Are You Mentally Tough Enough to Suck?

Recently, I’ve gotten into rock climbing. Well, actually, I’ve only done it a handful of times and I live in New York City, so it’s  on manmade walls at an indoor gym called Brooklyn Boulders.

rock climbingIt’s cool and trendy and I like the idea of it as an exercise in mental toughness — except that it’s really, really hard. You’re perched at awkward angles, at risk of falling if you miss the next hold, while your fingers go numb from their death grip on a teeny tiny rock. And that’s when you’re really good.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford researcher, makes the distinction between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset think their basic traits, like intelligence or talent, are fixed; that innate talent alone creates success. People with a growth mindset, however, believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.

“I totally have a growth mindset,” I thought when I learned about this research, patting myself smugly on the back. “I love practicing and I see failure as just another opportunity to learn.”

Except I often don’t. I’ve noticed recently when I take on a new activity and I’m not immediately killing it, I feel discouraged. “What’s going on,” I think, wondering, in essence: “Why am I not expert at this activity that I’ve put a minimum of effort into?” “Why can’t I speak French fluently?” I thought, after being in Paris for two weeks and speaking mostly English. “Why can’t I do a handstand push-up?” the first time I tried it…

So where does this misguided expectation come from? Part of it is the “comparing their highlight reel to our behind-the-scenes” phenomenon. Thanks to social media, we can see a stream of people showcasing their feats, seemingly accomplished on the first try, with no evidence of the hours of practice that went into it.

I also think we like to maintain the illusion that it comes easily for others and they didn’t have to work that hard to get there. That way we can say, “Well, clearly I’m not a natural, so there’s no point in trying,” and avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of not being good at something.

But let’s stop kidding ourselves. Even the most talented people have to go through a period of not being good, to persist in order to reach the next level of growth. In his podcast, Tim Ferriss speaks with Gabby Reece and her husband, surfer Laird Hamilton, who’s often considered one of the greatest athletes in the world. Gabby says Laird worked incessantly for three years to develop tow-in surfing. Others tried but “didn’t have the patience or commitment.”

Or how about Kobe Bryant, one of the most successful basketball players of all time? He’s won five NBA championships and two Olympic Gold Medals, and earned a net worth of more than $200 million during his playing career.

One of the trainers working with Team USA to prepare for the Olympics tells how he got a call from Kobe one morning at 4:15 am, asking if he could help with some conditioning work. He went down to the court and they trained together for two hours before the trainer stumbled back to bed. When he got back to the court at 11 am in the morning, he saw Kobe on the court practicing jump shots and asked him, “So when did you finish?” “Finish what,” said Kobe. “Getting your shots up. What time did you leave the facility?” “Oh, just now,” answered Kobe. “I wanted 800 makes. So yeah, just now.”

Kobe Bryant started his conditioning work around 4:30 am, and didn’t stop until he had made 800 jump shots around 11am.

No matter how talented you are, mastery takes consistent effort. And it starts with the willingness to suck.