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get tough #4


We're all mentally tough in one area or another. I know writers who can sit for hours and type 3000 words but are scared to make a phone call to a builder. I know martial artists who will walk towards any kind of streetfight but lie to their girlfriends rather than tell them the truth. I know city millionaires who can gamble everything but are frightened to talk about what they really think of something in case someone laughs. Tough in some areas, lamentably weak in others. The problem is transferring from an area where you use mental toughness to your blindspots, where, for years, for whatever reasons, you have failed to be tough.

Yukio Mishima, the famous Japanese writer, was not a natural athlete. Yet he studied karate and kendo diligently- becoming a blackbelt in both. Though his technique was rather ordinary he performed brilliantly in tests- which is the time and place when many go to pieces. (There is a saying that one public demo or test is worth a month of training). Mishima said his secret was to apply to martial arts the lessons of focus and persistence he had learned from writing. In other words he had mastered transferring his mental toughness from one area to another.

First we may look at why some people fail to transfer their toughness.

Self image

Early indoctrination


Don’t see it as important

CBA (Can’t Be Arsed)

If you have a tough guy self image you may think keeping the house clean a little effeminate. So you become a slob.

If your father and grandfather got angry when they were irritated maybe you think that is the normal and manly thing to do.

If people who are boring think keeping calm is a good idea than surely doing the opposite will make you interesting?

Maybe, when you’re retired you’ll stop being agitated by people parking in your ‘spot’, but not now.

Why bother to change anything? After all we’re all going to be dead one day. Have a drink?

Self- image is an incredibly powerful restraint on change. It is also a great boost to change. A double edged weapon. If you adopt the self-image of ‘creative’ you’ll be looking for all kinds of novel and interesting things in life. If you change to ‘assertive’ you’ll be looking for opportunities to be top dog. I’ve found that even walking round with a camera for a few days changes my self image to ‘photographer’ and I start to see the world in terms of effective images.

Once you adopt the self-image of ‘mentally tough’ it is way easier to be…mentally tough.  

Equally powerful in restraining change, is the example of people we respect (for one thing) who may have a negative characteristic. I’ve observed that students always pick up a teacher’s worst habits first. Or his irrelevant ones. I knew one aikido student who used to bang his feet on the ground before a technique because the teacher did. He didn’t know it was because the teacher was dispelling momentarily his arthritis, from which, of course, the student didn’t suffer.

You can’t really argue someone into transferring mental toughness from one sphere into another. Their response is very likely to be ‘why bother?’ In aikido it took many months of intensive training to appreciate something no teacher had told me but which is absolutely fundamental to martial arts: real fighters make decisive movements; they don’t wobble. But what if I had been told at the beginning ‘don’t wobble’? I’d have probably nodded and then said, “But what angle do I make this throw from?”

It is hard to make the transfer if you don’t think you need it. Or if you don’t think you can.

One way is the ‘as if’ experiment. Try, for a day, to act, in a new area, where before you never considered mental toughness, ‘as if’ you were mentally tough. Nothing will freak you out. You won’t whinge, complain or run people down. You’ll remain calm and take your time when you have to. Nothing will anger you, and if it does you’ll get it under instant control. Think of yourself as an actor playing a mentally tough war veteran who has studied Buddhism…whatever works to get you into the role! If you can do it for a day maybe it isn’t so hard after all.


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