Creating Mental Toughness to Improve Your Writing Process
The Art of Forming Grit
Last year, I made my most important decision regarding writing: I started doing it every day. A number of factors contributed to this happening, but one of the biggest was that I improved my mental toughness.
I don’t think of myself as a weak person, mentally or otherwise, but I had to come to grips with the fact that my inconsistency in writing stemmed from a lack of grit. I was cutting myself too much slack. I was making too many excuses. Only after taking steps to develop a stronger mental attitude did I make progress in my writing goals, the chief of which was a daily writing routine.
The source of my conviction to build mental toughness was unusual for a writer: entrepreneurs. One particular author on entrepreneurship, Tim Ferriss, promotes the idea of increasing mental toughness by regularly doing things that feel uncomfortable. If you’re anything like me, just hearing this idea makes you feel uncomfortable. I don’t like being feeling awkward, and when I first read the suggestion to deliberately pursue discomfort as an exercise, I thought it was crazy. I little suspected how the idea would change my life.
How Entrepreneurs Create Mental Toughness
Ferriss advocates regularly doing things that make a person uncomfortable as a means of gaining greater confidence. Making difficult choices improves one’s ability to cope with the outcome of those decisions. Ferriss gives the practical example of going to a public place, such as the mall, physically lying on the ground, and remaining there for several minutes. The idea is that as the person is lying on the ground, people will be passing, staring at them, and perhaps making comments. The possibility of experiencing this kind of embarrassment scares most of us. On the other hand, willingly enduring this kind of embarrassment has the potential to create grit.
Another entrepreneur by the name of Jia Jiang conducted an experiment he called “100 Days of Rejection.” He asked extraordinary favors of complete strangers, knowing that they would probably turn him down. Jiang gives the example of knocking on the front door of a complete stranger’s house and asking to play soccer in their back yard. He did this to develop mental toughness. By performing this experiment over many weeks, Jiang learned valuable lessons about himself and other people. (Among other things, he was amazed at how often strangers agreed to do what he asked.) Most importantly, Jiang became much more comfortable doing things that he previously didn’t think he could.
The key lesson from these exercises is that much of what we fear is not as bad as we think. Developing grit, especially as we relate to others, makes us stronger in our decisions and our commitments.
How Increased Mental Toughness Has Improved My Life and Habits
Now I should be transparent and admit I never did the exercise of lying down on the floor of the mall, and I didn’t make a habit of asking strangers for outrageous favors. However, I did absorb these ideas and began actively making decisions to do things I previously wouldn’t have. For example, I began having heartfelt conversations with people with whom I normally wouldn’t. I opened up to strangers on a level that made me uncomfortable. I broached awkward topics with friends and family. And I also began to integrate challenging, daily habits that I’ll describe in a future post.
When I began doing things that I feared, I noticed a change in myself. I was becoming mentally tough. I was developing grit. A few key results surfaced.
The Power of Outside Perspective
I began to see value in exploring how other people react to me. This has particular significance for anyone who is introverted like me. When I didn’t push myself during interactions, my engagement with people was less interesting. But when I pushed myself to do the awkward things, I learned fascinating lessons about those other people and about myself.
The Power of Real Friendship
Doing the awkward things tended to polarize people around me, but that was usually a good thing. I started to learn who my true friends were. Some people responded to my increased honesty in kind. Others waffled and became even more artificial. Frequently, our relationships are based on false assumptions, rather than reality. As I tested relationships by engaging in awkward conversations, I could tell that the practice clicked with certain people. I expect that those people will become more important in my life going forward.
The Power of Selective Indifference
The more I continue in the habit of doing uncomfortable things, the stronger my resolve grows to ignore the reactions of many people. It bothers me less and less when people disagree with me. Let me be clear — I wasn’t ignoring other people. I heard just as well as I always had, but my fear of negative reactions began to diminish. Whereas in the past, fear of the opinions others may have prevented me from doing something important, I was growing indifferent to those pressures. Please don’t misunderstand me — I’m not in favor of being an arrogant jackass. I’m saying that when we know an action needs to be taken, it’s sometimes important to ignore pressure to the contrary. As I’ve learned to deal with the possibility of criticism, I’ve become more consistent in going what is necessary. This is an important skill.
The Power of a Thick Skin
The result of selective indifference is thicker skin. Because I’ve stopped freaking out when people dislike what I chose to do, I’ve become much more effective. This effectiveness manifests itself in my making better decisions more quickly. Much has been written about the power of making fast, confident decisions. It’s one of the qualities that sets apart great leaders from ordinary people. By increasing tolerance for outside disapproval and developing our ability to make choices, we increase our effectiveness in almost every sphere.
How Grit Can Help Writers
What does this mean for writers? It’s quite simple, really. The fear of what other people will say when we call ourselves writers or when ask for their input — this kind of fear paralyzes. As ironic as it might sound given my topic, we need the input of others to improve. Getting out of our own head is difficult. It’s paramount that we get outside perspective to make our writing truly effective. There’s a balancing act that goes on in this process, however. We must listen to the input of others, but we must not be paralyzed by that input. We must be coolheaded about criticism. This is difficult. None of us really enjoys being criticized, but we have to put ourselves out there for criticism if we are going to improve.
To use an analogy, it’s a bit like strength training. No pain no gain. Strength trainers must work their muscles to the point of failure to grow stronger. The people who fail when they lift weights don’t push themselves. They’re so afraid of reaching that point of muscle failure that they never make gains. This is what it’s like when a writer never opens up to criticism. The writer who avoids failure will never reach their potential.
If hadn’t developed mental toughness, I would not be sharing this post. Truthfully, most of what I write makes me cringe. I have high standards for writing — too high for my own abilities to satisfy. If I didn’t have grit, perfectionism would destroy my writing; I’d probably spend the rest of the year working on five blog posts. The only way I’m able to produce regular content that I share across social media is because of this principle. By committing to sharing, getting feedback, and seeking to improve, I’m able to write more effectively and potentially help more readers. I couldn’t do any of this, however, without grit.
The power of grit lies in the conviction that in spite of setbacks or criticism, a person can emerge more capable and closer to their goals than before. I’m convinced that having mental toughness is utterly crucial for anyone who wants a successful and sustainable writing routine. Open up to this concept, test your grit, and I believe your writing will explode with creativity and power.
This post dealt with the concept of grit and why it’s important for writers. Next week, I’ll talk about some specific tactics that I’ve used to increase my mental toughness.
Originally published at beyondtheblinkingcursor.com on March 3, 2016.