Let’s talk mental toughness. Three questions: 1. Is it an essential quality of an effective lawyer? A recent series of books and articles on grit and resilience is propelling this trait as one on equal footing with diligence, intellect and professionalism. 2. Can mental toughness be learned? You bet. And the miracle of neural plasticity means this mindset can be developed at any age. 3. How can the mindset be learned? Habits. As the saying goes: We make our habits and then our habits make us. Here then are five concepts to make it a daily habit.
No. 1: “Amor fati”
Translation: “Love your fate.” Not to be confused with the more mundane idea of playing the hand you are dealt. “Amor fati” is not a grudgingly given hug to circumstances but instead a joyful and full-throated embrace of them: bad facts, shaky witnesses, unfavorable case law. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught us: We are but actors/actresses in a play, and it is “our duty to perform well the character assigned.” So true. By the way, it is OK to be saddened initially at the poor hand, but, as a ball player is taught, “shake it off.” Rejoice, yet again, in the privilege of stepping into the batter’s box and being a lawyer.
No. 2: Always Be Reframing
Shakespeare nailed it: “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Or as Austin-based writer Ryan Holiday puts it: “Something happened that we wish had not. What is easiest to change? Our opinion of the event or that which has occurred?” Cut to coffee over the holidays with a mentee. One day, dream job; the next, the unemployment line. His take: “I am glad this happened, because now I understand (insert lesson), and I likely would never have learned it otherwise.” The mentally tough lawyer, not unlike my mentee, isn’t a victim who shrugs his shoulders and sighs, “it all happens for the best.” No, it does not. The mentally tough do not fold like cheap tents in the wind, instead they draw, as my mother taught me, lessons from events.
An entrepreneurial client instructed me in this principle. We lost a motion, and I called and lamented, “I have bad news,’” he says. ”All news is good news, because then you know where you stand.” We settle a case for what I think is too much. He says: “Inexpensive tuition counselor. Inexpensive tuition.” Mental toughness is not snapping back from adversity like a rubber band but rather coming back better than before. And science backs up this analogy. Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, completed recently a study of depressed individuals who felt helpless in the face of events. She writes, “We came to realize that depressed people have lost their power to remodel their brains. And this is in fact devastating because brain remodeling is something we need to do all the time—we are constantly rewiring our brains based on past experience and the expectation of how we need to used them in the future.”
No. 3: Be Indifferent to Winning
Mentally tough lawyers refuse to let winning distract them from the moment. It is trial. A tough cross. The lawyer scores a deft point. She is not seduced by the moment but rather soldiers on through the cross. Otherwise, she thinks to herself, “Am I good or am I good?” Focus is lost and disaster ensues. Instead, go to the next question, the next challenge. Mentally tough lawyers save the celebratory cold martini for the end of the trial.
No. 4: Dry Hole? Stop Drilling!
The mentally tough are not the terminally dumb. Glenn Mangurian crushes this idea in his essay, “Realizing What You’re Made Of” in the book “Mental Toughness” from Harvard University Press. After a traumatic injury, he reflects, he was essentially born again. His wisdom: “It is easier to start a new dream than to fix a broken one. Adversity alters relationships and may even ruin them … It destroys some dreams and renders others obsolete. But adversity also provides an opportunity to house clean—to pack old daydreams away and make room for new ones.” Wow! Talk about reframing!
No. 5 Control What You Can, Ignore the Rest
This habit is from multiple sources. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor in “The Mediations;” Viktor Frankl, who survived three concentration camps and went on to write “Man’s Search for Meaning;” and an American hero, Adm. James Stockdale, the ranking POW in the Hanoi Hilton who saved the lives of the men under his command. All helped others by teaching a simple yet powerful truth: We are in 0 percent control of what happens to us, but we are 100 percent in control of our reaction to what happens to us. The mentally tough lawyer knows that no one— no boss, no judge, no authority figure—can deprive us of this inalienable right. We can relinquish this right, but it can never be wrested from us. Understand this, and stress levels decrease, fear evaporates, clarity ensues. You now have a fighting chance.
The army of mental toughness is not an army of conscripts adhering to dutiful obedience, grudging adherence, blind loyalty. Never. It is instead an all-volunteer army of souls freely subscribing to renewal, liberation and reinvention. Enlistments always welcome.