Failure: The Secret To Becoming Mentally Tough

Michael Jordan on failure

I’ve been noodling on a theory for awhile related to mental toughness. The theory is this: There‘s a huge difference in mental strength between those who’ve been “failure-tested” and those who haven’t. Failure-tested is a bit of a vague term so let me explain what I mean before diving in further.

When I say failure-tested, I’m not just talking about someone who has started a company and failed. That’s just one example. It can also include people who’ve gone through devastating injuries or accidents, recovered from an addiction, gone through a divorce, or any number of tragedies. The key to being failure-tested is not the event that constitutes “failure”, but the effect the event has on personal identity.

For example, when a football player gets an ACL tear and has to sit out for 12 months, are they still a football player? Of course they are but 12 months of not doing what you think you were born to do can shatter personal identity. If someone’s personal identity revolves around a company they started and that company fails, their personal identity is destroyed. The same thing happens if they self-identify as a husband and their marriage dissolves. My hypothesis is that true failure (and the negative mental effects associated with it, like depression) only occurs when someone’s personal identity is destroyed.

I started thinking about this as I read Sam Sheridan’s excellent books on martial arts: A Fighter’s Heart and The Fighter’s Mind. Sam talks about how the best thing about MMA (mixed martial arts) is that it allows you to use whatever style you want, from muay thai, to kung fu, to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and see if you can make your opponent “submit” (AKA “tap” or quit). When someone submits in MMA, the fight is over. It’s great because it makes it more unlikely for serious injuries to occur (since you have the option of quitting) but to a fighter, the act of submitting means that your opponent has total power over you – they could kill you, if it were a street fight.

When someone is forced to submit during an actual MMA fight, it can shatter the fighter’s world view and make it nearly impossible to get back in the cage, which by definition, requires you to think you can win. Yet unlike boxing, most of the best MMA fighters aren’t undefeated, so how is that possible? The answer is that these top fighters can take the mental beatdown that comes with failure, pick themselves back up, and improve for next time. It’s more than simply getting back up – these fighters actually get better after these losses. The losses push them further for next time.

How does this all tie into someone being failure-tested? When someone has experienced the pain that comes with their personal identity being shattered and comes back from it to take another shot at life, they’ve been failure-tested. I’ve noticed this a ton in the startup world – founders who’ve failed and try again are often some of the most mentally tough people in the industry (and most of them have failed at some point). You may argue with his methods but Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is a great example of this. At one point before Uber, “Kalanick was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sleeping in his parents’ house”. Uber is not Kalanick’s first company and he has definitely been failure-tested, probably in more ways than we are even aware of.

An even better example than Kalanick: When Elon Musk was at Paypal, he couldn’t afford an apartment so he lived in the office and showered at the local YMCA. Unrelated tangent: I used to work out at that same YMCA when I lived in the Bay Area (not during the same time period obviously). The trials for Musk didn’t end there though. He later invested ~100% of his (now massive) net worth into Tesla and SpaceX. At one point, he had to borrow money from friends to pay rent, despite being mega-rich on paper because Tesla couldn’t make payroll unless he put in his last $3 million into the company. Talk about being failure-tested – his life could’ve been a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. Instead, he’s now one of the most accomplished human beings of all time.

It’s no coincidence that there’s a large number of successful people who went through rough childhoods. Those early experiences shaped the way they would respond to difficulty for their lives.

So how does all this apply to you? There’s a lot I could say about this but overall it all sums up to one thing: take risks and put yourself in a position where you’re testing yourself. This all depends on you but could include things like:

  • Run further than you’ve ever run before
  • Lift something heavier than you’ve ever lifted
  • Start a new hobby
  • Try a new sport
  • Ask out that girl or guy that you’ve been afraid to
  • Write something

Yes, trying something new and testing yourself is going to feel awful….at first. Pretty quickly though, you’ll get used to it. Being frustrated is a great sign that you’re out of your comfort zone and on your way to growth.

I think there’s a lot more to say about this topic in many different areas – especially hiring and personal relationships but I’ll save that for future posts. This is already too long (that’s what she said….).

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