Today we talk about mental toughness. Many people understand the concept of mental toughness, but they have a hard time using it in their everyday business practice. Many sports,  especially boxing, are metaphors for what we are discussing today. Having an involvement with that sort of activity can teach you about mental toughness, but we’re going a lot deeper than that today.

Mental toughness is closely related to being stoic. Many business owners mistake harsh words or brutal behavior for toughness, but in reality their emotions are plainly displayed and possibly making a bad situation worse. One of the best skill sets a business owner can learn is how to process setbacks and move on with business as usual.

Today’s points are:

  • What is mental toughness
  • How to shut down distraction or compartmentalize
  • How problem solving helps
  • Mental toughness in position advancement
  • How to develop mental toughness

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Hiten Shah:  Hi, I’m Hiten Shah.


Steli Efti:  And this is Steli Efti. And in today’s episode of The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about mental toughness. So, here’s why I want to talk about that. I mean we’re both fascinated by I think the mental and emotional side of life in general in specific of business and entrepreneurship. One thing that I—the reason why I’ve started thinking more recently more about mental toughness is because I’ve started doing more martial arts, right? And we’ve talked about this in a few episodes that I really got passionate about MMA and, you know, kickboxing, Thai boxing and all that—


Hiten Shah:  Yeah, hurt yourself in all kinds of stuff. Yeah.


Steli Efti:  Pain and everything.


Hiten Shah:  Steli, the go-getter.


Steli Efti:  Yes. Well—one really interesting thing that I’ve noticed as I’m doing this—as I’m doing something that’s physically very challenging when I’m not used to doing that, being physically as challenged, is that there are situations where you are slightly handicapped. And when you are in combat with somebody even sparring, when it’s not just like I’m playing basketball and I’m gassed out, maybe I will slow down a little bit or I’ll pass the ball more often, I’ll just like fall back a little bit. That’s challenging but it’s kind of somewhat easier to deal with, but if you are let’s say boxing with somebody and you feel exhausted because you’re sick or you just got—you just feel some sudden pain somewhere. The mental challenge of dealing with that handicap while somebody is charging at you and punching you in the face is on a completely different level.


Recently, what I just—what happened during the same day was that I watched a big championship fight where one of the guy that ended up winning the championship fight, it turned out that when you watched him fight very early on, he seems to be exhausted even in the first round and he still went on to fight a really good fight and win and take the belt—he was not the champion—take the belt. And then afterwards in the press conference, he basically explained that he had a staph infection 2 weeks prior to the fight. Had to take antibiotics for 2 weeks all the way like 24 hours leading up to the fight, so he was and still had that kind of physical pain but on top of it knew that on antibiotics, you gas out a lot more. Your condition is not as good and was afraid of it. And during the first like 2 minutes of the fight, he realized “Holy shit, I’m gassing out.” And he went on to still like fight in a really high level and win and not show it. Nobody knew about this, right?


And literally like on that same day, I went to sparring and I was sick—I’ve been sick for a few weeks now. And the guy that was training with me knew that I had the cold and flu and was like a little bit kind of out of it. But as we were fighting, I realized how quickly I was gassing out and dealing with that, dealing with like my own mental inner dialogue while trying to fight with this person and dealing with—during the breaks, we do like 5-minute rounds and then 1-minute break and then 5-minute round then 1-minute break.


During those 1 minute, it took everything from me not to talk about how sick I am and then I’m gassing out. Like I have this burning desire to—


Hiten Shah:  You had to block it.


Steli Efti:  –to explain myself to him partially because I wanted him to slow down a little bit and partially because I didn’t feel comfortable because I could tell my performance was not that great. And during that entire time, I had this mental dialogue that’s like “This is so awesome. Look at me.” I’m like “Look at how challenged I am by the fucking flu,” right? “And look at this other example of a guy that’s on a championship level and has to fight on a real like— a real fight and pushed through with it.”


And there’s other examples. There’s an example of an old fight that I saw once where the guy as he’s fighting gets an injury and in the 1-minute break, he leans into his trainer and he says, “I just broke my foot” or whatever it was. “I just da-da-da. This just happened.” And his trainer looks at him and says, “I don’t care. You’re a champion. You heard me? Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to hit him with that leg. Can you do that for me? Can you do that for me?” And the guy was like—you could tell he was just—he just was shaken out of that mindset and he’s like “Yes.” And the round starts and he goes and he hits him with that leg, right?


The entire fight, he walks normal. He walks normal. He walks normal and he fights. And the moment the fight is over, he starts like humping and he’s like in pain. He didn’t want the other guy to know that he’s just—right? So, seeing these kind of scenarios like makes me obviously appreciate the mental toughness of some very professional fighters and athletes, but it is a metaphor for life because there’s many things—and I’ve talked about this before of how like learning this is teaching you to be more humble or relate to people at the beginning.


There’s so many situations where people are like mentally challenged that I have a hard time relating to today. Like I’m the pro athlete that goes, “You have the flu? What are we even talking about? Just fight. Shut the fuck up and go,” right? Or “Oh, I want you to hit him with that leg,” right? But for these people, you know, they are at the beginning of their training and for these people, the slightest little irritation is very, very difficult to deal with and work with. And business is kind of in a funny way—


Hiten Shah:  Well, let’s pause there.


Steli Efti:  Yes, all right. So—


Hiten Shah:  So I got a quicker one for you, for me.


Steli Efti:  Go.


Hiten Shah:  Two things. One, as I was going to Orangetheory— I actually am not going right now. This is my gym thing. And the reason is I went through the mental toughness there. I hurt my toe and I went to about 3 or 4 more, right? And I realized how bad I had hurt my toe. It’s like one of those 3- or 4-week recovering thing. I haven’t gone to the doctor, but I know what I did. I’m pretty sure. And, yeah, it was mental toughness. It still hurt but I wanted that experience so bad that like I was like “All right. This must be normal. Who cares?” Right? So I had psyched myself out of it and I think that’s not the same but close.


And then the other—the second one. I’m trying to remember what the second one was that was super interesting. I notice this with in business, right? As you were getting into that, I noticed this like lack of ability to understand when you need to be mentally tough versus when it doesn’t matter. So then like you see sometimes people are like, you know, like you could see like someone being super—trying to be super-tough about something or like write an email and they’re thinking, you know, they’re like being mentally tough and then I read it and I’m like, “You know, you see there’s weakness all over that email.”


And one thing I realized and this is a really weird thing about mental toughness in a business situation because usually it has to do with you communicating with other people or you dealing with them, right? At least in my experience, so I think that’s mental toughness. And you can’t be mentally tough unless—I think unless you are trying to do things that are going to cause you pain and you have to do them no matter what. So I had a quote once about like—this was years ago, about like being a founder is about sort of doing the things you don’t want to do because it’s like the right thing to do. I didn’t say it like that but like that’s like—so like to me, you know, back to the—


The thing I’ve seen in people is that like they basically think that they’re being mentally tough by writing brutal emails or they think they’re being mentally tough but they’re projecting their own feelings onto it, and mentally tough to me is actually almost closer to stoicism, right? Which is like this idea of like—I call it the cold face look or always having a poker face. That’s like the same. It’s like nothing fazes you. So, yeah, to me I think people can confuse this really easily like tough guy versus mental toughness. I’ve seen that confusion.


Steli Efti:  Yes. So I do think that being tough is different from being mentally tough, right? So, I don’t know. Tough in my interpretation I think, you know, you have an image of somebody that is strong, rough and somebody that can take or cause a lot of pain, right? Maybe that be—without complaining too much.


Hiten Shah:  Yeah. Steli is going to give me the Steli scary look.


Steli Efti:  There you go, yeah.


Hiten Shah:  I’ve seen it again. I’m like, whoa!


Steli Efti:  So—and I don’t think I’m tough, right? Not at all.


Hiten Shah:  But you have the look.


Steli Efti:  I have the look, yeah, maybe.


Hiten Shah:  I know that I did.


Steli Efti:  But mental toughness to me means the ability to—yeah, the ability to absorb something that’s painful and deal with it in an optimal fashion. Like the ability—that can be to compartmentalize pain like a fighter to be like “I broke my foot but I’ll hit him with that thing,” right? “And I’m able to control the pain, put it away and focus all my energy on this fight and when the fight is over, I’ll break down just like every other human being would be that I’m in pain, but I can for the next—”


Hiten Shah:  “But while I’m in it for however long I have to be, I’m on it.”


Steli Efti:  “–for 15 minutes, I can shut that out.”


Hiten Shah:  “I’ve had my little taste of this,” right? “When like I’m pushing myself on the treadmill, it sounds really, you know, like basic. If I just—usually if I just look at the numbers, it doesn’t help me like be mentally tough. But when I’m beyond a certain point if I just look at the numbers like, you know, whatever numbers, the distance or the time, I can make it an extra while because I’m mentally just focused on the numbers, nothing else.” So to me that’s almost like mental toughness in a physical form for me. So I’ve kind of experienced some of this stuff outside of work.


Steli Efti:  I think so—I mean—and there’s many examples where you have to basically be able to shut down something that’s a distraction or very strong negative signal to deal with another situation. And that can be, you know, you just got—you just opened a letter that you got sued and you still have to go to that next meeting with a client and close the deal, right? Or you have to be able to shut off certain things that are very painful or stressful.


Hiten Shah:  It’s almost basically compartmentalizing.


Steli Efti:  That is one aspect. I don’t think it’s all of it, but it’s one big aspect. I think it’s dealing with painful or difficult situations more optimally than, you know, other people. Not being as—being more in control about your reaction to these things than most people would be, right? So, you can hit him on the face. Most people will like collapse and cry. You take it and you charge forward.


But in business, it could be that, you know, an investor just called you and told you they’re not going to put money in your company. Now, do you take the rest of the day emotionally off and you collapse and you cry and you complain to everybody and you think everything— Or, are you able to just swallow that and then send an email to the next investor and go into a customer meeting and hire new employee and—


Hiten Shah:  Yeah, just keep going.


Steli Efti:  You just keep going.


Hiten Shah:  Yeah.


Steli Efti:  So I think that ability to deal with challenging, painful situations either by pushing them away or by responding to them in a more stable fashion would be at least my definition of mental toughness.


Hiten Shah:  I like that because it got me thinking. I think for me the way I personally get over that is like I actually want to solve the problem as fast as possible and I know that like a lot of people will say, “Oh, well, that means you’re going to be impulsive.” There’s a difference between impulsive and wanting to solve the problem as fast as possible. So I’ve seen people be impulsive like “Oh, I gotta do something about it right now.” No, no. I’m like “Wait, I gotta figure out what the hell is going on,” right? “And I can’t be emotional about it. So how do I as fast as possible get my emotion processed?”


People have watched me do this and it’s like in a period—It’s really interesting. In a period when I’m processing something that’s just tough, let’s say a lawsuit. Let’s say like somebody critical in the company saying “I’m out,” right? “I’m leaving. I got a new job,” right? Or something just like terrifying like you know you’re going to have to share bad news to somebody like at a board meeting, somebody you care like investors. You didn’t hit the quarter. What do you do? That’s a panic, right? Mental toughness is important there, right?


Steli Efti:  Yeah.


Hiten Shah:  So, there’s this period where like if you try to talk to me about it, I don’t want to talk about it because I only want to talk to who I want to talk to about it. Maybe I’ve already done that but I’m done yet. So then I’ll talk to like this other person in the company. I’ll talk to a co-founder. Even talk to my wife about it. But then if you come in and you say, “Hey, are you having an okay day?” usually I’m going to say, “Yeah.” If I say no and then you would try to help me with it, it’s going to cause me problems. I’m like “I’m not done yet. Just shut up.”


Steli Efti:  Still processing.


Hiten Shah:  When I hear about it, I’m like “I’m still processing.” And I found that very interesting because like now I can recognize that. And all I’m trying to do is if someone would take days. I’m trying to process it in hours because that’s just—the faster you just get over that emotion or that hurt feeling or whatever it is depending on the scenario, the faster you can go I think to the next step which is the mental toughness of it.


Steli Efti:  Yeah.


Hiten Shah:  Right?

Steli Efti:  So a lot of times—I mean if you look at people and humans that accomplish a lot within their field, whatever that is, oftentimes not always, but oftentimes you see people have developed a lot of mental toughness in their field to be able to rise to the top because, you know, the harder and the more challenging the situations you have to deal with, the more value you’re probably creating in that area, right?


So, a lot of times if you want to lead people, a lot of times it will require you probably more mental toughness than a lot of the people that come to work for you or with you. And if you’re looking up to people, one quality that you can look into is do they have mental toughness and how is that manifesting itself? But what I’m chitchatting a little bit here with you about—because I think the audience—it’s a natural question to have is how do I develop mental toughness?


The answer I have without having thought it through or conversed with someone like you, which I like to do, is that you have to put yourself in tough situations to experience it and increasingly tough situations so that you constantly—you have a long list of experiences where you are challenged beyond pain and you figured out a way to deal with it.


Hiten Shah:  Let’s break it into 2.


Steli Efti:  Okay.


Hiten Shah:  Right? So let me see what you think about this because I like the kernel you dropped there. So, there’s purposeful challenges and then there’s challenges that are unexpected, and mental toughness required for challenges that are unexpected as well as ones that you’re creating. So how do you get practice? Because I was thinking, how do you get practice? Well, unexpected is what we’re really talking about. That’s when the mental toughness comes in handy, right? It is useful. But I think you’re talking about how do you challenge yourself so that you can exercise mental toughness for almost like more predictably?


Like I did that to myself, right? Like you, like you keep trying to get better at—what is it? MMA fighting or jiu jiutsu or whatever it is that your flavor of it, and that’s helping you practice the mental toughness outside of being some unexpected random thing that you have to be prepared for even though you’re unprepared.


Steli Efti:  Yeah. So, I love that. That’s a great framework because as you said, the unexpected thing is where it comes in, where it’s crucial but the unexpected thing is hard to practice because you’re just waiting around for challenges to happen. But the purposeful challenges maybe—the decisions you make, you have to examine “Am I making choices and decisions in life? And am I creating things in terms of how I live my life where I try to live within my comfort zone and without challenges?”


Hiten Shah:  So let’s give a bunch of examples. Do you have enough? So I think the challenges in like learning like physical things, doing physical things that challenge you is definitely one, right?


Steli Efti:  Yeah. Physical things that challenge you or being a beginner, doing something that you’re going to be bad at because you’ve never done it before. It could be cooking.


Hiten Shah:  This is an example, right? You never cooked before in your life. You learn something. You could start as simple as peanut butter and jelly, if you really like never done that, right?


Steli Efti:  Learning a musical instrument like that’s a painful thing because nobody just is great at it. Like you could be bad at basketball but it can still be fun even the first time you play, but it’s very hard to have fun playing the guitar the first time because you don’t know what you’re doing and it’s kind of—


Hiten Shah:  Yeah. You have to learn a whole lot of music.


Steli Efti:  You have to learn a lot of things, right? So learning a musical instrument, learning something physical.


Hiten Shah:  So something you need to practice to get right.


Steli Efti:  Yes. Something that takes time for you to get good at and something—like with the guitar, you might be alone while you practice. It might be painful because it’s not fun. With doing a martial art or going to a workout session, you’re going to be publicly bad at something. That’s also kind of good because you have other people looking at you and you have the pressure of some people being great at this while I’m the beginner.


Hiten Shah:  Yeah. And you have to watch all that. Yeah.


Steli Efti:  Yeah. And all the kind of ego that comes into play and all that. So learning new things, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations where you have to, you know, practice something or learn something before you can be good at it. That’s one way. Making decisions that put you in challenging situations. So a lot of times, you know, making the decision which job to take next or staying at your company or not, where you live.


A lot of life decisions that we make, the question is are you making those based on what’s the safest, easiest thing that are the most controlled in or are you taking risky choices? “I’m going to go and work for this company in a country I’ve never been to.” “I’m going to migrate into a new country, new place.” “I’m going to take a position I’ve never done.” “I’m going to leave and start my business and I have on experience in it.” How risky are kind of the basic life choices that you make on a day-by-day and how much do you try to avoid risks because if you avoid risks, you’re probably not purposely putting yourself in challenging situations.


Hiten Shah:  It could be like speaking at a friend’s wedding like actually saying yes to that, right?


Steli Efti:  Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah.


Hiten Shah:  I think that’s mentally challenging and, you know, can be at least.


Steli Efti:  Yeah. I mean in personal life, it’s confronting friends or family with conflicts that have been, you know, cooking for a long time and—


Hiten Shah:  Yeah, a long time. Sure. Those are my favorite things.


Steli Efti:  Yeah, well—and you kind of—you know you want to talk to this person about this, so this really irritates you or you have a real like pain about this but you’ve always avoided it, right? Learning to confront these conflicting situations builds mental toughness.


Hiten Shah:  Sure.


Steli Efti:  Right? Or cultivates mental toughness.


Hiten Shah:  Or even with friends.


Steli Efti:  Yeah.


Hiten Shah:  Something you’ve been willing to say since childhood or something that you just—or I’m sorry, haven’t been willing to say but like wanted to.


Steli Efti:  Yeah. I mean this also translates to like coworkers but the—you know, the more challenging a lot of times is in personal life, friends and family, usually it’s more challenging, more emotionally—


Hiten Shah:  Charged.


Steli Efti:  Charged, yeah. I mean the other thing is, you know, surrounding yourself with mentally tough people. I mean that’ll make a big difference because you will see by demonstration of how they live their life and how they react to things, what mental toughness looks like but also when you describe your experience of life and your challenges, their reaction will be calibrated at a different toughness level so that’s going to help you be like “Oh, this is how this person sees this. I think this is the end of the world and this person looks at me and goes ‘That’s nothing. Like here’s how you can deal with this. I’ve done this 100 times.’” Right?


Which is a lot of the times when founders come to us for advice, at the core of it the response is “That’s nothing. Relax,” you know, “because everybody is going through this. I’ve done this myself. It’s okay.” Right? “For you it’s the end of the world but for me it’s something I’ve seen a thousand times. I’ve done it a hundred times, so relax. This is how you deal with it,” right?


Hiten Shah:  Once you deal with enough of them, you get the mental toughness. I’ve seen this happen, right? As a founder, I’ve had, you know, the luck to watch and help out like he had to do a lot of things over the last year. I think all of them were too slow, but the mental toughness I see today is way different than a year ago just because he did it. Speed, cadence, decision-making, you know, whether Hiten was right a year ago or not, a whole different debate. But at the end of the day, he has mental toughness that I’ve watched him develop through just having to deal with the business and make hard decisions.


Steli Efti:  And the more responsibility you have, the more impactful those decisions could be, also the more kind of complex your life becomes, right? You know, you are in a relationship. You have children. You have employees. Like the more responsibilities, the more impactful your decisions are in many other people’s lives, the more mental toughness is asked of you in a day-to-day and the more you need to not panic and lose your shit when things get really difficult. There’s so many people relying on you.


Like when you’re 16 and you like lose your shit over like this band broke up or whatever the hell it is, it doesn’t matter. It’s not impactful. Nobody cares. You’re teenager. But when you are 50, you can’t just lose your shit and not go to work, not feed your children, like all these things impact people pretty dramatically. So, when I look at mental tough people, they have put themselves in very challenging situations and made choices that were always kind of at the edge of their comfort zone, pushing them further and further outside of it. And over a long period of time, they developed toughness and also they recalibrated their scale on what’s a challenge even to begin with. Because once you’ve faced something a thousand times, it’s just not as challenging anymore, right?


Hiten Shah:  That’s right.


Steli Efti:  The first time you face something, it’s wow. It’s all-encompassing.


Hiten Shah:  Oh, my God.


Steli Efti:  Oh, my God. But once you’ve done it a hundred times, you’re like “All right. I’ve done this many, many times. This is—we’re going to figure it out.”


Hiten Shah:  “I’ve seen this story before, all right.”


Steli Efti:  Yes. And that kind of—that then, you know, builds up your mental toughness to be much stronger than somebody else’s.


Hiten Shah:  That brings up a good point which is like in every scenario where you need to be mentally tough, and this will be my tip, every scenario you have to be mentally tough basically at some point you have to—for me what’s been helpful is remembering that it’ll be over probably faster than I think anyways or even reminding myself that, “hey, this is temporary,” right? “Just gotta keep going. This is temporary. It only feels like this right now. It won’t feel like this at some point in the future. You might not know when that is, but it could be tomorrow. So just keep going.”


Steli Efti:  I love that tip. I’m going to refer on that a little bit. So, what I like to do is I like to think back at a time that I thought the end is—the world is ending and everything is dramatically bad and how I feel about it today and I usually like to take examples of the time I was in school, right? Because I fucking hated school. So, I think back to it now and I think a lot of people can relate and days or times where I was like “it’s the end of the world, I hate my life, I hate all this, this is so dramatic” and now I laugh about it. I’m like “Oh, my God, some fucking idiot 14-year-old worrying about nothing,” right? Who cares? And then I like to believe that in 20 years from now, I will feel that way about me today.


Hiten Shah:  Making up decisions, you will.


Steli Efti:  You will, right? And then the other thing that I’ll say about this is there’s a little exercise that I play sometimes that is “And what will happen next?” So especially when there’s something critical, I’ll go “Oh, if this and this happens, then the business is going to be done.” Okay. And then I’ll write down “and what will happen next?” Well, you’re going to go want to start something else, new business with some people. We’ll do this, this and this and this and then I write “and what will happen next?” And I do that until I’m at a point where I’m like “All right, I got it. This is not that bad.”


Hiten Shah:  When we’re usually in a crisis, I got to say this with Neil and I, we both have done that and one of us calls what the conclusion. It’s like “Hey, we think this is the most likely one.” He just called me last week with a likely conclusion, one of those, I’m like “Dude, I already mapped that out. We’re not doing that.” He’s like “What?” I’m like—and then I had to explain it to him because that never happens where he’s like “hey, we’re doing this,” and I’m like, “No, actually, I’ve been—I already did this.”


Steli Efti:  Nice, nice. I love it.


Hiten Shah:  So I really like that one. It’s really good.


Steli Efti:  I love it. Yeah, I mean I find that when I’m too panicked about something, I’ll just write down like the what is the most likely even worst case scenario—


Hiten Shah:  What are the options? What’s going to happen?


Steli Efti:  And what’s going to happen in the worst—


Hiten Shah:  If that happens, what next? Yeah, I really like it.


Steli Efti:  And then what’s next and then what’s next and then what’s next? And if you do it long enough, you get to a point where you’re like, “Okay, and the world will move on like nothing—it’s not that dramatic.”


Hiten Shah:  It actually brings clarity to ask what to do.


Steli Efti:  Yes.


Hiten Shah:  And you might even find a way to avoid whatever thought you’re going to get. Usually I find a way.


Steli Efti:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. All right. That’s it from us, mental toughness. I’m excited to hear from the entire, you know, The Startup Chat community. If you’re not already part of it, go to for Facebook, join the group and join the discussion and we will hear you very soon.


Hiten Shah:  See yah.


[End of transcript]