A couple years ago, I decided to run a marathon for the very first time in my life – I’m not particularly athletic and these events aren’t something I usually enjoy but I wanted to get a taste before I decided how I felt about it.
I only signed up to run 3 kms (yeah, that was a category, lol) while most others did at least 10 or 20 kilometers. I was amazed at how they kept going strong even after running such a long distance.
I could do 3 kilometers but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to handle 10 – it seemed a bit much for me.
My friends who’d run the 10k kept going on and on about how they trained every day to build stamina to be able to pull it off. And the people who ran the 20k were athletes in their own right. Long distance running was a lifestyle to them – and fitness was their natural state.
I was impressed.
These long distance runners don’t always just train for a marathon, running is something they do everyday – it’s a part of their life; they train everyday and maintain that agility so they can be ready to compete at any given day.
When it comes to the mind, I realized that the best people I know seem to do something similar.
They train their mind. They learn new things, they acquire an understanding of various tools and techniques to face challenges, they meditate, and they keep their inner sense of reason sound so that no external event can disrupt it and throw them off their game.
I had my own rude awakening a few years ago.
The first time I picked up a non-fiction book to really learn from it and apply what it had to offer was in 2015. To be specific, it was 19th Jan 2015, the day when my CA final results would be announced. I was deeply anguished back in Aug 2014 when I had failed the exams – November 2014 was when I wrote the exam for a second time and 19 Jan was the day the results would be announced.
I’ve always seen myself as an intelligent person and that one day when I failed my exams, I had a bit of an identity crisis and took a big hit to my self confidence. I was quite miserable as I prepared for the second attempt, bemoaning my fate and feeling incompetent, unworthy and unstable.
My anxiety reached fever pitch on the day of the results when this book I’d ordered from Amazon arrived first thing in the morning on result day, 19th Jan 2015 - a copy of ‘The Obstacle is the Way – The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity To Advantage’.
Without bothering to check my results on the ICAI website, I simply proceeded to read this book to find courage to look at the results.
A few hours later when I’d internalized the principles and learnt that the worst thing that can happen in respect of the results is that I fail the exams again and I’d just have to write them in the next attempt, and put in more effort – I’m not dying, my family is safe and nothing in the marksheet can destroy my life in an irrevocable way – essentially, reading the book, with the intensity of wanting to learn from it made me stronger that day even if just a tiny bit.
I haven’t forgotten what I read that day. Every time something ‘bad’ happens, I use the lessons I learnt from reading that book and even though I don’t instantly feel better, I feel strong enough to function and do what is required of me without spending too much time sulking and exacerbating my misery.
Now when I read the book that day, I realized that had I read it a couple months earlier, I would be a lot better off and I would have been better placed to handle my situation more maturely. Perhaps not perfectly, but it would save me some amount of pointless suffering.
Not that I’d never read any non-fiction book before 2015 – the point I’m trying to make is that any reading I had done up to that point was very shallow - I’d flip through self help/self improvement books, be bored out of my mind reading the same old hackneyed concepts of positivity and mindset and roll my eyes at how ineffectual the advice was and how disgustingly trite the ‘wisdom’ was – I’d even scoff and go so far as saying I could write better cr@p than that.
But on 19 Jan 2015, something changed.
I realized that there is a lot of fluff in the world of self improvement literature – depressingly large amounts of it. Vague advice, meaningless laws and my personal favorite – mystical fiction disguised as an inspiring self help story.
All said and done – even if this is indeed the case with self improvement literature, there is definitely something in the realm of this kind of writing that can help me become stronger and build mental fortitude.
I knew I could use more mental fortitude – as a person, as a professional and as someone who wants to change the world (Yes, still saying it ;-))
Mental fortitude is built over time – it isn’t like a pill that you take on the day you get sick and expect to feel better in a few days’ time.
It simply doesn’t work like that.
In the same manner that one exercises everyday – whether preparing for a sporting event or not, one also needs to train their mind.
What should you train your mind for you ask?
To function when things fall apart – failed exams, failed relationships, a bad day at work, unexpected developments that thwart your perfectly aligned plans and new situations that exasperate you and befuddle you into inaction.
To thrive when things fall apart – when bad things happen, the trained mind should revel in the opportunity to employ the techniques it has learned and to extract the learning from a difficult, seemingly painful situation.
This isn’t normal behavior at all – it doesn’t come naturally. The same way running for 20 kilometers in a marathon doesn’t come naturally - you need to work for it, you need to train for it.
It is no different with the mind.
You don’t train for obstacles on the day they happen – you do not flippantly say, we will deal with the obstacle when we get there and learn when things go wrong
Does the army pickup their guns and do their training only on the days of war?
They train constantly so they are prepared for war.
The same goes for you – not that you have to face life or death situations each day but you do have to face a whole lot of challenges – no matter what your dream is.
Do you really want to leave yourself unguarded on the false assumption that nothing will go wrong?
Nobody has that luxury.
Pick a method to train your mind to be stronger – to take a few unpleasant shocks and still act wisely in the moments of stress.
As far as methods go, I use meditation, reading useful self improvement literature packed with advice in the form that makes the most sense to me. I also use Stoical techniques like negative visualization and contemptuous expressions to prepare myself for situations that I may or may not encounter so that whenever something does go wrong I am prepared to respond and not just react.
I also train to be able to use the ‘wrong’ situation and create a beautiful outcome from it – I train not just to survive challenges but thrive because of them.
And it is not as difficult as I make it sound.
You just have to find your own way of doing this ‘strength training’ for the mind. The effects of this can be felt in multiple ways.
Without ‘strength training’ my reactions to unpleasant shocks would be something along the lines of:
Letting unfortunate events invade my peace of mind for weeks at a time
Becoming defensive when asked to step up for an additional project whose team leader is on notice; essentially having to lead multiple projects
Talking passive aggressively when things don’t go according to schedule or when meetings overrun
With strength training, I can say that while I do sometimes lose focus – most times my response is something like this:
Writing poetry about unfortunate events to indulge my creativity and also find emotional catharsis
Looking at the opportunity for an additional project as a new learning experience which not many people would be considered for – I am being offered this additional role because I have built credibility
Making jokes to lighten the mood of my team when things don’t go according to schedule
The benefits are intangible but very profound – just like the increased energy levels you feel when you work out regularly.
Train your mind.