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'Nearly all the problems facing society today cannot be attacked by single disciplines.'

Dr Alexander King

This blog contains hundreds of original articles. 


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Get Tough #3

How can we alter our default setting for Mental Toughness? Our culture, our bodies, our own upbringing and habits, the stories we have heard about our heroes and relatives- all this will have a bearing on your own default setting for mental toughness.

That’s your starting point. If you have never had anaesthetic for dental work then having a filling with no injection is no big deal. My grandfather once pulled out a rotten tooth he had with a pair of pliers. But I’ve always asked for an injection. I’m not about to use pliers unless I’m on a desert island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. And even then...

The default setting is nothing to be ashamed of. But it may not be your optimum setting. In fact it won’t be.

You may have grown used to being irritated when the bus is late. You can stop that today. Almost any reaction which is negative in a trivial sense can be stopped by adopting a stance of mental toughness.

What are ‘non-trivial’ negativities? I suppose pain and fear settings that are long entrenched. If you have been scared of spiders since you were four it won’t disappear just because you ‘will it.’ You’ll need to do certain things, have certain positive smaller experiences to enable you to overcome such early programming.

Conditioning or programming is what we are talking about, largely, when we talk about mental toughness default settings. By nibbling away, bit by bit, you can overcome a setting that says X cannot be done.  You can also do it by having a BIG experience. Say, you’re frightened of snakes- OK go on a snake hunt. Reverse the situation- you are actively looking for what you normally avoid.

Sometimes simply adopting a mentally tough stance will dissolve a default setting. Others can be more permanent. But by assuming a mentally tough posture you can erode them.

“Pushing Yourself” versus Mental Toughness

You can ‘push yourself’ and it can look like mental toughness but the end result can be depression or a nervous breakdown.

It’s important to distinguish between refusing to be fazed by something and forcing yourself on, stressing your system. In the former you aren’t taking the activity in question too seriously, in the latter case, you are. 

When we over-associate with a goal, when we become over attached to an outcome we can strain ourselves trying to achieve it. But who cares- in the great grand scheme of things whether we get a first class or a second class degree? Who cares if our book is finished this year or next? Who cares if we make a million dollars or not? 

Targets are good for getting us going, for starting the race. They are bad if they simply become weapons to beat ourselves up.

Mental toughness is about encouraging stretching but avoiding strain. Say, you’re trying to finish writing your book and feeling tired- OK tough it out- not for any ulterior motive (because it MUST be finished) but because you want to test yourself and see if you CAN tough it out. If it works, and you ‘break through’- as often happens when you refocus hard on a thing- all well and good. But if you still feel tired then so what- go to bed, get some rest and be tough again in the morning. Toughing it out isn’t about pretending you’re superhuman. It’s about accepting your limitations and pushing them, a bit at a time, in a way that stretches and does not strain.

It’s not an easy call. But, if you are not wedded to some goal in an obsessive way, you will be perceptive enough to stop when toughing it out becomes damaging. 

The Japanese swordsman Tesshu set himself the task of copying out the entire Buddhist Cannon by hand. He was asked, “Isn’t that a huge undertaking?” “Not at all,” he replied, “I only copy one page at a time.”


What’s the big deal about ‘thinking positive’?

There is a whole industry out there devoted to promoting Positive Thinking. What’s that all about? Why does it strike such a chord and claim such great results? Surely we should endorse it if it really works?

But what’s the downside? The downside is simple: positive thinking requires energy you may not have. This is an important but subtle point. When you raise your game- such as going on a mission or an expedition you get an across the board rise in energy to help you succeed. But if you don’t raise your game, say in everyday living, then ‘being positive’ is an effort and you may not be always up to it.

But ‘toughing it out’ raises your game. It’s a ‘level up’ across the board. Once adopted, you don’t need to push yourself each time you take a tougher attitude, it’s just there, like a backstop, ready and waiting. Positive thinking involves ‘trying’, getting tough involves ignoring the imaginary- think of it as double negative…and therefore ultimately positive.

Being ‘positive’ all the time is a very effective way of isolating what is good in any situation and focussing on that. But that may not be what is required. The situation maybe insoluble, or simply very bad. You need to be clear sighted and making the right judgements, not distorting things in order to make it seem ‘positive’. 

But seeing the flaw in unthinking ‘positivity’ is not, as some feel, a thumbs up for negativity. That kind of either/or thinking is primitive to say the least. Positive thinking in fact derives its incredible power- and for some it is almost like a religion- because it activates mental toughness.

When we think positively we are slamming the brakes on ‘following up’ any negative thoughts. We are choosing NOT to think certain things. Both these things happen when we are mentally tough. We just say to ourselves- nothing bothers me, nothing freaks me out. And when it does we say- well, I’m human but so what? And get on with it. Becoming mentally tough is about taking a stand. It’s about saying “NO MORE” to feelings of inadequacy, intimidation, anxiety. It’s about over riding them. Now, we will see, you can put in place certain behaviours and practices that make OVER RIDING these negative emotions much easier. 

When I was first a father I knew about being woken up all through the night and I didn’t look forward to it but I was certainly unprepared for how it hit me. I felt like a zombie. Work was really hard. And worst of all I became irritable. I had never before allowed irritation at others to flourish. Now I did. And like all negative emotions- once they have a home they just keep on enlarging it. You keep going back there, being more irritable and allowing irritation to become a normal behaviour. And it did with me: I became an irritable man. It took several years for me to actually notice this, and several more for to do anything about it- slow learner eh? But the answer was simple: be tough. Tough out the irritating feelings, don’t give in to them. The more you grin and bear it the easier it gets.

I could have tried to be ‘positive’ about having no sleep but where is the positive? Having no sleep sucks. But you can tough it out. Doctors do. Soldiers do. And they can’t afford to make mistakes even when they are dog tired. By toughing it out and not giving in you gradually find it easier.

The power of mental toughness lies in the way it CONVERTS negativity into fuel. It’s like saying “OK life, give me your best shot! Call that hard? Come on try again!” It is empowering because it is not fearful or greedy. The harder life hits you the better you feel because you’re ‘winning’, you aren’t folding, you aren’t giving in. There is sophistry here but not much, it works you see. There are always people smaller and weaker than oneself who have withstood greater calamities. They empower us with their example. They give us the strength to keep getting back up.

Positive thinking derives similar power from taking a stance: nothing is going to get me down. The problem is- when something does- the dam bursts, you find you can’t find a positive foothold anywhere. You get swept away. I’ve seen a very positive person completely devastated when something with NOTHING positive at all about it hit them. (It didn’t help that they were a little ill and in a new environment.) They just collapsed.

But mental toughness is a little like fighting in the mountains. The terrain is your friend even if you are on the defensive. You never need to flee, just pull back and regroup behind a convenient summit. It’s almost impossible to flush fighters out of mountainous terrain- look at Afghanistan. With mental toughness you accept each attack on your calm as a test of your toughness. It doesn’t matter how bad it is- can you take it on the chin? Can you remain calm? You don’t have to make out you can solve it, or that it will get better or that there is hope of any kind. You just have to face it like a person who is mentally tough, who won’t be beaten.

And then you find there is a sliver of hope, there is a chance, there is a way. And because you didn’t panic and turn tale and run you can actually do something.




Get Tough #2

I was a child and I was a laughing stock. My own mother made gentle fun of me. I didn’t mind. It was true, after all. I was dead scared of heights. Halfway up the tower of Pershore Cathedral I forced my mother to take me down the tower’s spiral staircase. Embarrassingly against the strong upward flow of visitors eager to get to the top. Lot’s of ‘sorries’ were said that day as gripping my Mum’s hand in the darkness we fought our way down using the narrow part of the spiral to stand on as we went. I was six years old. As long as I could remember I had been scared of heights. My fear, as fears do, grew. I could even make myself dizzy and scared by staring upwards at a tall tree or even a lamppost. By moving my head I could make the tall thing appear to sway, perhaps in the wind. It was enough to make me feel queasy.

I knew this was wrong, but how to cure myself? One day, aged eight, walking in our back garden I saw the wind blowing the upward sprouting branches of a willow back and forth. This was a pollarded willow so the main trunk was split into five or six which towered about forty feet high. Way past my limit. I knew I was able to climb about six feet off the ground, and on technically harder trees than this. All I needed to do was hand on and keep climbing. Even though it had been windy for days, I could see branches weren’t breaking. I knew it was safe, as long as I held on. With great reluctance I climbed the tree, forcing myself upwards almost to the top. What made it easier was being able to cling on with both arms. The vertical branch bent back and forth in the wind like something made of rubber. I clung on for grim death. Rain spattered with the wind into my face. 

But just like the cowardly lion who ‘fights’ the moon by jumping into a pond showing its reflection, I found my fears dissolved. This is a fine feeling I told myself and it almost was. What pleased me was the feeling of achievement. I had beaten my fear of heights. 

A few years later I took up rock climbing and thought myself immune to any kind of fear relating to high places. But twenty years after stopping rock climbing I found I’d get a bit nervous, a little quakey whenever I got near the edge of a cliff, or in the glass bottomed part of a car on the London Eye. The old fear was coming back. On my next cliff walk I deliberately went close to the edge, looking down and controlling any fear, forcing myself to both pay attention to what was there and ignore what was in my head. And it worked again. I found a little bit of ‘height therapy’ cured me for about a year, an indication that fears can grow like weeds unless tended to from time to time.


Combat negative emotions.

Curing myself of a fear of heights started a life long interest in mental toughness. For a while it was confused in my mind with physical toughness. Until I met physically tough and strong people who did not have much mental toughness. Not that there isn’t a strong connection between the two, it’s just a little more complicated; being a rugby playing member of the SAS in no way guarantees your mental toughness.

Mental toughness is connected in the main with combating fear. But I have realised this is too limited. Mental toughness is concerned with corralling ALL negative emotions. Greed. Envy. Inaction. Discomfort. Reluctance. Procrastination. Complaining. Self-pity. Anger. Sadness. Hysteria. Ingratitude. Feeling of being insulted. Ignored. Laughed at. Mocked. Indecisive.

Things happen in our heads. Some we want to happen. Some we don’t. We may suffer from recurring images of a distressing kind after seeing a road accident. This is one kind of mental event we may not want. We may feel intense self-pity after failing an exam. We may dwell on how we have been slighted by a former friend. Though we suppress the former, these last two we may not fight against. In a world that encourages us to ‘let go’ we may believe any mental event is ‘us’, something we are stuck with. But I’ve found, as people in the past found, if we allow ourselves to feel negative emotions, if we allow ourselves to be outraged, insulted, or to be fearful and indecisive- then we become those things. Little by little.

Many of the things we allow to invade our thinking processes are of no use to us. In fact they are positively malignant. I have friends who used to fly everywhere when they were young. But now they are too scared to fly. Partly it is a control issue- they hate being in the hands of someone else (which explains the fear of the dentist some find grows as they get older) – but partly it is allowing good old fear to get the upper hand. If you let it get out of hand then you may have a real fight on your hands. Your fear may become a phobia. But the cure is always the same. Little by little you have to nibble away at it, keep the weed from strangling the garden.

You will be vastly helped by taking on board the idea of mental toughness. What do I mean by this? Well, for years I have heard the phrase many many times. Did it stop me whinging, being ungrateful, reluctant, prone to anger and mild depression? Not a bit of it. I assumed these things were all part of ‘me’. Only after hearing the clarion call 101 times did I start to root out the weeds using the mantra of ‘mental toughness’. 

Of course one still experiences emotions that one may rather not experience. A flash of anger, a surge of the desire to give up. But the process now is to observe these emotions and then ‘click’ reset the dashboard so to speak, click back to a more focused level, use concentration on the task at hand to drive past the boredom, fear or distaste. Suck it up as the phrase goes.

So how do you suck it up? And how do you get to take seriously the 101 st time you are admonished to be ‘strong’ or ‘toughen up’- or the one a friend particularly dislikes ‘man up’. How do you get past what looks like a cliché to the real thing it masks? 

It isn’t easy. It could take years of effort. But the first step is taking the concept seriously. 

I have a friend who suffered from mild depression. He went to a cognitive behavioural therapist who asked him to describe his day. He was a writer who worked in a local library. He’d get up, read the papers, curse about the state of the world, ride along a busy road, curse about the state of the traffic and weather, arrive at the dingy library- and usually suffer an hour or two of writer’s block. After squeezing out a few hundred words he’d ride home, curse the dangerous driving and then listen to the radio and TV all evening watching the news and berating the terrible state of the world. Was it so very surprising he began to feel unhappy? The therapist pointed out he had ‘poor mental hygeine’. Imagine if you never washed your hands, handled every dog turd and piece of roadkill you saw, licked them and then complained you were feeling ill? It’s the same with our thoughts. You can’t spend all day telling yourself that something is terrible and unresolvable without feeling sad and hopeless yourself. You have to put a block on it. The instinct is to avoid. And avoiding works, for a while. But you can’t hide from this world.

Let’s take a moment to look at the hiders.



For years I was a hider. It may be the halfway house to mental toughness. I’m not sure. At least it’s a little better than giving into negative emotions completely. Hiders understand that there is a lot of negativity in the world. Read a paper and if you have any imagination it can be distressing- thousands dead in a tsunami, people shelled in Gaza, troops and civilians murdered in Afghanistan- there is no end to bad news. Hiders know that this stuff makes them feel bad and agitated. So they hide from it. They don’t read or watch the news. They don’t talk about it. 

Hiding can take over your life. I know one chap who moved to South Island New Zealand because he wanted his children to grow up in a place that was like England in the 1960s. 

People move into the countryside and live off the land, avoiding the food and the lifestyles of people who live in towns. It’s very seductive. I even thought seriously about doing it.

But it’s hiding. And you can’t hide forever.

In the end hiders become bitter. They resent the world, the way it is ‘changing for the worse’. The world changes. That’s all we can say from our limited perspective. Some things get better, some worse. But hiders, because they are not practising mental toughness, allow other forms of negativity to flourish instead. By avoiding bad news they erode their ability to shrug it off. 

I have a friend who escaped form Iraq many years ago. His sister stayed and only left when Saddam was toppled. He told me of his surprise at discovering how trivial he had become compared to his sister. Little things pissed him off. Trains being late. Expectations overturned. Projects not succeeding. His sister was a picture of cool and serenity. She’d lived though war and destitution. She was mentally tough. She had perspective.

Hiders lose perspective. And they are vulnerable. By hiding from what annoys or scares them, instead of developing mental toughness, they leave their fear and irritation intact- as potential. Trivial events then become the trigger for this latent negativity. Who hasn’t seen the red faced country gent when his ‘paradise’ is invaded in some way- a new shopping development or a ‘fun pub’ in the village. Or the extreme agitation of someone, for whom everything runs on clockwork in their hideaway, when their car fails to start or the pipes freeze.

There is a saying, “Be In the world but not Of the world.” Hiders try to avoid being in the world, and end up being affected by it, so becoming ‘of’ the world.


Boredom and Fear

Though some, like me, are fearful kids, most kids seem pretty brave and outgoing- at first. Then, you can observe the many who gradually get bored with the world. Who, with kids, hasn’t heard the familiar cry “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do here!”

Then, bizarrely, you wake up one day and discover that instead of finding everything dull, you now fear it.

“First boredom, then fear,” wrote Phillip Larkin. How right he was. As a poet he had the perspicacity to see this truth without necessarily being able to do anything about it, or even be motivated to do anything about it.

Boredom is the negative emotion of childhood and adolescence. Give in to it and it multiplies, flourishes. It begins to rewire your operating system from a PRODUCTIVE one- creating, acting, doing to a CONSUMING one which requires entertainment, constant stimulus, passive spectating, medication.

A passive consumer based brain is vulnerable to negativity. With a rewired system you become less convinced of your power to CONTROL your thoughts. Your operating system simply allows any negative emotion to sit there and multiply since you have no HABIT of taking action against unwanted thoughts. FEAR is a core negative emotion. It can be communicated like a virus from others. It can be picked up from watching TV or reading the newspapers (which is why HIDERS avoid these activities). And if you don’t root it out fear will grow, year after year. Many writers, I have discovered informally, fear flying. Writers live in a world they can largely control themselves. They can make it very cosy and comfortable. This allows them to write, but, unless they have developed mental toughness, it also allows negative emotions an undisturbed plot in which to grow. 

Fear, unchecked, unrooted out, unscorned- will grow. We live in a safety-crazy culture. I am all for taking precautions when doing something dangerous- ie. looking where I am going and avoiding things I am untrained or unable to do, but I find it ludicrous that special fences should be erected on mountains to make them ‘safer’ for walkers. Of course we live in litigious times and no one wants to be sued. Be that as it may- the end result is that it becomes normal to be scared of many things our forebears took as safe.

When I visited a tribe in Borneo it involved crossing a bridge across a high river on three bendy pieces of bamboo. I was pretty unnerved. When I got to the village I saw they actually had a washing machine- which someone had carried on their back across that tiny bendy bridge (and a generator too one presumes). These people were like we were a few generations back before we began to molly coddle ourselves with flat roads and escalators. Don’t get me wrong, this is no rant against modernity- I am merely pointing out that the present culture is one in which fearful behaviour is condoned – partly because it makes a profit for insurance companies, health companies and road building companies!

It’s important to understand when elements in our culture work against us. Fear based living provides a perfect environment for fears to multiply. The exercise of mental toughness can identify and root out such negativity before it takes a hold so completely you become effectively an invalid. One writer I know cannot go abroad on holiday with his family because of his ‘fear’ of flying. Yet as a young man he flew all round the world. What happened? Letting fear lie undisturbed for years happened.



Get Tough!

Today I suffered a minor setback. It looks like some petty legal business I am involved with may not succeed. I felt down, negative and not a little pissed off. Then I remembered Ikusan. Ikusan was one of my mentors in Japan. A diminutive former school teacher, she had lived through WW2 in southern Japan and after the war, due to poor health conditions at the time, contracted TB. But she had survived and is still alive today aged 86.

Whenever I felt down, or was slightly injured while training in Aikido, or said I wasn’t up to something Ikusan would say, “Be Strong!”. If I moaned about having a cold, “Be Strong!” If I said things ‘weren’t fair’: “Be Strong!” When a tiny elderly lady tells you to toughen up you do- you’re half shamed not to.

The mantra I have made out of Ikusan’s clarion call is: Be Tough, or, Tough it out, or, Toughen up. Be tough(er) in a world that is constantly trying to make out humans are weaker than they really are: less flexible, less adaptable, less tolerant, less tough. My primary interest here is ‘mental toughness’, though physical toughness is very much connected to mental toughness, and can be its precursor and handmaiden. But the real aim is mental toughness- whatever our age, size, fitness and inclinations we can all become mentally tougher- whereas physical toughness of an extreme variety may only be of use to a rugby player or a member of special forces.

I think instead of talking about personal development we should talk, and think about, personal toughness. We need to make the outside as strong as possible before we start tinkering with the inside. And by ‘outside’ I mean our everyday personality, the one we use to get most life tasks done. By ‘inside’ I mean the part of our selves, or inner self, that addresses, or contemplates, such questions as “who am I?”, “Where am I from?”, “What part of me survives death?”. These questions are the role of inner development, but, to be healthy, it requires a sturdy exterior framework- a real tough exterior.

Doesn’t being tough preclude sensitivity to art and the feelings of others? Not at all. Sensitivity of a valuable kind has an inverse relationship with self-centredness; it does not solely rely on having highly tuned antennae. The more self-centred you are the less useful your ‘sensitivity’ will be, the more out of touch it will be. Ever been out with a top ornithologist? He or she will be picking out and recognising birds you hardly notice. That’s real sensitivity, trained by being concerned with what is out there rather than worrying about the noise between the walls of your cranium. Being tough means you can tune out self-centredness, focus outwards, and paradoxically be more sensitive.

Something in me has always been drawn to self-help books and self-development ideas but there has always been a certain reluctance to take them too seriously. It was as if I always knew they were promising TOO MUCH, or, at least, over stepping their jurisdiction. I think getting tougher, or improving personal toughness locates self help in the most useful and least pretentious domain available.

I am going to be writing a lot more about toughening up over the next few weeks. It’s a subject that has been addressed recently by Nicholas Taleb, of ‘Black Swans’ fame, in the form of being robust or fragile. His belief is that we are all encouraged to be more fragile than we need to be. In other words: toughen up.

Does building mental toughness mean being less sympathetic to others? Again I think there is a false assumption at work here: sympathy is about how interested and concerned we are with others, whereas toughness is concerned about building our own operating system- which could be sympathetic or not- to be as hardy as possible. It’s no good being sympathetic to the plight of others if you are too stressed to leave the house. It’s no good having an ambulance if the engine is broken, the tyres flat. The external, whilst no guarantor of the internal, is intimately connected with it. Knights, in order to do good, were required to learn how to fight first.

Is an emphasis on toughness vaguely fascistic? Emphatically not, fascism in all its garbs is a form of mental weakness: the ills of the world are blamed on an outgroup rather than taking responsibility for the world as it is. Toughening up involves accepting all the problems of the world for what they are, not pretending there is a panacea that will cure everything.

In our amazingly fast world the slightest delay can leave us fuming- this is where we should laugh: that’s mental toughness, instead of freaking out which is a weakness that is culturally condoned. When the world seems to be getting you down- toughen up!



Apparently a stranger will lie to you three times in the first ten minutes of meeting. What about a friend?


the new currencies


The old currency was things. In the beginning, and until, say, a 100 years ago, there wasn’t much stuff in the world and to make something required a lot of concentrated energy. A hand made thing has a certain quality, so focusing on things meant you’d imbibe energy along the way, or come into contact with it in a beneficial way. Kind of like encouraging kids to eat blackcurrants because along the way they’ll get their daily dose of Vitamin C. But what if our blackcurrants were GM specials with no Vitamains at all?(You have to imagine for the sake of this example we are briefly in a parallel reality where most people don’t accept that vitamins exist). What happens is that people start dying of scurvy.

The cure? Stop eating blackcurrants and start talking about Vitamin C and how to get it into your system.

So in a world which goes from not enough things to too many (my kids turned toys into a kind of plastic mulch we had to periodically throw out, a bit like that swirling plastic detritus pool in the middle of the Pacific) in this kind of world we have to refocus on a new currency. Things are way too diluted, the valuable stuff in things is way too diluted. No vitamins!

The old currency was things, the new currency is human energy (which was what was valuable about things anyway).

Most things now(but not all) are so low in useful energy they actually just weigh you down. Hence the current craze amongst multi millionaires (like CD Baby founder Derek Sieves) of owning as little as possible, of employing no one on a permanent basis and travelling all the time. Human energy is the new currency and all of that behaviour is about energy conservation and generation.

It’ll happen anyway. We’ll get the energy equivalent of scurvy otherwise. Start looking at the world differently, stop trading in the old currency and start dealing in energy.




Paranoid people believe everything is someone else's fault. We're living in an increasingly paranoid world it seems. Take the rap for something you didn't do today!


change the world/change the conversation

Some people change the world, others change the conversation. The other day, outdoors, round a campfire though it was not night, the conversation changed. Someone said: this is like a self help conversation and no one minded because we were allowed to laugh too. Playful people change the conversation, others like to keep it the same: safety, world situation, getting old etc. Who are the conversation changers?