Mental Toughness

“It’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.” – David Bowie

Dr. Roger Bannister was the first human to break the 4-minute mile on May 6, 1954. Contemporary thought was that a human being could never run that fast. Yet 64 days later, Bannister’s record was also broken. Many years later, on September 29, 2019, Allyson Felix, USA Olympic sprinter, broke another major record. She surpassed Usain Bolt’s 11 gold medals record with her 12 gold metals just a year after she had a baby, overcame significant maternal medical issues, and negotiated through an unfair sponsorship stipulation with Nike.

Mental toughness is learned. It is the acquired ability to cope with difficulty and emerge without losing confidence. Babies fall when learning to walk until they gain strength, muscle control, and balance. New employees make a lot of mistakes, until they gain some wisdom and experience. To quote writer Rita Mae Brown, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” Anyone who has ever competed at school, sports, business, politics, or life knows that. We all make mistakes, but successful people strive to learn from them.

Over the past 3 years, we’ve conducted many leadership programs at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston. Along the way, we have met some amazing astronauts. On a recent trip, my team and I spent time with three NASA Astronauts who are remarkable examples of mental toughness. Yet they are also easy to be around and surprisingly unimpressed with their achievements.

Astronauts, unlike other professions, face infinite unknowns. Every single mission has multiple risks and crises, even if they are not as dramatic as Apollo 13. Space problems include massive technical failures, fires and explosions, micrometeoroids, weightlessness, radiation, EVAs (space walking) and even being temporarily blinded on a spacewalk, which happened to both Astronaut Chris Hadfield and Astronaut Luca Parmitano.

Space technology must have more capacity than anything used on earth. Still, the biggest challenge is not technology but having the right people who can remain calm and mission focused and who can balance confidence with humility. We have observed four areas as the cornerstones of mental toughness: self-competition, the ability to compartmentalize, handling pressure well, and creating small goals in order to be ready for big goals.

  • Self-competition – Astronaut Dr. Scott Parazynski trained for two years, six hours a day in a million-gallon pool – the Neutral Buoyance Lab at NASA. Every day he competed against himself for dexterity, strength, and the ability to walk in space. Scott had his “Apollo 13 moment” when he was called on to repair a solar power panel on the International Space Station. Because he had regularly challenged himself physically and mentally since he was young boy, grabbing every opportunity he could to learn something new, he succeeded in saving the ISS from damage that could have required a de-orbit of the Station.
  • Compartmentalize – Astronaut Scott Kelly couldn’t help any of the people that he loved the most on earth while he was in space on his first ISS mission and later for his 1-year mission. While he had communication with them, he couldn’t actively participate in making their lives better. When his sister-in-law, Gabby Gifford, was shot, he couldn’t be there for her or his brother. Scott had to get off the call where he was informed about Gabby and proceed to fix a sanitation issue on the Station. The ability to compartmentalize the different parts of our lives, and not be overcome with helplessness and despair, can empower us to do our job that others are depending on us to do. Determining what we can control and what we can’t control allows us to be fully present for the task right in front of us.
  • Pressure – Astronaut Fred Haise grew from the pressure of two life-and-death experiences. After a near-fatal explosion on Apollo 13, he and his crewmates Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert had to sling shot their way around the moon to get back to earth. As trained professionals, they were calm, focused and never quarreled in the space vehicle, even when carbon dioxide was building toward dangerous levels in their cabin air. They spent no time blaming each other or beating themselves up. Under the most dangerous and untested conditions, they landed safely back on earth. After Apollo 13, Astronaut Haise flew and survived a single engine WWII trainer when the engine quit and he crashed. The fire burned over 65% of his body. Yet 14 months after the accident, he flew the Space Shuttle Enterprise to three successful landings. Today, Fred Haise at 85 years old and Jim Lovell at 91 years old are still educating and inspiring.
  • Small steps that lead to big leaps forward – Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison is often asked how she became an Astronaut. She is clear that, as the first African American female in the world to go into space, becoming an Astronaut was just the next step in a long line of steps. While growing up, she made mud pies to examine physics, she danced with the Alvin Alley dance company, she studied at Stanford and went to medical school at NYU. She joined the Peace Corps. And she did a lot of other things in between. No one goes directly into the Astronaut Corps or any leadership position. It’s hundreds of small goals, many disappointments, and some smart choices that keep us moving ahead.

High achievers show up in all professions, not just as Astronauts or elite athletes. One of the common qualities that sustains success in every business, school, and community is a mental toughness, a toughness grounded in growing, serving others, and taking your Moon Shot.