toughness and will to continue that matters most.
In world-class trainings crucibles such as the Navy SEAL BUD/s school “Hell Week”, the approach uses physical pain to sharpen the mind and weed out those who can control their attitudes from those who can’t:
I’m in pain, but it’s just pain.”Navy SEAL candidate
How can non-military operators train our minds into this mental toughness?
There is evidence that all of us have the inherent capability to put ourselves through harrowing, mind-bending experiences in the interest of pure self-preservation — as shown in high-profile stories such as that of Aaron Rolston, who was trapped in a canyon for 127 hours and survived by cutting his own arm off.
But barring those life-or-death situations, how can we cultivate this mental toughness in everyday situations such as starting a business, pitching investors, or bouncing back from a traumatic events?
GRIT – DELIBERATE PRACTICE
Grit is “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” and is championed by the researcher Dr. Angela Duckworth, who studies grit and self-control at the University of Pennsylvania.
What’s a “very long term goal”? A four-year college degree is a great example. Becoming fluent in a second language is another. Starting a business would qualify. Raising a child is certainly a very long-term goal, since kids outlive you. (Ideally.)
I had the opportunity to meet Professor Duckworth in 2012 – she’s an engaging speaker and very clear that the essence of grit is what she calls “deliberate, effortful practice.”
What she’s found is that people who are willing to practice the hardest part of their craft — the hardest words in a spelling bee, or the most difficult passages of a Beethoven sonata, for example — are also those who perform the best.
This runs counter to our natural human tendencies to want to do easy things, and to be comfortable, but as one of my track coaches was fond of saying, “There’s no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone.” (Tweet this.)
Let’s talk about practice for a minute.
If you’re like most people, the lack of practice is one of the single biggest obstacles to your success in life. We don’t like to practice because it’s difficult, painful, slow, repetitive, and boring. We’d rather watch TV.
Most of us have two paths through life; we can either learn from hard experience, “the school of hard knocks,” or — we can create deliberate experiences that will make us better, faster. This is practice, simulation, or drilling.
Anyone can learn from the experiences of a lifetime. A wise man creates experiences he can learn from so he can enjoy a better lifetime.
No matter how you earn your living, there’s a pretty good chance you can practice your craft to improve your results.
So how do you practice for best results? Let’s look at the practical application.
What is hardest for you? What do you most resist practicing?
Practice that first, the most often, and the most aggressively, until you master it.
Begin by measuring your grit score. Can grit be built and improved over time? The results of elite military training suggest that it can.
Now, let’s talk resiliency.
RESILIENCY – GETTING BACK IN THE FIGHT
We’re all gonna get knocked down in life.
The question is, how many times can we get back up?
This is a question of resiliency.
Resiliency is a person’s ability to deal with adversity and bounce back from difficult events — such as war, natural disaster, or even disappointments of everyday life.
I’ve been exposed to some incredible stories of resiliency, such as….
- A 45-year-old black woman, single mother of 3 young children
- Working 3 part time jobs to make an income of $36,000 a year
- Going to school full-time (the school costs $23,400 per year)
- Who also had to care for her aging mother who had a terminal illness
How do we as people bear up under the strain of all this?
Recent studies in brain science have uncovered key links that can help us understand how we can all train ourselves to be more resilient.
When adversity passes a certain threshold — which is going to be different for everyone based on their genetics, life experience, and so on — then people will either shut down, or take action to improve the situation.
This can happen in the context of a traumatic event like a war, or even an everyday occurrence like being so fed up with your job that something has just GOT to change (as we write about in “How One Man Went Earning From $28,000 to $115,000 Per Year in One Year“).
So what makes the difference?
Recent scientific research has shown that people who are more resilient tend to have more activation of the part of the brain called the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) which is responsible for planning, executing strategy, and also for calming the emotional part of the brain (called the amygdala)1.
It may also be the case that exposure to early traumatic events creates a sort of ‘stress inoculation‘ that carries through to later exposure. One of my observations after coaching hundreds of clients is that some of the strongest survivors had the most challenging upbringings.
Another possible chemical explanation for resiliency is neuropeptide Y (NPY), which has been shown to be higher in the bloodstreams of Special Forces soldiers undergoing intensive simulated interrogations than other soldiers, who were less well trained.
In theory, NPY could be delivered in a nasal spray form to help deal with symptoms of PTSD.
Oxytocin, another brain chemical that is triggered during social bonding, has also been shown to promote both recovery from trauma, as well as increased emotional resiliency in the face of difficulty.
One of the most interesting findings is the ability to behaviorally “prime” individuals to feel safe and connected, which helps the sympathetic nervous system to have less response to a stressful event (sometimes no reaction at all 2).
Thirdly, it’s been shown that high performing athletes in stressful situations have a greater sense of “interoception” — that is, the ability to know how they were feeling on the inside, both emotionally and physically (3).
Of course, no resiliency training program would be complete without our favorite intervention — meditation — which we’ve written about before (see “Why Meditation is a Must-Learn Skill“) — as a way to literally grow the white matter of the brain and strengthen the skills of emotional regulation (which come from the medial prefrontal cortex.)
Finally, the American Psychological Association suggests “10 Ways to Build Resilience” per the research, which we’ll share with you below in the…
- Maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others; (see our article “The Importance Of Being Home With Your Family“)
- Avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;
- Accept circumstances that cannot be changed;
- Develop realistic goals and move towards them;
- Take decisive actions in adverse situations;
- Look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;
- Develop self-confidence (see our article “How to Build Confidence“) ;
- Keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;
- Maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished; (see our article, “The Power of Visualization” as well as “The Applied Science of Success“)
- Take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings. (See our articles on “Eating a Clean Diet“; “Cleaning Up Your Mental Diet“; “The Importance of Rest“; and “The Importance of Positive Stress.”)
PRESILIENCE – PREPARED FOR BATTLE
Just as “prehabilitation” is physical conditioning necessary to prepare certain vulnerable areas of the body for upcoming stress, presiliency would be mental and emotional conditioning necessary to prepare vulnerable areas of the mind to face adversity.
Some of the most inspirational and successful men I’ve met have one thing in common: early exposure to competitive athletic environments and training at a high level (including training in visualization and stress or breath control).
Tough physical training may tend to activate mental conditioning through the experiences of struggle, loss, pushing through pain and the disciplined effort that is necessary to achieve victory (including practice).
In fact, the key finding from the story of Diane Nyad is that, in a brain region critically important for emotional regulation Diane’s brain is significantly more active than Navy SEALs tested in the same fashion.
Science segment cued up below:
For some reason, Diane’s brain is getting more emotionally prepared than even other elite performers to regulate the discomfort she is about to experience.
When the stressor occurs, then, her brain has already done the “prep work” and therefore has less of an emotional reaction than would either a highly-trained military operator, or a far less trained “neurotypical” person.
This is, I believe, the characteristic that made it possible for her to even consider taking on such a crazy challenge as swimming for over 50 hours straight.
So, is there something you can do to your brain to make it grow this “superpower” that Diane Nyad has?
Well, let’s think it through.
We know that the brain changes in response to training, and can grow and re-wire itself over time. (London cabbies’ brains physically grow in order to be able to learn how to get around that great city in the most efficient way possible) 4.
From looking deeper into the background of Diana’s story, we can see that she has been practicing extreme endurance swimming since 1974, when she set a record for swimming for 8 hours straight.
Her record of practice:
- In 1978, she swam 76 miles continuously.
- In 1979, she swam 102 miles continuously. (She was 30 years old)
- Diana also made the Cuba-to-Florida attempt in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.
- Her typical training regime started with 8 hours of swimming and then ratcheted up to 10, 12, and 24 hour stretches for conditioning.
- She accomplished the feat on her fifth attempt, in August 2013, 35 years after her first attempt.
There are two things to note from this:
- Like every other major accomplishment, this one was broken down into small steps. Can I swim for 8 hours straight? What about 12 hours? What about 24?
- Diana made a life-long, multi-decadal commitment to her goal, and all of her most recent attempts took place over a four-year period. This should remind us that truly world-class goals take a very long time to complete; remember the definition of grit as the ability to sustain focus over the “very long term” (in this case, 35 years). In this instant-access, always-on, instant-gratification culture, that’s worth remembering.
How much of Diane’s success can be chalked up to training and practice, and how much to genetic advantages perhaps conferred by brain growth, we can’t yet know.
What if we all have this “presilience” capability? What if it is latent, merely waiting to be “switched on” by proper training?
This brings us to the final, and cumulative…
PRACTICAL APPLICATION – HOW MENTALLY TOUGH CAN YOU BECOME?
Let’s review what we’ve covered:
- Grit – the ability to practice the hardest thing first and longest.
- Resiliency – developing your body & brain to “bounce back” from challenges
- Presiliency – conditioning your mind to be less reactive to stress.
What would an ideal training program look like for developing this “mental toughness”?
Here’s my best guess:
- Intense mental training with daily meditation and visualization, plus the challenges of solving hard engineering problems, or learning a language, or mastering complex bodies of technical knowledge.
- Intense physical training, something like SEALFit or marathon training would probably do the trick — in essence, using physical pain to break the mind out of its inbuilt “limiters” (research has shown that the mind gives up while the body has plenty of gas in the tank). Work on flexibility and soft tissue conditioning every day to prehabilitate your joints and avoid injury.
- Meditation and “tactical breathing” or breath control to strengthen the PFC area of the brain and the body’s ability to dampen the amygdala’s “fight-flight-freeze” response.
We know that pressure is what forces evolutionary adaptation, whereas comfort causes degeneration, so if you want to be the greatest possible version of yourself, then you are going to have to continuously expose yourself to stressors, simulations, and hard practice.
Something like the SEALfit experience may be out of reach for you — but why not choose to simply make a list of the top 5 thing you’ve been putting off lately? Why not start on those today?
You can only benefit from it.
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Also published on Medium.