How Do I Transform Mental Health Into Mental Toughness?

This year marks a decade of this space. Before I begin, I wanted to thank each of you for reading. When I first started writing, I had dreams of carving out space as a thought leader in mobile technology. Took me down a path where I had to learn content strategies, social media referrals, and find the voice I wanted to project.

Digital relationships became my currency. This blog helped me get a book deal, introduced me to the Agile Uprising crew I now call family, and got me into the conference speaking circuit. I’ve written about my emotions, loneliness, firefighting cultures, and more posts about failure than I thought possible. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this URL would result in all of this.

Somewhere along the road, I became less interested in what we were making at work and leaned into how things were being made. The humans on teams evolved my work, and the impact I can make in their lives remains what gets me out of bed. The content I consumed migrated to psychology and sociology as opposed to updates to Salesforce (not that I have anything against technical proficiency).

All that said, I begin 2023 in need of a mojo boost professionally.

I don’t want to talk about 2020 any more than you do at this point, but my work managed to hit a brick wall nearly 3 years ago. As with other topics, I think it was starting to struggle before the pandemic. The client I was working with had been my longest-running engagement ever. My techniques had been the same.

I’ll call myself out. I had begun to let laziness creep into my work more than I realized.

There was so much awesomeness going on personally, so I can give myself a little room professionally. Getting remarried and creating a blended family is a lot as is. You can understand why the travel and coaching got to me. All I wanted was to just be home with my fiance planning our new family.

Many of us can appreciate how I realized too late that things got stale professionally, and with COVID it just became ice skating uphill. I couldn’t make up it is the room with people, because that was gone. I allowed some vices to become a real thing that I only started last year addressing. While I lost weight and really started eating better, my spending habits (money, time, energy, etc.) just got a bit out of control.

Last year took a real turn for the worse though. As you all heard in my podcast with Andrew, Janee, and Jay, I took on a super challenging role that by all accounts I had prepared for very well. I made a great impact on several people at my former company, and I would like to think overall I left things in a better place. There’s just no way for me to tell though because as I stated I am no longer there.

Finishing 2022 and looking for new work left me in a dark place filled with lots of tough moments.

After reading two amazing books, I’m now trying to use the regrets of yore and apply some rethinking to my approach to work. I think it’s healthy for us to refresh and use whatever arbitrary milestones in life we can to see things anew. As Katy Milkman said in a recent podcast, think of the old you as a different person with all the possibilities in the world.

Looking at my mental health has taken on new life, but it’s more than that.

There’s a difference between mental health and mental toughness.

Yet another topic that’s been crammed down our throats for three years, right? With nothing else to do but stare at the walls, we were forced to confront our attention to the mental state and it’s only deepened. There’s no escaping the fact that every human has moments of mental illness and distress. Our awareness is higher than ever as a people group.

Now it’s time to raise our game from just being aware to strengthening our resolve.

Athletes have been working on mental toughness for as long as big money has been involved in professional sports. Chatty fans, late-game pressure, and the game-within-a-game are all prominent. It took former NBA player J.J. Redick putting it bluntly for me to realize the same tactics they use are available to us all.

“There are two types of pressure for an athlete. There’s the external pressure… it is unavoidable. You cannot unsee [and unhear] what is being said about you.,” he stated. “Then there’s the internal pressure. The pressure of self. That was the pressure that nearly broke me many times. The stuff that happened early on was tough because I wasn’t prepared. Nobody put more pressure on me than me.”

There was someone at my last gig who really managed to find a way under my skin almost daily. Even when I tried to be vulnerable and respectful, it seemed to blow up in my face. I’ve spent months thinking they were mentally tougher than I was. That’s a challenge to consider you might be weaker when it’s your job to be mentally prepared for every scenario and how to respond.

So I’ve begun the exploration of mental toughness and how I can increase mine.

Here’s where I want to caution everyone that I’m trying to discuss this topic without sounding like a bro who just wants to, “act more like a man.” The gladiator-type mentality of sucking it up, and any other military or sports metaphor imaginable. I can’t always be self-confident, because if I am then I’m never challenging myself to be in new situations. When I read through the description of books on the topic, I feel like quotes from John Wayne movies are just waiting to be tossed at me.

To be clear, I’m not putting down people in the military. Movie lines are awesome, and I’m happy to quote Russell Crowe in sessions just as much as the next person. I just don’t want to create some sort of toxic mentality that I can accomplish anything if I toughen myself up. Growing up in West Texas, I had that thrown in my lap as much as the next person.

Being mentally tough has nothing to do with gritting my teeth in situations.

I would like to think I bring a delicate nature to my work. In interviews, I tell clients my whole self gets brought with me to work. That includes my whole emotional repertoire. It takes work to refrain from gigantic run-on sentences. Preparation in the past included journaling, meditation, and rehearsing upcoming conversations in my head. Everyone would improve if they included some of that in their daily mental game, but clearly, I need to do more.

What would a plan for my day include if I cut out reading the news and a daily Wordle?

Some of you are amazing planners. I have friends that have a daily Miro of their schedule and the activities needed to get fully ready. Others write and write for pages on end with their approach. Perhaps a long conversation with a mentor, even an imaginary one with someone you’ve studied (Mr. Pink, Mr. Klosterman, and Mr. Gladwell, just know you’re on my list, sirs). What work would I need to include in the opening hours of the day to know I’m ready to roll?

Mental health does create an awareness of what state I’m in. My favorite coaching activity is a short journal of how I’m showing up for people every day to acknowledge where I am. It could be as simple as taking an old activity and dusting it off. (Update: my friend Stephen Kellogg pointed out to me after I published you could easily do this for yourself. “How are you showing up for yourself today,” he suggested.)

A further step is seeing potential challenges in my day, based upon previous experience, and identifying what meta-skills I might need for them. Perhaps my daily board for success can include knowing those skills with enough advance warning. That way, I’m pulling them out of my toolbox with anticipation as opposed to breathless need. Coaching organizational agility has taught me the most nimble companies tend to see obstacles coming and alter course well enough in advance that it appears they have a sixth sense.

I’ve also read that commitment to my efforts can be a building block of mental fortitude. Again, that doesn’t mean I’m simply bearing down and wanting to “not lose.” Grit can only get you so far. Instead, what would a goal for mental toughness look like for me?

Would it be a checkmark in the plus column of preparation every day? Could I quantify what it feels like to be ready for my schedule? How would I look back on the week and measure how tough I was?

In the end, laziness can’t be conquered, but it can be delayed daily.

Just like addiction, mental health is a spectrum that you can never truly win or lose in the end. I can tell you without knowing the future, I’m gonna have some truly tough moments and days in my journey toward mental toughness. In the same podcast with Redick, the famous quote is mentioned:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

Theodore Roosevelt

See that’s just the thing, though. The critics do count.

The former colleague, who pushed me to no end in every single conversation and then blocked me on LinkedIn so I couldn’t retort after my exit, matters. The questions of our decisions and choices in the logic matter. The comments in your social media posts should, for the most part, be left on because we need to face the music.

If I were to just hand wave all my challenges of the past 3 years professionally and keep forging straight ahead unmoved, then I’m lying to myself. I can’t let laziness creep in unchecked. My struggles need acknowledgment (hence my writing this post) because I need to do this for myself.

I need you all to know what I’m going through because I need this shit out of my head.

Going back to a decade of blogging, to close. When people asked why I started blogging, I described it as my professional diary (Yes, I had a diary in middle school. I can take your jokes). I had aspirations to get some pub and other stuff, but in the end, I did it because I needed it. I needed to start putting my thoughts out there for feedback, but if nobody read other than my family I would have been fine. I just wrote because I needed to put my thoughts out there and process what I was thinking that day.

I’m looking forward to this year. It will be challenging work to prepare more for every day when work starts back up for us all. I will have days where I struggle mightily, but I’m the man in the arena. It’s for me to do, but you all matter as well. Let me know if you want to chat further on my journey.


2 thoughts on “How Do I Transform Mental Health Into Mental Toughness?

  1. Hey Chris,

    Thanks for sharing, lots of empathy and love for you as you navigate this transition.

    I literally chuckled out loud when I read “It takes work to refrain from gigantic run-on sentences.” I laughed because I can sooo relate to it!

    Know that if you find yourself needing a sounding board or a person to vent to, I’m ready to be that outlet for you.



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