To survive growing up on a remote cattle ranch in the middle of Wyoming, I needed to be scrappy, gritty, and tenacious. If I wasn’t keeping an eye out for rattle snakes, I was avoiding horned bulls from charging my horse as I tried to cut them from a herd of cows.
I learned many important life lessons on that ranch, not the least is that it takes hard work, sweat, and mental toughness to get to the top and stay there. I took many of those lessons with me into the FBI as an undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years.
Here are 10 hard skills to learn that will last you a lifetime:
1. Hunt the good stuff
Positive thinkers are not optimists. Positive thinkers believe they will prevail in their circumstances rather than believing their circumstances will change; optimists believe their circumstances will eventually change for the better.
FBI agents are not optimists who hope or expect an arrest to go without a hitch; they prepare for the worst and practice ahead of time. When they do come across adversity, they don’t wait and hope things will change for the better. They adapt quickly to the new situation and remain flexible — choosing to remain positive — so that they will find a solution.
Tip: The greatest mental toughness tool we have is our ability to choose one thought over another.
2. Become emotionally competent
We all know lots of people who are intelligent but not necessarily competent. If you can’t empathize with other people, you will never develop the emotional skills needed to get along with them.
As an FBI agent, I learned that empathy is not feeling sorry for others but rather relating to what others feel. Empathy helped create a team spirit within our squad and motivated agents to try harder.
As a leader or entrepreneur, you need to develop empathy to become a leader who can push people beyond their own apathy and to think about something bigger than themselves. Emotional competency also requires you to develop the skills necessary to communicate accurately with people. This includes understanding the importance of verbal and non-verbal cues.
Tip: You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you can’t explain them to others, you will never be anything more than an educated loser.
3. Know what makes you tick
Successful people spend their time thinking about what they want to do and how to make it happen. They know what is important to them; they have a vision and a set of goals to get them there.
In other words, it’s hitting your stride because you’ve found what makes you tick. The FBI hires second-career professionals because they want to know that the individual is making a deliberate and well-thought move from their first successful career.
It doesn’t just take talent to meet goals. Instead, success needs “flow.” Flow is described by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihalyi as a state of deep absorption in the activity during which performance seems to happen effortlessly and automatically.
Tip: Ignorance of your competition makes you vulnerable; ignorance of yourself makes you stupid.
4. Have the confidence to fail
Unfortunately, most of us fear failure so much that we shuffle along in life until we accidentally stumble onto something at which we are good. Success can be misleading because it often is not what really fuels us. Such success is based in complacency because we are too scared of failure to pursue the type of work that would provide value and meaning.
It takes confidence to look failure in the face and keep moving forward because, if we are confident in ourselves and our ability, we look at failure as part of the fine-tuning process.
Most of my FBI investigations met many failures, as I continually looked for the soft underbelly of the puzzle in front of me. Each failure educated me more about how to keep moving forward to solve the investigation.
Tip: The way in which you deal with failure determines how you will achieve success.
5. Identify self-limiting beliefs
Our memory is not always reliable. Instead, we extract the gist of the experience and store it in ways that makes the most sense to us. That’s why different people witnessing the same event often have different versions.
We already know that we are biased toward anything that confirms our own beliefs, but it’s important to realize that your brain has its own built-in confirmation bias. This means it stores information that is consistent with your own beliefs, values, and self-image.
For example, if you have low self-esteem, your brain tends to store information which confirms your lack of confidence. That will be all you remember about a specific event.
Tip: When you have doubts about your abilities and have self-limiting beliefs about what you can do in life, never rely on memory to give you accurace feedback, especially if the feedback is negative.
6. Stretch toward peak performance
Unless you know your limits, you will not be able to prepare either your mind or your body to move past them. To move toward peak performance, you need to stretch your current skill level, but not so hard that you want to give up.
At the FBI Academy, if coaches didn’t push every agent past their comfort zone every day, they weren’t doing their jobs.
Experts agree that this magic stretch is 4% greater than our skill. Anything more will discourage you from trying harder; anything less will not push you hard enough to move forward. However, it’s important to keep that continual tension between stretch and skill if we want to move toward our peak performance.
Tip: Smart leaders focus on developing peak performance by continually moving into their discomfort zone.
7. Manage time wisely
Find a system that works for you and stick to it. Not everyone is a morning person, so perhaps you’re most alert after you’ve exercised or taken a nap. The idea is to schedule the tasks that take the most energy for when your brain is fresh and alert.
Visuals are a great way to activate the mind. That’s why storytelling, pictures and metaphors work so well — they generate an image.
Visuals are laden with information. They provide color, shape, size, context, etc. Since they take less energy than words, they are efficient ways for the brain to process information.
Tip: Grab a pen and paper and write down your prioritized projects for the day. This saves your brain from the need to recall and review each one. Save your energy for getting those tasks done!
8. Use positive self-talk
The internal conversations we have with ourselves, called self-talk, can go on for days, and sometimes through our nights as well. Many of us know how vicious that inner critic can be. Often, we are harder on ourselves than we are on others. It’s not because we want to be, it’s because we don’t know how to manage our negative self-talk.
Energy follows attention — wherever your attention is focused, your energy will follow. If your inner critic is beating you up about a failure, your failing will be the one thing you focus on.
Tip: The way you treat yourself sets the standard for others
9. Make room for your emotions
Mental toughness is managing our emotions in ways that will set us up for success. Instead of denying uncomfortable emotions, acknowledge them.
Researcher David Rock believes that labeling our negative emotions is an effective way of short-circuiting their hold over us. So give your inner critic a name or call it out for what it really is: jealousy, insecurity, fear, etc.
You can keep the name in your head, but Rock believes that saying it aloud activates a more robust short circuit to help break the emotional hold.
Tip: Destroy negative thoughts when they first show up and are at their weakest.
10. Find your tribe
Sebastian Junger wrote in his book “Tribe” that “We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding — tribes.”
The FBI Academy created a tribe when it refused to let new agents leave for the first several weeks. We grew to depend upon each other, and it was habit that we took with us into the field as we looked out for fellow agents
When you are a member of a tribe, you have an acute sense of belonging — you feel accepted and safe when things go wrong. Many of us are lucky enough to feel that our biological families are our tribe, but usually tribes are founded around groups of people with shared values, ideas and experiences.
In the competitive world of business, it is not always easy to feel safe and accepted. When things go wrong, you fear losing your company, your job, and maybe even your health.
Tip: In times of stress, it’s easy to feel neglected. It’s impossible to instantly create deep bonds of familiarity and trust. Don’t wait until things go wrong to start finding your tribe. Start now.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. LaRae is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.
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