The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self by Alex Lickerman is about cultivating the inner strength we need to enjoy the difficult lives we all have. It can be summarized in two parts… first, how to survive and thrive in the face of adversity (personality hardiness), and second, how to overcome obstacles and keep going. There are a lot more lessons to be pulled out of it, but that’s a quick snapshot.
We all have an innate drive to be happy. It’s at the core of what we do and why we do it. The choices we make in life are driven by our desire to be happy. Finding happiness is difficult for two reasons:
1 – We think it’s something it’s not (pleasurable experiences). Pleasurable experiences are fleeting sensations and may contribute to happiness, but that’s not true inner happiness. What does true happiness mean to you? Examine that belief. Do not tell yourself you will be happy when you finally get this or achieve that? You can be happy now. It’s all about your mentality and your perception (more to come on that – keep reading).
2 – Loss aversion. We look for things that we think make us happy (nice house, nice job, money, loving spouse, etc.) but aren’t prepared to deal with losing them. Attachment makes us vulnerable to suffering.
This doesn’t mean that you should give up all worldly possessions and live in poverty or beg for food. Enjoy what you have, but don’t be afraid to lose it. Practice the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment.
To spread happiness, it’s also important for you to be happy. Our level of happiness impacts those physically around us and people who are personally close to you. Research also shows that this can be extended to at least three degrees of separation. Have you seen the pay it forward video? What you do has far reaching consequences even if it’s just a small gesture.
“Happiness isn’t as much a function of what our lives look like on the outside as it is a function of how we feel about them on the inside.”
Have a purpose/mission in life
Are you working just to pay the bills so you can live to keep working? When you have a purpose in life, you have meaning and are firmly grounded in your beliefs. This makes you incredibly strong because you will be able to keep going through anything.
“He who has a why to live can beat almost any how” – Nietzsche
Our mission needs to be coupled with a great determination and a great motivation. It has to be something you would do even if you weren’t getting paid to do it. Additionally, our mission should contribute to the well-being of others. Creating value contributes to our happiness the most. When you help people, you help yourself. In one study, performing acts of kindness resulted in more happiness (Lyubomirsky, 2005).
With all that said, take the time to define a personal mission. It should be something you feel at your core. No one else can choose this for you. It’s shouldn’t be based on your image, parental expectations, or what you want others to think about you. It needs to be based on what you have excitement and passion for. If you decide on something because that’s what you ‘think’ it should be and you force yourself to feel excited about it.. it’s not going to work in the long run. Maybe you will have some short term success, but you won’t be able to sustain the willpower required and you will become worn out. It has to be something you’re already excited and passionate about. What has excited you in the past?
If you’re having trouble, ask yourself “What’s my mission” over and over again throughout the day. Pay close attention to your experiences and how you react to them. Don’t expect to know your mission right away because it can take time. To help open your mind about it, write down 50 experiences that you have enjoyed the most. What’s a common theme among them? Another exercise you can try is imagine being given an award at 90 years old. What would be the most fulfilling award?
Your mission shouldn’t be a personal sacrifice. It should also provide a benefit for you. Lastly, your mission doesn’t have to be complex, it can be extremely simple. Make a vow, a promise to yourself, that you will do everything you can to fulfill your mission.
A strong sense of purpose can:
1 – Increase your ability to endure pain.
2 – Increases your sense of self-worth.
3 – It can provide you with the strength, courage, and determination needed to overcome obstacles that would otherwise destroy you.
4 – Help you set boundaries and enable you to say no when necessary (for the people pleasers among us).
5 – Keeps you excited and not bored. It makes mundane tasks more enjoyable.
6 – A mission will provide a sense of satisfaction at the end of of your life.
“suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it acquires meaning” – Viktor Frankl
Build up your resolve
Your ability to soldier on and keep trying will determine how successful you are in accomplishing your goals. When you fail, accept that your self confidence may wane a little bit, but make an effort to get it back as quickly as possible. You may fail 20 times, but if you keep trying, your chances of success will increase. I, for example, smoked cigarettes for several years. I tried quitting at least 30 times… maybe more. I kept trying to quit and kept failing. Finally, I succeeded. Of course I was discouraged when I slipped up and had a cigarette, but I kept at it.
“What separates people who ultimately succeed from those who fail, is simply a larger number of tries and a willingness to keep failing”
“No matter how many times we’ve failed, no matter how much we may want to quit, victory can still be ours.”
“When determination changes, everything will begin to move in the direction you desire.” – Daisaku Ikeda
When you’re on the journey to fulfilling your mission, you can expect obstacles! First, welcome obstacles and see them as indicators that you are making progress. Obstacles make us stronger, if we see them in the right light. The path to success is never what we initially think it’s going to be.
“Obstacles represent opportunities for personal growth.”
So, how can you reduce the likelihood of failing due to obstacles? Identify obstacles that may discourage you. Unmasking the potential obstacles is a powerful exercise. This exercise will show that there aren’t as many as you thought and you will realize that you can overcome most of them. Have a plan for your obstacles (a contingency plan) and you won’t even have to think about what to do when they come. You will be prepared for whatever comes your way. For example, let’s say I get the urge to smoke when I drink. I would either avoid drinking, drink somewhere that I’m not allowed to smoke, make an agreement to reward myself if I don’t smoke, think about how I will feel the next day, or have some gum or candy in my pocket to subdue my urge temporarily. Studies show that urges are temporary and if you can shift the focus away from it for a short time, it will go away. It’s a constant battle, but overtime, the number and intensity of the urges will drop.
It’s okay think about and analyze your problems/obstacles, but don’t ruminate on them. Understanding the obstacles is good, but it’s important to focus more on the goal rather than the obstacles. If faced with an obstacle, do what you can to solve it with the information you have. Don’t go about it blindly, but also don’t do nothing (paralysis analysis). Make a decision and then act – If we try something to overcome the obstacle and it doesn’t work, we know what doesn’t work and we can move on to the next thing.
“Suffering arises from our deluded thinking about the nature of life itself – specifically, from our deluded belief that we lack the power to overcome the obstacles that confront us… we suffer because we face obstacles we don’t believe we can overcome.”
Turn poison into medicine
Transform the experience of failing into a benefit. Even if the benefits aren’t obvious right away, this failure may be a lesson that you can teach to someone in the future. Sometimes what we think is the lesson of a failure isn’t even close to it and we don’t realize or see this until years later. It’s something different from what we expected. You may not see the benefit of the failure or obstacle now, but practice the attitude of being appreciative of obstacles before you even know what the benefits are. Remember the things that you have overcome and have confidence in your ability.
“Learn to use suffering as a springboard for creating benefit.”
“We have the power to create meaning out of what happens to us”
It’s all about changing your perception – our negative perception of the event is what causes pain. Let’s say something bad happens to you or stops you from achieving your goal. If you have the mindset that you can’t overcome the obstacle, then you’re already defeated. It’s the thoughts about the things that happen to us that determine what we do next. So, it is vitally important for us to be confident that we can overcome it and solve that problem. For example, you fail a test. Do you say to yourself, I failed the test because I’m a bad test taker or do you tell yourself, I failed because I didn’t study hard enough? Based on those two thoughts, it’s obvious who will study harder and pass and who will fail again.
A lot of the suffering that people experience in life is not a result of bad things happening to them, but it’s as a result of them trying to run away from the bad feelings that bad things happening cause. There is a relatively new cognitive behavioral therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy and it basically states that you should allow these feelings in and accept them instead of fighting them. Even if you feel nervous to do something, just allow the feeling to come and do it anyway. When you don’t resist the feeling, something different happens. It’s empowering and actually reduces anxiety/nervousness. When you stop avoiding feelings of pain, either emotional or physical, you become powerful and able to do more than you thought you could. Tell yourself, hey this might suck, but I can do it and I’m going to embrace whatever feelings come my way.
When you fail, accept it. Don’t judge yourself. Just get back to it and try again. It’s when we feel most discouraged that we need to keep trying. When you do get back in it and start trying again, you will realize just how capable you are. You will become more resilient and over time you can handle more and more. When in doubt, ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s probably not as bad as you think. And if the worst did happen, you can survive and thrive… with the right mentality.
One type of obstacle, negative self-talk, is going to rear it’s ugly head when we set out to accomplish a goal. These negative thoughts are very capable of stopping us in our tracks before we even begin, if we let them. We must see these negative thoughts for what they are and the first step is to become aware of when you’re doing it. It’s hard at first to identify them and not go on arguing with our negative selves, but it gets easier the more you practice. Negative thoughts can be minimized through avoidance and distraction. Observe them when they come (without judgement), accept them, and then let them go quietly. What you don’t want to do is waste energy resisting them. Manipulate your focus away from these negative thoughts with more attractive thoughts. Think of something positive and unrelated or find a way to flip that negative thought, even if only slightly shifting it. This will stop the negative thought from owning you and taking all of your focus away. What you focus on grows. Again, recognize when you’re negative self-talking and make an effort to replace it with a positive one. The more you do it, the better you will become, and it will eventually become automatic.
“Can’t is just a story we tell ourselves.”
“By learning to withhold judgment of our painful feelings and draining the meaning from our painful thoughts we’re able to reduce our desire to be rid of them.”
“We can imagine our painful thoughts as letters sent to us by others – perhaps people whose judgement we find flawed and with whom we often disagree, thus predisposing us to accept any such negative ideas with a proverbial grain of salt.”
Focus on what’s in your control
There is really only one thing we have control over… how we respond to what happens to us. Some, if not most, of us don’t have the will or hardiness to react constructively to adversity. Usually our emotions get the best of us. But, we can build up our hardiness by actively trying to respond constructively in the face of hardships. Do this by becoming more aware of your reactions. It’s as simple as paying attention to how you respond. This creates a separation between your emotions and your higher self.
If you do fail, don’t let it be because you quit. If you fail, it may simply be because it was outside of your control. Always try your best, but if it’s not meant to be, then it’s not meant to be. There is always a benefit to be found, even if you don’t reach your goal. Work hard on your goals, but don’t be attached to the outcome (easier said than done). To help you do this, enjoy the process of attaining the goal. If you don’t love the process, then you’re on the wrong path.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” – Viktor Frankl
“Defeat doesn’t come from failing, it comes from giving up.”
“Becoming mindful of one’s emotional response to pain decreases it’s unpleasantness and improves functioning.”
You can handle much more adversity than you think
You can handle far more then you think you can.. if put in the situation, you would rise to the challenge. Think about difficult times you have made it through. Think about all the struggles humans have overcome throughout history – crossing the country, crossing the ocean, war, famine, etc. If put in the situation you could survive and overcome. You have to believe that you can get through anything. Look at Viktor Frankl for inspiration. If you haven’t read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, please do. It’s an account of his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II.
Other great lessons
1 – Believe in yourself and your ability to turn poison into medicine.
2 – The path to victory can’t be planned or predicted, only discovered. You must continue taking steps despite the failures along the way.
3 – Never give up.
4 – Optimism yields persistence.
5 – The meaning of events changes constantly as a result of the events that follow it.
6 – Expectations influence response – when we are warned that an experience will be bad, we find it easier to tolerate.
7 – Take responsibility for your life situation. Take responsibility for solving your life problems.
“If a problem is making us suffer, that suffering is our problem to solve.”
8 – Stand up for what’s right, even if others mock you.
9 – Free yourself from the need to be liked.
10 – Free yourself from the need to please. Remember, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
11 – Accept pain – focus on the benefit of pain and your ability to survive it.
“How we interpret the meaning of pain has a dramatic impact on our ability to tolerate it.”
12 – Thoughts are just stories – not truths.
“Recognize that our thoughts are just stories, not truths that necessarily reflect objective reality at all.”
13 – Be comfortable and accepting of your feelings. Give yourself permission to feel how you actually feel.
“Acceptance doesn’t mean allowing our problems to go unchallenged; it means accepting the painful thoughts and feelings that invariably arise when problems occur so that they don’t stop us from trying to solve them”
14 – Accept the inevitable – old age, sickness, and death.
15 – Practice acceptance of the inevitability of loss – learn to let go and find meaning in loss.
16 – Practice self-compassion. We are often our own worst critic. Instead, generate loving feelings toward yourself just like you would for others.
17 – Be flexible and accepting of change.
18 – Appreciate the good. Gratitude for what we already have can counter negative feelings. Write down a few things in a journal each day.
19 – Undo the positive things in your life, imagine they aren’t there. Thinking about not having them can help you to appreciate them more.
20 – If someone irritates you, ask yourself what they are doing that you find so annoying. Look for the things you can appreciate about them. Often when you find someone annoying, it’s because of your own insecurities about what they do or say.
21 – Encourage and love others, even if they are strangers.
22 – Be compassionate towards everyone. Wish them happiness and send them loving prayers.
23 – Approach people not with judgement, but with curiosity. Be more understanding.
24 – When you have a problem, pretend that it’s your friend that has the problem instead. What advice would you give them?
25 – Accepting fear reduces it’s intensity and reduces it’s influence.
26 – Reduce anxiety through diaphragmatic breathing, meditating mindfully, and imaging relaxing scenes.
27 – If feeling anxious, rate the anxiety on a scale from 1 – 10 moment by moment as we feel it. Pausing to examine your own reaction to it will take your mind off of the anxiety and will stop the downward spiral.
28 – See problems as challenges instead of threats.
29 – Examine the idea of death.
30 – Examine your sense of self.
31 – See yourself as part of the whole. Become aware of the interconnectedness of all life.
32 – The world has become increasingly less violent over the millennia. This is due to our moral progress over time. World peace will continue without you, the question is, what do you want your contribution to be?
The Undefeated Mind by Alex Lickerman is an awesome read and I highly recommend it. There are great examples sprinkled throughout the book and many more lessons.