Over the past few years, I’ve become a very reluctant historian. I’ve been drawn to stories of survival.
In particular one really good book that changed my thinking an awful lot is called “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales.
It’s a book the chronicles truly incredible (such an understatement) of survival in plane crashes, getting lost as sea, surviving in Arctic temperatures for weeks, etc..
One of the big lessons from the book is that it is NOT the physically strong that survive.
It is the Mentally strong that make it. To be precise, it’s the mentally strong and mentally flexible that survive.
If you mentally think you’re going to die, you’re going to die. If you’re mentally determined to live, but you can’t mentally realize that your situation has changed a lot, you can’t adapt and end up dying.
You have to be both mentally strong and flexible to make it.
I have been told by others that I am an incredibly determined person. I don’t personally think I am, but others tell me I am willing to put up with more crap and hardship than most to get what I want.
I guess I incorrectly assume that everyone’s the same way, but others assure me that’s not the case.
When I think back to how I got this way, part of it was personality… but a big part of it was taught to me in high school football coach.
Coach Covington was one serious bad*ss (sorry there is frankly no other phrase to describe it and to use any other phrase would truly by lying). He was a former NFL football player, who simply could not tolerate losing.
The only thing he couldn’t tolerate more than losing was players with loser attitudes. It drove him absolutely insane.
Every single day for 3 hours, he would drill this idea into our heads that it was the mentally tough that won games and championships.
But he didn’t just lecture us on the idea, oh no… that would have been way too intellectual for him. He had to drill the idea into our muscle, bones, and psyche.
His big thing was that every game was won or lost in the last few minutes. It was during these moments that you were tired, exhausted, bruised, and hurt… and so was the other team.
It was his argument that in the final minutes of a game, it was not the most talented team that won. It was the more determined team that won.
So here’s just one example of the mental “torture”.
Everyday he would have us do “just 25 push ups”. Now you would think this wouldn’t be such a big deal for a team of people who lifted weights year round.
But these weren’t 25 pushes counted by a man who was literate in math, this was 25 pushes counted by a man who wanted to teach a lesson.
These had to be 25 PERFECT pushes made by every single person on the team. If one person screwed up (a hip too low, or too high), the whole team had to repeat the push up (in case you didn’t guess, his other big thing was this was team sport… so you’re only as good as your weakest link… and you had darn well better not be THAT weak link).
So he’d yell “down”, and we’d all do one push up… then count out “1”. Then he’d count out “2” and we do another push up. Somewhere around repetition “5”, someone “supposedly” screwed up… and when it was time to do push up “6”, Coach Covington would just repeat the number “5” and yell someone’s not doing it right.
Guys, we play and win as a team. Do it right!
Then we’d do another push up and he’d yell out “5” again! It’s still not right!
So to make a long story short, by the time we got to “23” push ups we had usually done close to 75 push ups in full gear in the heat of Southern California. We were all dripping in sweat, moaning, and groaning… and oh yeah, if anyone would drop to their knees we would start all over!
And this is when Coach Covington would get all philosophical on us.
While we’re in the “up” position of the push up, trembling from exhaustion and deathly afraid of dropping to our knees — either to suffer the wrath of Coach Cov or letting down our teammates — he would start waxing poetic about how the final minutes of a game were when you won or lost.
And you never could tell for sure, when a game would end. Maybe it would go into overtime. Maybe something unexpected (hah!) might happen to destroy any preconceived notions of how long this little “battle” was going to last. (Like 25 pushes up that “unexpectedly” became more like 80 push ups).
So he’d going on for like 5 minutes with his little speech while we’re all there dying. And finally, he’d count out the last 2 push ups… and then we’d all let out a collective groan and collapse to the turf.
THEN, he’d bark out and turn around on your backs!
Ok legs extended and lift up both your legs in a leg lift (a kind of reverse half situp where you back is on the ground, but your legs are up about 18 inches off the ground)…. and hold it for 25 seconds.
And yes, you guessed it Coach Cov’s counting skills were a bit challenged. Those were just 25 seconds of a grueling ab workout, it was 25 PERFECT seconds of everyone on the team doing it perfectly.
Of course, 25 seconds usually turned into a 5 minute leg raise… and again, we’d get the same friggin speech about how you never know when the game will end…. and how only the mentally tough would make it.
I went through this every single day during football season.
During these grueling “unexpected” (yeah right) workouts, we’d keep having to yell out “Mental Toughness Extra Effort.” I must have said that phrase thousands of times by the end of high school.
In my freshman year, the varsity team lost every single game that season… 0 Wins, 12 Losses…which drove Coach Cov absolutely insane.
Of course he took out his frustrations on us younger players in an effort to “brain wash” us young and turn us into champions.
In my senior year, I was co-captain of my football team and we won every game that year… and were ranked the #1 team in the
state of California in our division.
Finally, that mental toughness training worked… I guess 4 years of hearing this stuff every single day during the season finally sank in.
One of our players, went on to play for Colorado and ultimately won the Heisman Trophy 4 years later (the trophy given to the #1 player in college football).
One went on to the Air Force Academy and became a pilot (his dream since he was 15 years old) who served in Iraq for multiple tours.
Another went on to the Air Force as well as a Forward Air Controller, later became a Marine helicopter pilot and became the pilot for Marine One (President Bush’s personal Helicopter).
I went onto Stanford University, finished my undergrad course work in 3 years, and landed a plum job at McKinsey… the most sought after employer amongst the business oriented college grads (400 Stanford graduates applied for these jobs, 394 got rejected… I was one of 6 that got an offer).
If you talk to anyone from that team, the lessons from Coach Covington have forever been seared into our brains at an early age. We all went on to do very different things in life, but I think its fair to say this “mental toughness” training made a lasting impression anytime we faced any kind of adversity.
Anytime I hit an unexpected problem in life, it doesn’t even occur to me to quit (Coach Convington pretty much drilled that out of me when I was a teenager).
The only thing that occurs to me is to figure out HOW to reach my goal and it never occurs to me IF I can reach it.
In hindsight, learning these lessons at 14 years of age was a serious lifetime gift. I have used that mental toughness training far more than any of the academic subjects I learned in school.
I mean I can always pick up a book to learn more knowledge, but mental toughness doesn’t come from reading. It comes mainlyfrom DECIDING you’re going to be mentally tough no matter what happens.
That was the big thing I learned so many years ago. Mental toughness wasn’t something you inherited. It wasn’t something you studied. It was something you simply DECIDED.
And being forced to make this decision every day for years while physically feeling a lot of pain and exhaustion…and deciding I was going to tough it out, made all the difference in the world.
And it is this same decision that you and I face every morning when we get out of bed.
There are no shortage of unexpected problems in life/business, especially in a recession. That’s a given.
The only question you need to ask yourself each morning is to decide if you will be mentally tough today or not?
Surviving and profiting from this recession all starts with a single decision… DECIDING you will survive and profit in this recession.
DECIDE first, and you will figure out the “how” later.