Don’t allow your life to be defined by your hardship. Instead, let your life be defined by how you overcame your hardship.
Do a cursory search on YouTube or Google for “mental toughness” and you’ll find any number of tattoo-laden weightlifters or slick-haired motivational speakers offering pithy sayings and shallow catch phrases about positive thinking and pushing past your limitations. Mental toughness for most Americans is about shedding a few pounds, getting a promotion, or bench-pressing more this week than you did last month. Yeah, first-world problems—it’s a shallow concept of mental toughness.
However, for most people in the world, mental toughness is a harsh—but necessary—reality. According to UNICEF, nearly half the world's population, more than 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty, less than $1.25 a day. Even worse, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. I have worked in the slums of Nairobi, the alleyways of New Delhi, among the impoverished villages of West Africa and South America, and even the crime infested streets of the South Bronx. Frankly, our Americanized versions of mental toughness wouldn’t survive one week in those conditions.
For these people, mental toughness isn’t winning a trophy, or trying to fit into a new dress—it’s daily life. It’s getting up every day and walking 5 kilometers to get clean water at the only well serving 5 different villages. It’s deciding which child should get more food based on how sick or well each one is. It’s the 30 million people living in conditions of slavery, agonizing in the abuses of human trafficking, and the innumerable number of women and children suffering through domestic abuse but force themselves to face another day. Sure, YouTube speeches on mental toughness may inspire you to endure a difficult day at work but that’s not mental toughness—not really. The kind of mental toughness we need is the kind that empowers you to endure the extreme disappointments and severe, crushing events that life will, inevitably, throw at you.
Mental Toughness Is the Mindset of an Overcomer
Nicholas Vujicic was born in 1982 in Melbourne, Australia, without arms or legs. After repeated bouts with depression, attempts at suicide and emotional distress, Nick finally overcame. He learned that God had a purpose for his life—a destiny to impact the world like no other. His story has become a testimony of triumph, inspiring others to carry on regardless of the struggle they face. Today, this dynamic young evangelist has accomplished more than most people achieve in a lifetime. He’s an author, musician, and actor, and his hobbies include fishing, painting and swimming—all accomplished without arms or legs. In 2007, Nick made the long journey from Australia to southern California where he is now the president of the international non-profit ministry, Life Without Limbs, which was established in 2005. That is mental toughness.
Sean Stephenson was born with a rare bone disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta. He stands three feet tall and is constrained to a wheelchair. But what is viewed by most people as a debilitating disability, for Sean, has become a doorway to destiny. He has used his story of tragedy to triumph to inspire millions around the world. This 36-inch-tall, wheelchair laden man has earned a Ph.D. and conducted live lectures in over 15 countries and 47 states over the past 16 years. His latest book, Get Off Your “But” has swept the United States and been released in over a half dozen languages. That is mental toughness.
It’s the disabled veteran who returns to his family but learns to adapt, acquires new skills, and lives a fulfilling life. It’s the single mom with two kids, determined to make ends meet. It’s the widow, whose husband didn’t leave enough life insurance, is forced back into the job market, but refuses to give up. It’s the divorcee who faces the reality of a spouse who now loves and lives with another, but still has her smile—not because she’s happy, but because she’s strong. It’s the man who loses his job, and looks for another. It’s the young adult who battles addiction and forces himself to his support group, even if he’s the only one there. That is mental toughness.
For more practical advice on “Mental Toughness,” check out my newest book, Upward: Taking Your Life to the Next Level.