My decision to learn to ride a motorbike was not the culmination of a lifelong desire to be a biker chick, to cruise around on a Harley Davidson in tassle-fringed leathers. This was not a destiny I had been working towards. In fact 20 years ago I did that classic back packer thing of renting a moped in Thailand with no idea how to ride one and ended up in a hedge swearing I’d never ride a bike again. As a coach and specialist in mental toughness I have become fascinated by how we self-sabotage, the stories we tell ourselves and whether it’s true that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
A journey into something that frightened me seemed like it could be interesting..
This is a story that involves fear, failure and falling. Here’s the thing about mental toughness – it’s not about never being frightened or never failing it’s about what we do in those moments and how we learn and grow from them. Born out of sports psychology mental toughness enables us to go beyond resilience, it’s about being the best we can be. It focuses on how we think and how that impacts our behaviour. Mental toughness is about mindset and it’s fundamental to our wellbeing, productivity and performance.
The model developed by Professor Peter Clough and known as the 4 Cs describes the makeup of your mental toughness:
· Confidence – your self-confidence and interpersonal confidence
· Control – your ability to manage your emotions and not be a victim
· Commitment – your ability to set goals and work towards them
· Challenge – your ability to see change and challenge as opportunities not threats
You probably instinctively know looking at those 4Cs where you would score high and where there might be development areas. While it is possible for people at the lower end of the scale to be effective and successful what we know is that people with greater mental toughness are typically better able to navigate the bumps and bends of life.
The process for getting your motorbike licence starts with one day of compulsory basic training. It essentially consists of a morning learning the basics in a school playground. Then you have to go out on the road for a 2 hour ride where you pit your new knowledge against the afternoon traffic, buses, speed humps, roundabouts, weather and your own utter lack of competence. It’s a bit like someone teaching you the basics of skiing and then putting you at the top of a black run.
I crashed. Crashing a motorbike on your compulsory basic training is very definitely a failure. And crashing a motorbike hurts. But what hurt most was having to go home and say I’d failed.
Social media is full of inspirational messages about failure and intellectually we all know that failure is one of the stepping stones to success. We all know logically that nothing great is achieved without risking failure. But knowing and feeling are two different things. I’m pretty certain that the people responsible for these inspirational quotes did not say them whilst in the midst of failure. I suspect they said them later when they had achieved success. I certainly was not lying on the road in the rain in Crawley thinking hey, this is some of the best learning I’ve ever done, it’s stepping stone to success and will make great content for a blog at some point in the future...
The unspoken truth is that failure feels embarrassing. There is a desire to justify and excuse ourselves – to say the road was wet and slippery or the instructor pushed me too hard. It’s tough to just say I failed, I made a mistake and ended up on the floor. It’s difficult to own and manage the emotion attached to that. It’s difficult to tell a failure story without minimising it, making a joke, pretending it didn’t really hurt. It’s more difficult to show up with authenticity in failure. And if we can’t do that how do we create an environment in our businesses where it’s genuinely OK to take a risk and get things wrong?
What I know from many years of working with people at all stages of their careers is that we are our own worst critics and that inner voice can be our biggest saboteur. Sometimes we tell ourselves terrible things. Things that we would never say to anyone else.
We’re brilliant at creating badges and labels for ourselves that turn what we’ve done into who we are. But failing does not mean you have to wear the badge that says ‘I am a failure’, making a mistake does not require you to stick that label on that says ‘I’m stupid’. In fact the badges we stick to ourselves are often the very opposite of the badges that others are attaching to us. Is this a story about fear, failure and falling? Or is it a story about bravery, determination and strength?
What we think, what we believe, what we tell ourselves determines what happens next in our story. It determines whether we try again or give up, whether we retreat or step up.
Brene Brown in her book 'The Gifts of Imperfection' talks about a cultural belief that everything should be fun, fast and easy. If something takes long hard work we question whether it is worth the effort. If we fail then we think we’re not good at it so we should give up and do something else that we’re better at. It seems embarrassing to admit that something was really tough and we had to try really hard to achieve it.
Something I’ve learnt about hard work and bravery is that it requires self compassion – some of that is in the messaging we give ourselves and some of that is about knowing when to rest and when to kick our own arses. Sometimes it’s right to keep going and sometimes it’s right to take a break. I don’t have a model for this I’m afraid – for me it’s just the question ‘what’s the right thing to do for myself right now?’
A month later, with the bruises fading, I got back on a motorbike and I won’t lie, I was even more frightened than when I’d started. Our brains are well equipped to keep us safe and doing something that caused emotional and physical pain the first time is typically not an action that your brain is going to embrace. Fear can be paralysing.
The Scandinavians have a phrase that translates as ‘the doorstep mile’. It refers to starting out on a journey. Leaving the comfort of the familiar and setting off into the unknown is daunting and sometimes stops us from getting started at all. When you notice overwhelm or panic taking hold, when the situation seems so big that you just don’t know what to do with it just identify the first step. When you can’t imagine staying upright on a motorbike for 2 hours just try a mile.
We went out on the road and I knew in that first mile that I was going to be OK. I passed my basic training that day, bought a 125 and rode all winter to practice. At first I rode around the block practicing corners and gear changes, then I started going further, I started going a bit faster, the fear started to get a bit less, the confidence started to get a bit more and rather than my teeth being gritted all the time I started to experience something that felt oddly like joy.
What’s your version of this? When can you remember doing something bit by bit, finding it tough but keeping on? Or if it’s not fun, fast and easy do you give up quickly? What do you notice in the people around you? How do you enable them to keep on keeping on?
To finish the story I failed some more. Before I got my license I failed my module 1 test twice and my module 2 test once and I felt like a loser a bit more. There were times when I wanted to give up but I learned when to rest instead of stop, I got really good at managing the inner critic and every time I took the first scary mile I knew it would feel a bit better. While learning was definitely not fun, fast or easy, riding these days is starting to feel a lot more like all of those things.
So here are some thoughts from that journey about how we can develop mental toughness in ourselves and those around us.
Confidence: Let’s value and encourage hard work and teach failure skills as part of the process of learning and becoming better. Let’s not minimise and self-deprecate. As leaders we can often be seen as bulletproof and that makes it difficult for people around us to fail so let’s get good at talking about our own failures and falls
Challenge: If you wait to see the whole road you might never get started. Take that doorstep mile. Lean into the bends and look through the corners. You don’t need to be fast but you do need to get started. Know that the road will eventually straighten up. Enable others to get started.
Control: your brain can be your own biggest enemy. Learn to manage it. Pay attention to the badges and labels you’re sticking on your chest and notice when other people do it. Notice the inner critic. Compassion and self care need to be the partners of bravery and strength.
Commitment: Commitment is not fun, fast or easy – it’s a longer, harder game, doing what’s right rather than what’s easy. It values hard work more than talent. It’s about focus, energy and determination. Know when to rest up and when to kick your own arse.
And that’s mental toughness for me, it’s developing and honing the tools that enable us to face the things that we find daunting. It’s purposefully seeking those daunting things out sometimes in order to learn. It's getting back on and trying again. It’s developing self-awareness, overcoming the inner critic, dealing with the imposter syndrome and being able to be the best we can. And sometimes it’s about allowing ourselves to rest and have some fun.