A Marine's 6-Step Plan to Getting Mentally Tough

There is a pretty simple reason that men who serve in the military have impressive physiques: If you are diligent and dedicated with your workouts, you are going to get stronger. The same is true about the training of your mind, but there are a lot of people spending hours in the gym while spending zero time building up their mental state. This realization inspired Marine veteran Andrew Wittman to take what he learned in the Corps and bring it to the rest of us, in the form of the Mental Toughness Training Center.

“The brain may not technically be a muscle, but it functions like one, and you need to work it out,” says Wittman. “I personally believe that making time for mental work is harder than going to the gym. It is also harder to encourage, because unlike a physical transformation, it can be more difficult to see the results of your work.” Here are some principles from Wittman to help you get started in building up your mental toughness.

1. State your identity.

One of the first things that the military does to its enlistees is to strip away the “self talk” and the identity. This is helpful because in society today most people have the wrong idea on how to identify themselves. The first thing they usually go to is their position or role at a company somewhere. “I’m the EVP of whatever.” But really who are you? Who are you when that goes away? So ask yourself who do you want to be under all circumstances? I have people put it into what I call an “identity statement.” Mine is “I am a man of excellence who always keeps his word.” No matter what role I am in, that is who I am, and I repeat that to myself every day.

2. Reprogram your thinking.

Leadership is having influence, but if you can’t influence your own behaviors, how are you going to expect to influence others? One of the first lessons you learn in the Marines is self-management. Some people call it brainwashing, but really it is reprogramming how you think. Start with immediately actionable changes and build from there. Start small and prove to yourself that you are in command of yourself before you try to command others.

3. Check your emotions.

Following my career with the Marines, I ran security details for Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton, and Benjamin Netanyahu. So at that point I not only had to consider my actions, but also the actions of others over my own. I can say that that experience taught me to put my emotional reactions away. If I was driving a high-target figure around in a security car, and someone cut me off, it is not an option for me to get upset or react beyond keeping everyone in that car safe. Then I would get in my car and in the same instance become irate and possibly endanger others or myself. I started to understand that that whole situation would be caused by me being intellectually lazy. I wasn’t checking myself the same way in that situation. So now I do, and I am benefitting from that process.

4. Think in terms of goals, not restrictions.

Tell someone not to think of a pink elephant. What do they think of? A pink elephant. Tell a golfer not to hit into the sand trap. Where is the ball going? Into the sand trap. The better way to go about setting goals is to envision those goals happening, and if there is an action or thought that does not help those goals, get rid of it entirely.

5. Empathy and other peoples' truths.

There is a risk of alienating people you are working with by not considering their truth, and trying to impose your truth on them. There is a difference between truth and fact that needs to be acknowledged. For example, if you are coming from Mexico, then landing in a city that is 60 degrees may seem cold to you, which is your truth. If someone else is coming from the Arctic, then that is going to seem a whole heck of a lot warmer to them, and that is their truth. If there is an argument that you want to make, use fact, and not your truth to convince them. That is going to be much more effective.

6. “Devil dog, shock troop, bloodsucking war machine, ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die, never will."

Every night before we went to bed in the Marines, our commanding officer would tell us to say our prayers. Our prayer was: “Devil dog, shock troop, bloodsucking war machine, ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die, never will.” That may be a little disturbing to hear right now, but it changed the way we believed we were going to survive in battle. I literally believe that I was bulletproof the entire time I was serving, and I benefitted from that belief. There is a tremendous amount of information the brain takes in daily, and only a small amount of it sticks. There is research that says that if your mind believes something, it will gravitate to the information that supports that belief. So if you believe you are bulletproof, your mind will gravitate to information that helps you stay bulletproof. So believe in what you are doing, and the mind will help you accomplish that.