By Jessica Lauren Walton
Back in 2013, it was near the end of basic training in the Israeli desert when I wanted to quit. I was supposed to be crawling across the terrain on my stomach like a lizard with my M-16, but I was so exhausted that I just laid there face flat in the sand as ants crawled into my fatigues and up my legs. I considered shooting myself in the arm and making it look like an accident, just so I would be discharged from the army and admitted to a hospital where I could finally sleep in a clean bed for more than three hours at a time.
That’s when I remembered the words of David Goggins, the former U.S. Navy SEAL who talked about mental toughness on YouTube. “Everybody comes to a point in their life when they want to quit,” he said. “But it’s what you do at that moment that determines who you are.”
Years later, as a mid-career professional, this is the message I want to share with my younger counterparts entering the workforce: do not face hardship with the mere attempt to survive it, but seek to grow exponentially from it.
College-age students and other young adults entering the workforce today must be prepared to cope with the upheavals caused by COVID-19, geopolitical conflicts, and recent economic shocks. And they’re understandably struggling—not just professionally and economically, but also psychologically.
According to the Mayo Clinic, in the past year approximately 44 percent of American college students reported having symptoms of depression and anxiety—with suicide the third-leading cause of death for this demographic. Among the essential qualities Generation Z will need in this new world is a psychological set of attributes popularly known among psychologists and military personnel as “mental toughness.”
But how, in practical terms, can college-aged students and young professionals entering the workforce cultivate this mindset? In addition to being exposed to positive examples (more on that in a moment), it is essential to understand the defining features of the mental toughness mindset.
College-age students and other young adults entering the workforce today must be prepared to cope with the upheavals caused by COVID-19, geopolitical conflicts, and recent economic shocks
Doug Strycharcyzk, the chief executive of AQR International, and co-author Peter Clough of Developing Mental Toughness, defines mental toughness as “the personality trait which determines in large part how people deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure… irrespective of circumstances.” Countless additional sources define mental toughness with words like grit, perseverance, or resilience. But I would argue that there is an additional critical feature that is often left out of these definitions, and that is the component of growth.
A few years before I joined the Israeli military, I enrolled in a grueling master’s degree program in security intelligence. I was in my early twenties at the time and was determined to go to Israel at the end of my studies. I wanted to join the cream of the crop of the security community, which was no easy feat for an American woman. This demanding career choice necessitated intense personality changes, testing my ability to adapt and grow in the face of challenges.
Just as I was completing graduate school and entering the workforce, a pivotal book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was released titled Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Despite some of its philosophical holes, it is a thought-provoking study of why some entities (or personalities) break under pressure while others survive or even thrive.
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors,” claims Taleb. “Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
I would like to share three key lessons I learned about developing mental toughness based on the three phases of my early security career: as a graduate student, as a freelancer, and as a soldier:
‘Own your mistakes, move on’
Some of us will make mistakes and deny it, while others avoid making mistakes altogether—with unforeseen consequences down the road. In an article titled “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges,” Dr. Peter Gray, a Boston College Psychology professor, wrote, “We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to…experience failure and realize they can survive it.”
When I started graduate school, I had a dirty little secret: I was the last student admitted into the program, given barely three weeks’ notice to find an apartment and show up for my first class. This knowledge that I was the runt of the litter would haunt me throughout graduate school and into the early years of my career. It turned me into a serial perfectionist who managed to rise to the top 10% of my class by graduation, but on the inside I was a self-flagellating wreck.
To illustrate, I threw up nearly every time I had to do any public speaking in grad school. I already judged myself so harshly that I couldn’t stand the thought of making a mistake in front of my fellow students and being judged by them, too. In response, my mentor, a former field chief from the CIA, started forcing me into as many public speaking events as possible, insisting, “This is the best time to make mistakes and get the beans kicked out of you, kid. It hurts a lot less in school than in real life.”
His words didn’t truly sink in until close to the end of my studies. It was in Jerusalem while I was interviewing a former elite Israeli commando for a paper that I heard the motto, “He who dares, wins.” To dare means to take risks. When you take risks, I realized, you risk screwing up. What this motto actually means is that if you want to win in life, you need to be willing to make mistakes. As a result, you become smarter and more resilient.
Graduate school is the best time to make mistakes and get the beans kicked out of you
As tough as it was getting through grad school, it wasn’t until my last day in the program that I realized how much I would miss the cocoon of academia that cushioned me from the rest of the world. School had been challenging, but at least I had been given a clear path forward for success: study hard, do the work, take the tests, you’re good to go. In the real world, life was less structured.
‘The lesson of my first job: you want it, go get it’
My first job, as described in my recent article “Kill Your Clone & Other Unconventional Career Advice,” was actually many jobs in one: for lack of full employment at the end of my studies, I became a freelancer to make ends meet. It was meant to be a temporary situation until I could break into the Israeli military and thus open up better career opportunities for myself in Israel.
And it was rough. It was unpredictable. Sometimes, it felt downright chaotic chasing new clients and gigs. But there was something that was in my control and that was my own actions.
In a nutshell, I had to reinvent myself overnight. I had to be a go-getter to the umpteenth degree, because there was no one except me who was going to catch my falls or guarantee my success. Every time I accepted responsibility for my own life, I grew tougher as a result.
‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable’
When I was trying to break into the Israeli security field, I did everything I could to avoid serving in the Israeli military. This was mainly to avoid basic training, which I knew I would hate. And indeed, I hated many aspects of it: the filth, the sleep deprivation, the constant shouting, the complete lack of personal space, and the feral desert cats that, to my horror, would crawl into bed with me at night for warmth.
But there was also something magical that happened to me in basic training: I proved to myself that I could survive it. Not only that, I became a dedicated soldier as a result. I didn’t want to go to the military because I knew it would be uncomfortable, that it would test me in ways I didn’t want to be tested. But now I’m glad I did it because it gave me the opportunity to test my perceived limits, and then climb up right past them.
Don’t avoid the things that are hard, whether it’s signing up for a challenging course at school or waking up early to get in shape. When you show up for the hard stuff and conquer it, you’re honing your mental toughness the right way.
Jessica Lauren Walton is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with defense leadership, military veterans, filmmakers, journalists, and more. She has a master’s degree in security intelligence and a passion for unearthing unique human-interest stories in the security field. To learn more about her forthcoming memoir and creative work in the defense industry, you can visit her website at www.jessicawaltonwriter.com.
There was something magical that happened to me in basic training: I proved to myself that I could survive it: Walton