Updated: Nov 5, 2020
A lot of people start stocking up on food, gear, and their survival skills, but they neglect the one thing that holds all that together, mental strength. If you have ever watched the reality TV show Alone, you see how hard it actually is to survive. Physically and mentally. Most of the participants on the show give up not because their body can't take it, but because their minds can't take it. Or at least they think they can't... I want to share how I was able to produce mental toughness that helped me endure through trialing times in combat and throughout my Marine Corps career.
How to gain mental toughness
When I was a kid I would always do pushups before bed and again as soon as I woke up in the morning. I did this to get physically fit, but was actually getting mentally stronger as well. I would do at least 50 every time. Whether it was one set of 50 or two sets of 25. There are two dynamics here. The first is I said I always did 50, but that's not true. I would always do at least one more pushup for each set and session. I did it for two reasons. To get physically stronger than I wanted to be and to push myself mentally. If I could do 50, why can't I do 51, 52, or more?
The second dynamic was the mental game I played every morning and evening. There were many times that I was tired and didn't want to do 50 pushups before bed or when I first woke up. I just wanted to sleep, but I knew that if I gave in just one time then I would ultimately give up and stop doing pushups and would never reach my fitness goal. One day I had to wake up early and go stack hay bales. I thought to myself, "I am going to be working out all day lifting 50 pound hay bales, so I don't need to do pushups. Besides, I don't want to get too wore out so that I can't finish or do a good job working." I had another thought "yeah, but if I don't do it this morning, what will my excuse be tomorrow or the next day?"
I decided to do the pushups anyway. Then worked in the 90 degree heat in humid Minnesota for 8 or 9 hours. To my surprise, all those pushups paid off. I was able to throw those hay bales around pretty easily. Even so, it was still a lot of work and my body was sore and tired by the end of the day. Which brought me questioning if I should do my pushups that night or the next day. Even after all that, I still did the pushups. I am glad because all that mental strength I built, helped me when I joined the Marine Corps.
If you can take one thing out of this article, it's that your mind will give out way faster than your body will. If you think you can't go on anymore, you can actually go about 30 to 40% more until your body actually gives out. I went on a run with a friend after work one day when I was still in the Marine Corps. We were going to run to the beach and back, which is a little over 16 miles. There was about two miles where it was all sand and if you’ve ever ran in sand before, you know it is difficult. My friend was a much faster runner than I was so it was hard to keep up. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to give up because it was too fast and too far for me. I had run that far before, but never that fast or without stopping.
With the mental strength I had built up, I just kept my mouth shut and kept running. To my surprise, it only took us 2 hours to finish the run. I will never forget that day because it pushed me beyond any limits I thought I could attain. It wasn't like I was forced to run or in a life or death situation. That would be different. People can do extraordinary things when your life is counting on it. This run was just for fun and I could have called anyone to pick me up when I wanted. It's always harder when you have an easier way out.
You may think that I was just really fit and that's how I could run that fast and far. Sure you have to have some level of fitness to do that, but in order to get those results I had to push myself way past any limits I had already attained. It wasn't about how physically fit I was, but how I had to force my mind to allow my body to keep going.
Here is a true story to prove my point. I just returned from my second deployment to Iraq and took a group of junior Marines on a run. Right before the run they witnessed me receiving commendations at a ceremony for actions I took during combat, so they looked at me like I was something special. I took them on a 3 to 4 mile run, sometimes running fast and other times slow. Some of them were puking, falling behind, out of breath, wheezing, etc. They thought I was a superstar. However, the next week we did a physical fitness test (PFT) and many of these guys ran faster than me on the 3 mile run.
How did this happen? They all fell behind on the run I took them on. The only thing I could explain is that our motivations were different and how they seen me get the award at the ceremony. I ran as hard as I thought I could, but yet they still beat me. In their mind during the run I took them on, I was better than them, but during the PFT they were all on their own and didn't have me as a barrier. They dug deep on the PFT and used their own personal motivations to get the results they wanted.
It was funny because after the run they were all questioning how they were able to beat me. I didn't know then, but I do now, it is because they were able to dig into that 30 to 40% because they had a deeper motivation to get a better score. I was getting out, so I didn't have anything to prove. So even though I thought I tried my best I actually didn't because I didn’t dig into that extra 30 to 40% that we all have.
We all have mental barriers. Some walls are higher than others based on our views, life experiences, even our DNA. Some people don't like mushrooms or onions and they refuse to eat them. They might even gag if they find them in the food they are eating. That's a mental barrier. One that I recently have been breaking. I was the one that hated them and would gag if I accidently ate one. When I came to this realization that most things in life are only a view point, I decided it was time to break those walls down. So I purposely ate mushrooms and onions until they were no longer a barrier. Now I can eat them no problem.
When you are in a survival situation you might have to eat some nasty things in order to stay alive. if you work on your mental barriers right now, those nasty things won't be so nasty and maybe it will give you that extra amount of energy needed to accomplish an important task.
Practice makes perfect! Don't forget to practice mentally as well as physically.
There will be a part 2 to this article since it's so important (maybe 3 or 4).
To be continued...