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7 Mentally Tough People on the Tactics They Use to Build Resilience
Here's what you can learn from David Goggins, Courtney Dauwalter, Kobe Bryant, and more on how to perform under pressure.
Lauren Johnson is a mental performance coach who most recently worked with the New York Yankees, where she helped develop strategies for athletes and sports professionals to help them cultivate mental resilience.
In this conversation, Johnson and I deconstruct the strategies and tactics of seven mentally tough people and how they learned to perform under pressure. Below is a summary of our conversation, but you can listen on Apple Podcasts or watch it below.
1. David Goggins, The Toughest Athlete on the Planet
David Goggins grew up living in fear. At school, he experienced incessant bullying and racism. At home, he suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his own father.
By the time Goggins was in his early 20s, he had asthma, a learning disability, a stutter, and crushingly low self-esteem. He was earning less than $1,000 a month spraying for cockroaches.
One night, he came home with a 42-ounce shake from Steak and Shake and sat down in front of the TV. He stumbled upon a documentary on the U.S. Navy SEALs that changed the trajectory of his entire life.
Through a relentless determination and grit, Goggins went on to complete three Navy SEAL “hell weeks," more than 50 endurance races, and holds the Guinness World Record for most pull-ups (4,030) in 24 hours.
He used a number of mental strategies to help him become mentally unshakeable.
Create an alter ego: Goggins believes he was built, not born. He intentionally created a separate identity that separated him from his past of bullying, fear, and abuse. "I had to create 'Goggins,' because 'David Goggins' was a weak kid. So I created 'Goggins,'" he says. "I wanted to be proud of who I was."
Johnson says that self-distancing is a helpful strategy in helping us manage our emotions better. "When you create an alter ego, it actually feels like we have a choice, and we're not identifying with who we are in that very moment but that we have a choice to be who we want to be. When we distance slightly, we give ourselves the ability to choose."
Follow the 40% rule: There's a reason why even though most people hit a wall at mile 16 during a marathon, they’re still able to finish. Goggins explains it through his "40% rule: When your mind is telling you that you’re done, that you’re exhausted, that you cannot possibly go any further, you’re only actually 40% done.
"Your brain is wired to protect you," Johnson says. "Most of the time our brain will show up to protect us when we don't need protecting." If you do one difficult task per day, you can increase your threshold for discomfort.”
Face the accountability mirror: When Goggins decided to become a Navy SEAL, he looked at his reflection in the mirror and said, "You’re fat, you’re lazy, and you’re a liar.” This sounds harsh, but Goggins says that he needed to face his insecurities head on in order to overcome them. He created something he called the “Accountability Mirror.” He pasted sticky notes around the outside of the mirror outlining the practical steps he needed to take to achieve his goals. They would say things like, "Go one day without lying for external validation" and "Go on a 2-mile run." If you're not happy with your reflection, Goggins suggests asking yourself, "What am I going to do today to change what I see in the mirror?"
Johnson says this strategy is so powerful because you are the only person in the world you can't lie to and get away with it. "The same way we earn trust with others by doing the things we say we're going to do is the same way we earn trust with ourselves," Johnson says. "When you talk to yourself in the mirror, it opens up your blind spots and the things you may not want to admit to yourself. It may hurt, but it's so necessary to get to that next level."
In 2017, Dauwalter dominated the headlines after she won the Moab 240, a 240.3 mile footrace through some of Utah's most challenging terrain. It took her 58 hours, and she beat the second-place finisher by more than 10 hours. In 2018, she won the Western States Endurance Run, which is 100 miles, in 17 hours and 27 minutes. The list of impressive achievements goes on and on.
Dauwalter credits her success to being able to master the art of suffering. She has managed to stay calm even through bouts of severe nausea, a bleeding head injury, and temporary blindness. “I don’t think those types of pain and suffering are signs you should stop.” she says. “I mean, I troubleshoot and try to fix what’s causing it, but my solution is usually to just keep going.” Here's how she does it:
Embrace the “pain cave:” Dauwalter talks about pain as an actual place: "the pain cave." The reason it’s helpful to personify pain is that it serves as a reminder that you’re in control when you enter and equally as aware that you can leave. “It’s not a place I’m scared to enter,” she says. “It’s a place I’m excited to find the entrance to.”
Johnson says there's an important distinction between listening to yourself and talking to yourself. You should avoid the former and encourage the latter. When you listen to yourself, you hear all the negativity and all the reasons why you can't go on, she says, but when you talk to yourself, you can tell yourself the things you need to hear in order to overcome the challenge ahead of you. Johnson adds: "Courtney approached it with a challenge mindset instead of a threat mindset. That's why she's performing from a place of power instead of a place of fear."
Stay motivated with a “carrot” goal: In one ultra-race, Dauwalter’s goal was to complete 200 miles in 48 hours. But she had a rough race, and another competitor passed her for first place in the very last stretch. She needed to find another reason to continue pushing her body, so her new goal became: “If you’re not going to get first place, then try to finish under the 50-hour mark.” It became a new “carrot to dangle.”
Same goes for everyday life. If you fall short of a goal, you can find another carrot that will keep you motivated and get you closer to the goal for your next attempt. "Be committed to the outcome that you want," Johnson says, "but stay flexible in your approach."
Tara Westover was 17 years old when she set foot in a classroom for the first time. Born to survivalist Mormon parents in the mountains of Idaho, she grew up isolated from mainstream society. Her father had a severe mistrust of the government to the point where he forbade the family from visiting hospitals or attending school.
She taught herself enough algebra to pass the college entrance exams and became a competitive applicant to Brigham Young University. There, she studied history and learned for the first time about world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement.
"For some people, education is self-determination, and that's what it was for me, and for other people, it's like predetermination and it's something that keeps them down," she says. "It's like the difference of education being a ladder or being a fence."
Here’s what she learned along the way:
Don't mistake your reality as the only truth: When Westover was growing up, she considered her father's opinion as "the truth." After she began to attend school, she realized that there is no universal, absolute truth. Our version of the world is not the only version — it is simply one of many, many perspectives. It takes strength and courage to start questioning your own family's beliefs and opinions in order to adopt ones more in line with your own path.
"At first people are going to tell you that you can't do something out of their own fears," Johnson says. "But the second you start doing what you want to do and you start doing it well, they're going to tell everybody how they met you."
Break your patterns: When Westover used to return to her family's home, she felt herself falling right back into the same identity she once had — that fearful and insecure 16-year-old girl. As kids, some of us learn unhealthy patterns from our parents.
The second we venture out on our own, we feel liberated and changed, but as soon as we get back in that familiar environment, we repeat the same patterns. "The environment is that invisible hand that shapes us, which is why it's so important to pay attention to who you're surrounding yourself with," Johnson says. Spend your time with people who challenge your existing beliefs and teach you to be more resilient.
In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and wrongfully charged with two counts of capital murder in Alabama. Hinton knew it was a case of mistaken identity and naively believed that the truth would prove his innocence and set him free.
But as a poor black man in the South, Hinton was sentenced to death by electrocution. He maintained his innocence through the entire duration of the 30 years he served on death row, which makes him one of the longest serving death row prisoners in Alabama history.
In his time on death row, Hinton watched 54 men walk past his cell to be executed. Another 22 took their own lives. “My cell was 30 feet from the chamber, and I could smell the burning flesh,” he writes. Yet he managed to maintain hope and befriend those society had given up on.
Visualize a better reality: On death row, Hinton figured out a technique that was able to get him out of his tragic circumstances: Daydreaming. While in his cell, Hinton traveled the world, married Halle Berry, had tea with Queen Elizabeth, and won Wimbledon — all in his mind. “I never used my mind for garbage,” he says. “I used it to cope through some lonely days.” Hinton started a book club for fellow inmates who also wanted to experience the power of visualization.
"The cool thing about visualization is that our brain doesn't know the difference between imagination and reality," Johnson says. "It's the same as watching a movie — we're not part of the movie, but we're having an emotional reaction to it." Mental toughness is easy when things are going well, but the true test comes if you can train yourself to use mental strategies like visualization in moments of crisis, panic, and disaster.
Find the good in the awful: It’s hard to imagine you’d be able to forgive those who abused the system and sentenced you to death, but Hinton sees it differently. "I’ve never had an apology, but I forgave those involved in my conviction long before I left prison. I didn’t forgive them so they can sleep well at night. I did it so I can."
Research shows that people who are good at framing negative life events in positive ways have better mental health. "I'm sure there are a million things Anthony could tell you about his misery and the things that were awful and unjust," Johnson says. "But when you look back and you choose to find the good in the bad, your experience of it changes. It's not for anyone else — it's for you."
5. Emily Harrington, The Climber Who Befriended Her Fear
Emily Harrington became the first woman to free climb El Capitan's notoriously difficult Golden Gate route in under 24 hours. She attempted it in 2019, but it ended in disaster after Harrington fell 50 feet, hit her head on a ledge, and suffered concussion. "It's definitely a mental struggle, coming over that hurdle, coming back into this year and trying again," she says.
Here's how she learned to accept fear:
Learn how to accept fear: Rather than push away the things she's fearful of, she’s learned to befriend them. "I work through it by just accepting it and trying to understand why it's there and then taking steps to move forward," she says. "In a lot of ways, we can use fear as fuel and as strength." But how can people learn not to fear the things they're afraid of?
Johnson says it's possible to think and feel one way, but act in a totally different way. "Your feelings and actions don't have to match to co-exist," she says. "So yes, you can feel fear and do it anyway. [Emily] is not ignoring the fact that she feels fearful, but it's accepting it and choosing to act anyway."
Use mantras in times of panic: Harrington uses mantras when she's in difficult situations in order to soothe the panic in her brain. She says this to herself over and over again: "Be vulnerable, accept failure, and embrace fear."
Passion is the result of identifying what makes you uncomfortable and scares you most. "Feelings aren't facts. They're data points," Johnson says. "Fear is often a good indication that this is something you care about."
Sara Blakely is no stranger to failure.
Growing up, she wanted to be a trial attorney, but then she bombed the LSAT. After college, she auditioned to be Goofy at Disney World, but she was too short to wear the costume. After a stint as an Epcot ride greeter at “the happiest place on earth,” Blakely returned home and moved in with her mom.
One night, she decided to wear her new white pants to a party, but her underwear left unflattering panty lines. So she cut the feet off a pair of pantyhose and turned them into a slimming undergarment. “The moment I saw how good my butt looked, I was like, ‘Thank you, God, this is my opportunity,” she says.
That moment changed the trajectory of her entire life. In 2000, Blakely used her $5,000 in savings to start her company Spanx, and by 2012, she was named the youngest self-made female billionaire.
The key to her success has been that Blakely sees an opportunity in every failure or disappointment. “Spanx wouldn’t exist if I had aced the LSAT,” she says.
Learn to celebrate failure: When Blakely was growing up, her family would go around the dinner table and share their biggest failure of the week. “If I didn’t have something to share, [my father] would actually be disappointed,” she says. The exercise re-defined failure in Blakely’s mind. “Instead of failure becoming an outcome, it simply became about not trying,” she says. “And that truly is the only failure — to not try.”
In reflecting on Blakely's story, Johnson explains that we could never know how much we could achieve unless we go so far that we reach the point of failure. She adds:"How will you know how far you can go if you don't risk losing it to some degree?" If you frame failure as a data point, you can get a lot of great feedback on how you can improve in the future.
Diffuse difficult situations with humor: Life can be heavy, Blakely says, and having someone who can lighten the mood or make you laugh is one of the most important things. For example, when she and her husband get in a heated argument, he extends his hand, and they slow dance.
Johnson explains: "Sometimes we can take ourselves too seriously. When we joke and laugh, it brings us back down to reality."
One year ago, Kobe Bryant's life came to an end in a sudden and tragic manner. The 18-time NBA All-Star who had a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. His 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others also died in the crash.
But Bryant's legacy continues to live on. On and off the court, he was best known for his obsessive pursuit of precision and excellence, which he dubbed “the Mamba Mentality.” Bryant's life and career remind us that the only answer to surviving unimaginable hardship is to keep moving forward and drawing on our own resilience.
Use an alter ego to summon confidence: Bryant created his "Black Mamba" alter ego as a way to get through the lowest point of his career. His nickname was inspired by the movie "Kill Bill," in which the snake, known for its agility and aggressiveness, was used as a code name for a deadly assassin. At a time when people were chanting "Kobe sucks," while he was playing, Bryant said that using an alter ego gave him emotional distance from his real self.
"Kobe and the Black Mamba — both of them were him," Johnson says. "But there was a time in competition when he could turn it on and use [the identity] that was appropriate for the situation."
Remember that life only moves forward: To Bryant, the antidote to listlessness and defeat was drive and relentlessness. He never believed in "go with the flow." Rather, he believed in moving forward with intent. Instead of shying away from adversity, bring this Bryant quote to the forefront of your mind: “I’m reflective only in the sense that I learn to move forward…I reflect with a purpose.”
That's because he knew that action is the only thing that leads to confidence and improvement. "Kobe would gain an understanding around the unknown," Johnson says. "When we can prepare for something and gain competence, we actually gain confidence."