Our ancestors evolved in an era when food and other resources were rare, and challenges and threats were abundant. Needless to say, there wasn’t any entertainment, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and other recreational drugs.
Thanks to civilization, we live in safe environments, we’re provided with basic necessities of life, and we have easy and abundant access to pleasures of life.
Under these circumstances, our addiction to pleasure and our avoidance of pain are our biggest enemies.
Types of Actions Available to Us
Most of the actions that we can take fall into one of the two categories below.
- Actions that feel good at the moment but harm us in the long-term.
- Actions that feel bad at the moment but benefit us in the long-term.
Our default personality prefers the type 1 actions and avoids the type 2 actions. We need to develop a new personality that is the reverse of our default personality.
When I say love the pain, I don’t mean to harm yourself. I mean to love the type 2 actions, which feel painful when you engage in them.
Reversing our default personality means not only loving the type 2 actions but also avoiding the type 1 actions like plague, even at the thought level. Don’t even fantasize about them.
Aim for Mental Toughness
You don’t have to do all of that overnight. You can build world-class mental toughness by making 1% improvements every day.
1% Daily Improvements Is All You Need
Ray Dalio suggests determining your top three habits to give up and top three habits to adopt in his book Principles. Before we continue, take a moment and answer the questions below. Make a list for both of them.
- Which habits do you need to let go of?
- Which habits do you need to adopt?
Let’s say you have ten habits in both lists. 1% improvement would be to take one habit from those lists and start working on it.
Suppose that you decided to meditate for 20 minutes a day. Instead of starting with 20 minutes, start with five minutes on the first day. Every day, add one minute until you reach 20 minutes. In 16 days, you’ll get to 20 minutes a day.
Now, pick another habit and apply the same 1% strategy on that one. This way, you’ll be gradually improving your mental toughness over time.
Look for and Welcome Challenges
Your default personality runs away from challenges, registers failure as pain, and looks for comfort. Now, reverse all of that. Look for challenges, register failure as pleasure, and run away from comfort.
Before we continue, do the following exercise.
- Make a list of challenges to face.
- Make a list of fears to overcome.
- Make a list of self-discipline goals to achieve.
- Make a list of indulgences to let go.
By indulgence, I mean inessential activities that you do just for pleasure. For example, drinking alcohol, going to parties, or drinking gourmet coffee.
Now, apply the 1% technique to the lists above. If you can’t give up an indulgence entirely, reduce it to a level that really hurts. Instead of drinking gourmet coffee several times a day, drink it once a week.
Don’t run away from challenges. Don’t resist them. Surrender to them. Melt into them.
If you run away from challenges, they’ll come after you and get you. If you face your challenges, you’ll have the choice to select the ones you want.
Get Over Your Fear of Failure
Choose projects that are outside of your comfort zone, which have a chance of failure. Don’t fail on purpose, do your best to succeed, but accept and embrace failure.
Reframe failures as growth opportunities. Examine your failures and derive lessons from them.
Embrace uncertainty. Go toward the eye of the storm. Let go of your fears.
Most of your fears are some bodily sensations. They don’t have any benefits and keep you from realizing your potential. They are a product of an archaic construct that your psyche is.
We can let our fears go by staying with them without avoiding them, without trying to change them, and without suppressing them.
Tap into Your Pain
Use your pain as fuel for progress. If you need the motivation to do what’s hard, make a list of your pains. I don’t mean physical pain, but psychological pain. What gives you psychological pain?
- What are your past failures?
- What are your missed opportunities?
- What are the events that still hurt you?
Make a list of them, read that list whenever you need motivation, and get into the right feeling and do whatever is needed.
Tap into the tension between where you are and where you want to be. How does that make you feel? Determined? Strong? Powerful? How does pleasure make you feel? Weak?
Success rarely comes as a result of a walk in the park. It comes from being optimistic about the end result, but at the same time, facing the brutal reality of the situation that you’re in. This is called the Stockdale Paradox.
Enjoy the Process
When I first started jogging, I kept reminding myself of the remaining distance. Last 2 kilometers, last kilometer, last 800 meters, last 400 meters, and so on.
I thought that would make the process easier, but on the contrary, it made everything worse.
After a few trials, I realized that jogging is all about putting one foot in front of the other, without thinking about anything, enjoying the process, and doing that until I pass the finish line.
That’s true about all the challenges that you face in your professional and private life. You’ll give yourself a much harder time if you obsess about the finish line.
The whole process will be much easier if you make progress toward your goal day after day without obsessing about the finish line.
That involves loving your current conditions no matter how bad you may perceive them.
Just, stop resisting your current life situation and embrace it entirely. That doesn’t keep you from working to change it, but it’ll eliminate unnecessary suffering.
Our evolution made us go after pleasure and avoid pain. That made sense back in the day, but we reached a state of civilization where our default personality is harming us. We need to make conscious effort to reverse that.
To do that, we need to cultivate mental toughness by doing what feels bad at the moment but benefits us, by looking for and welcoming challenges, embracing our failures, tapping into our pain, and enjoying the process.
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly overview of my latest content on personal development and life lessons.