An FBI Agent’s 5 Steps to Developing Mental Toughness

23 years in the FBI taught an entrepreneur how to develop this indispensable quality.

By Justin Bariso

Mental toughness.

It’s the ability to push through difficult (and even painful) situations while maintaining peak performance. It’s what separates the elite from the above average, and is only gained through training and hard work. For entrepreneurs and business owners, it means having the grit you need to get through the hard times, and the presence of mind to avoid getting caught up in the good times.

I recently spoke about mental toughness with LaRae Quy, who knows a little about the topic. LaRae spent 23 years working as a counterintelligence agent with the FBI, where demonstrating this quality sometimes meant the difference between life and death. She now spends her time writing, speaking, and teaching others how to use mental toughness to survive environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. (If you’re interested in more from LaRae, you can visit her website or follow her on LinkedIn.)

I asked LaRae what is needed to develop this invaluable quality. Here’s what she had to say:

  1. Develop emotional awareness

To be mentally tough, you need to have a deep understanding of what makes you tick. That means becoming sharply aware of your emotions, and learning to control them, instead of letting them control you. If a situation makes you angry, you’re much better off channeling that energy into something productive instead of losing control in a fit of rage.

An increased awareness of your own feelings and behavior in turn helps you to better understand the emotions of others–if you let it. Many people go through everyday life without observing their surroundings, burying their heads in their electronic devices. Law enforcement officers are trained to look at people around them in restaurants and airports and attempt to figure out their stories–such as what they do for a living, their mood, what they’re thinking–based solely on observation.

This simple focused-awareness drill trains a person’s mind to be clued in to what is going on with the people around them, and can be practiced by anyone at anytime. In the business or work environment, it helps you to tailor your strategy specifically to the person or audience you’re trying to reach.

  1. Push through your limits

Mentally tough people know that to reach their full potential, they must get comfortable with being uncomfortable. When we don’t know what the future holds–whether we’re starting our own business or moving across the country–the fear of change is there.

One of the most irritating things working for the FBI was the transfer policy–it was always changing, and it was always dictated by the needs of the Bureau. As a new agent, I worked on two different squads in six months. In the first three years, I moved to three different cities.

It wasn’t easy to pull up roots, disrupt relationships, and start over with each new assignment. The anxiety level went up because there was nothing but tension and uncertainty ahead of me.

But the old saying is true: If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Focus on the fact that the current situation is temporary, and that it provides benefits. For example, embracing a new situation forces you to grow and keeps you from becoming complacent. It teaches you to avoid becoming dependent on external sources, and allows you to thrive in any location or situation.

Change is never easy. But if looked at through the right lens, it is always empowering.

  1. Control your mind

To be mentally tough, you need to keep a tight rein on your thoughts. Why? Because we become what we think.

It’s been said: “You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head, but you can keep it from building a nest.” In other words, negative thoughts are unavoidable. But you can refuse to dwell on those thoughts and allow them to take root.

By changing the way you think about self-limiting beliefs and other obstacles, you can rewire your brain in such a way that it works for you and not against you.

  1. Focus, focus, focus

If you want to be mentally tough, you need to learn how to focus your mental and physical energy.

Olympic athletes are excellent examples of how to channel talent into success. They do not rely on luck to take home the gold medal. World-class experts practice with laser focus and a specific goal in mind. But it’s not just repeating the same task over and over–effective practice requires the following features:

Break down each task into individual parts

Spend extra time on actions you find especially difficult

Get feedback, and adjust accordingly

Put your ego on the back burner

Keep your goals in front of you

By focusing on practice, your willpower, persistence, and training will lead to personal mastery.

  1. Pursue Growth

Learn. Try. Repeat.

Above all else, the mentally tough are learners.

At times, intelligence and natural talent are actually obstacles to success. Some who are born smart and talented never learn to work hard because things come too easy to them. But when times get tough, they give up.

Mentally tough individuals are voracious readers and love to learn new things. They also recognize the need to continue improving at the tasks they’re already good at. They know that starting out in first place is much different from finishing there.

 

And when they fall, they realize that mistakes are not failures. They are simply opportunities to learn.