[PODCAST] How to Develop the Mental Toughness of a Super-Achiever, with Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield

Coauthors of “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It Well,” Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield share exactly that. Highlights:

  • The difference in mindset that sets super-achievers like Martina Navratilova, Yogi Berra and Guy Kawasaki apart from everyone else
  • What super-achievers say about persistence and how to know if you’re on the right track
  • The power of active listening in changing beliefs and biases
  • How super-achievers leverage the power of emotion to work for, not against, them
Read Full Transcript

"The Mental Toughness Traits of Super-Achievers"

Renita: Welcome back to the Mental Toughness Summit! I’m Renita Kalhorn, your host and a peak performance strategist, who helps top performers be better under pressure.
In this fast-moving, uncertain world, leaders in every arena, in business, sports, the military -- face obstacles and adversity that challenge their commitment to their goals. At the same time, there are tremendous opportunities for growth and innovation: and to take advantage of them, ability, knowledge and expertise are not enough – we need a mental toughness mindset.
This is what inspired The Mental Toughness Summit: visionaries and thought-leaders coming together to share practical, actionable insights about the many aspects of mental toughness and how you as leaders can train yourself to develop them.
If you’d like to tweet about today’s interview we’re using hashtag #mtsummit.
This afternoon we have two guests on the call, CAMILLE SWEENEY AND JOSH GOSFIELD.
Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield are a husband and wife team and co-authors of “The Art of Doing.” Camille has known she wanted to be a writer since she was 5. She’s written for The New York Times and other publications. She is a MacDowell Arts Colony Fellow and writes fiction in her spare time.
Josh has worked on farms and as a carpenter and cartoonist. He was the Art Director of New York Magazine. His illustrations and photos for major magazines, record companies and book publishers have won numerous awards. He has had several one-man shows of paintings in New York and Los Angeles and has art directed music videos and written and directed short films. For his latest fine art project, GIGI, The Black Flower, Josh was both author and creator of a critically acclaimed, multi-media archive of a fictional celebrity.
Welcome, Camille and Josh!
Josh: Great to be here.
Camille: Hi, Renita!

Renita: Great to have you. So I didn’t say the whole title of your book which is The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It so Well. So I’m really looking forward to your sharing some insights you got from this book which included 36 interviews, I believe.

Josh: Correct.
Camille: That’s right.

Renita: 36 super-achievers. And you know, in the beginning you found 10 common traits among these super-achievers, and several of them, not surprisingly, relate directly, I think, to aspects of mental toughness. So persistence, for example, is a given and we just spoke about that in an earlier interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson but I think the average person has no idea what real persistence is, what it really takes to make these super-achievements, how much time and effort. Can you give some specific examples that you found how super-achievers really demonstrated this kind of persistence?

Josh: Well, one general comment is that with all of these people, persistence was not a sprint, it was not even a marathon, it was a series of marathons. And persistence being essentially, once you’ve set a goal, it’s striving for that goal through all the good times and the bad times. I think sometimes when we see people from the outside, successful people, we sort of envision them like Moses, lifting up the staff and parting the Red Sea, here we go. And it’s actually an incredibly difficult, long-term process.

Camille: One of the people in our book, a fascinating guy, is Cesar Milan, who people would know as the dog whisperer.

Renita: Sure.

Camille: Cesar started out as a young boy in Mexico watching Rin Tin Tin and Lassie reruns, and deciding that he wanted to be the greatest dog trainer in the world. And, at 21, he escaped Mexico, through the border, illegally, came to the country – he has since rectified that – but the depths that he had to take, going from, you know, a boy with no English, no family, no money...he got himself to San Diego where he was homeless but he eventually got a job at a dog groomer’s. And it was at the dog groomer’s that he saw where he could fill a niche, which is the way Americans treated pets versus pets he had seen growing up on his grandfather’s ranch back in Mexico, who were working dogs, was this eye-opening moment for Cesar because these pets were so spoiled.

So he made his way from San Diego then up to LA, and each step of the way, had to learn the next thing. He actually got a job as a chauffeur in LA but his passion was working with dogs, which he did. And then, from English lessons, met somebody in the movie business who said, you would make a great TV [personality]…selling your ideas on television. And so he got camera-ready and that was the birth of the Dog Whisperer reality show that everybody knows now.

So just keeping his larger goal in sight, which was “I wanna be the greatest dog-trainer in the world,” but then to be able to execute each minor goal is a real talent, and that’s what we would consider persistence.

Josh: And to do so often in the face of no external reward.

Renita: Hmmm, that’s key, isn’t it.

Camille: Yeah.

Renita: So it has to be internally generated.

Josh: To some extent for most people, the larger the goal is, the further away you are from it, the less external reward you are going to be accruing early on in the process.

Renita: So you make this distinction then of intelligent persistence. So how can you tell the difference if you’re not getting this external feedback, whether you are on the right track, whether you should still be persisting or whether maybe you need to take a different track.

Josh: Well, it’s a case of, I think you need some good judgment yourself, but you also really need to be monitoring what’s going on. You need to be in touch with what your eventual goal is and, at the same time, be very closely watching your progress along the path. And to have the good sense and judgment to be able to tweak things.

Camille: Again, we have a great example of this who is Anna Netrebko, who is the soprano opera superstar. I’m sure you’ve heard of her, she opens the Met season now every year. She started out, she was from a small region of Russia but she moved up to St. Petersburg and went to the Conservatory there, where her teachers told her that she was not good enough to be a prima donna, that she could maybe find a place in the chorus.

And Anna didn’t believe this. She believed that she could be a prima donna, and she didn’t care if she were a prima donna back in her home region, but she knew that she could fulfill these larger roles. And so, one of the moments of real intelligent persistence that she had was deciding to take a part-time job while she was a student at the Morinsky Theatre, where the opera company was based in St. Petersburg, where she was able to absorb all of the culture at being at the opera, and being behind the scenes of the opera company. And she was willing to be a janitor, mopping floors at this theatre in order to absorb that.

So that when she was actually able to audition for the opera company, she did get into the company. And then, further, when she started her first show there, the lead became ill and the director asked Anna, “Would you be able to fill in for this, do you know the role?” And she said, “Not only do I know this role, I know all the roles in the production. Because of her choice so much to absorb everything. So this was how her career was launched.

Renita: I like that example because it shows that, I think, regular garden-variety persistence, she might have become a janitor somewhere to make a living until she could really pursue her dream, but she very strategically chose where to be a janitor and so she was basically soaking up the environment even as she was doing her work…

Camille: Absolutely…

Renita: …and visualizing what her eventual future would be. So I love that story.

Josh: And also, rather than just listening to what her teachers told her, she decided she was going to take another angle, even at that young age.

Renita So smart. And I thought it was interesting that you mentioned “listening” or “active listening” as one of the common traits. How does this tie into super-achievement?

Josh: Well, it’s also interesting, with mental toughness, we can associate it with muscle and brawn, you know, a kind of toughness as we see in a weight lifter or something. But one thing we really discovered is that there are a lot of characteristics that require -- listening, for instance -- just shut up, you know.

And that listening is not just a tool to validate other people but is also a very effective way to learn. Those who don’t listen are never going to increase their store of knowledge. And by increasing your store of knowledge, you’re able to get much better at what you do.

I mean, there’s an amazing story from Erin Gruwell, who was a teacher in Los Angeles, and came in very naively teaching at-risk students, thought she’d be able to teach them the classics. And basically there was just pandemonium in the classroom. And then one day, like an altercation had happened when somebody had drawn a racist character of someone, she got so upset and she went right at the kid and, through her anger, said, “What kind of violence have you people experienced?” And then the kids actually really opened up, they started showing her scars and telling her about gang fights and things that had happened to their sibling and families…

Camille: They were basically living in a war zone, she told us.

Josh: And it didn’t happen right away but this simple act of asking them and listening, she understood that her idea of teaching them the classics wasn’t going to make sense and that she had to become a student of her students.

Renita: Well, I love that because that’s been a recurring theme already in this week in terms of…to have the mental toughness, you need to have this desire to learn and this openness to admitting that you don’t know everything, and you want to learn and grow.

Josh: And part of the mental toughness is overcoming your own biases, which is a very lazy way of thinking. We’re all innately biased in many ways, you know, culturally, and there’s a lot of things that happen cognitively that are shared by the whole human race that are self-serving biases. And when you talk about mental toughness, the lazy way is to just stick in your old ways of thinking rather than challenging yourself.

Camille: And to be self-protective and prideful that you aren’t going to change. We talked to so many people who practice a form of humility which is actually the opposite of pride, which is being very open and receptive to changing.

Renita: Right. And I think it’s also interesting to note because most people probably don’t necessarily associate that with mental toughness but clearly, if you’re holding on to your old beliefs then it’s going to make it hard for you to be resilient and bounce back.

Josh: Exactly. I mean, I think we’ve got this attitude about toughness being…

Camille: Being tough.

Josh …yeah, being like a brawny steelworker or something, and you can just put your shoulder to the boulder and push it up the hill, but we’re not living in that sort of age anymore.

Renita: Right, it’s not brute force.

Camille: Right.

Renita: How about this idea that super-achievers have such excellent emotional control? How do they demonstrate that, and why is it so important?

Camille: Well, we found again and again, of these 36 people that we talked to, and in many different ways, how they used their emotions. Not only managed them or coped with them or controlled them but actually used their emotions to further their goals.

There was an incredible example of a young girl who wanted to become a solo circumnavigator and she got the idea when she was 11, based on a book her mother had read to her about a teen who had done that. And this girl we spoke with, Jessica Watson, said that she was just an ordinary girl. She thought of as a “fraidy cat” even. But the challenge of doing this navigation so excited her that she began planning it even in secret at 11.

Renita: Wow.

Camille: What she did when she eventually put her trip together was, she had to learn how to cope with loneliness on this journey, and boredom, and things like being in these mountainous waves by herself upside-down in this sailboat with her feet touching the top of the cabin when she had strapped herself inside. And she was able to channel that emotion she was feeling, to keep her going. And she even told us, which I thought was so profound for a teenager, that you can’t control the conditions but you can control the way you deal with them.

Renita: Well, that is the key principle, isn’t it.

Camille Yeah.

Josh: Yes, and interestingly, as Camille was saying, there’s an aspect of managing emotions but many of the people we talked to would use frustration or anger as a motivating tool.

Renita: Okay.

Josh: Yeah, anger kind of has a bad name and we can get very sloppy about anger or we can get angry because it feels good, because it’s familiar, it can be an easy way to manipulate people. But used properly, anger can be a call to action within ourselves. And again, if you monitor yourself carefully, anger is also an indication that something is wrong. And very often, it might be an indication that circumstances or people are threatening your self-interest or the self-interest of the people that you’re associated with.

Renita: Right. Well, that’s an interesting point because anger in and of itself isn’t a bad or good thing, it’s just energy, and it’s how you direct it, and I imagine a lot of great things have been accomplished because people started off being angry about something.

Josh: Yeah, we found so many people who became frustrated or depressed about their goals would often use that as a motivation to overcome whatever obstacles were in front of them.

Renita: Fascinating. So then the ability to evolve was another theme among these super-achievers and it’s definitely been a theme this week, as I mentioned, in terms of having this growth mindset, this idea that if you don’t have the skill now, you can learn it, and that will help you get closer to your goal.

So, typically, how do superachievers respond when they’re faced with a setback or failure. I’m really curious to hear what kind of things do they say to themselves, or what’s, kind of, their general response that we can learn from?

Josh: We found this to be perhaps the most critical aspect of people’s success, is that everybody fails. Failures fail, and great successes fail, it’s just part of the nature of pursuing a goal. You’re going to have more obstacles than you’re going to have open freeways.

And what we discovered that was so fascinating was what these people did, instead of, in the face of an obstacle, saying, “It’s the economy, it’s the idiots working for me, it’s the idiots I’m working for, it’s idiots who aren’t buying my product…”

Camille All the external things.

Josh: All the external things. They really went in and questioned their own assumptions about what they were doing. And because they did that, that allowed them to really reinvent themselves and in many ways to come up with revolutionary new ways of doing things.

Camille We had a great example of the tennis champ, Martina Navratilova, whose big rival was Chris Evert. And back in 1980, she told us, she was No. 2, and she wanted to be No. 1. And she couldn’t figure out how to get there. And it wasn’t until she got her new trainer that she realized that she had not been training nearly at all so physically she was not up to the challenge. It wasn’t until that moment that she realized that she would have to address this. And so she transformed herself into a physical specimen of women which, if people remember who she is…

Renita: I remember.

Camille: Yeah, it was a real transformational moment for her.

Josh: And all this came after a particularly galling loss to Chris Evert, and working with this trainer where she fell on the track in tears when she realized that she could hardly run wind sprints. And tennis was very different back then. You didn’t have this insane training that everybody has to do to be competing on the same field.

And what happened with Martina in the face of this failure over this match with Chris Evert, and recognizing that she was not particularly physically fit was that she not only transformed her training, her body, and then she went on to see that she could do the same with her emotional mindset, with her strategic game. And it gave her such an incredible advantage at the time because nobody else was doing this. And it all came from her confronting her failure.

Renita: Right, well, it’s interesting then because Chris Evert went through her own reinvention, I believe to raise her game to stay up with Martina.

Camille: She definitely stayed competitive but I think at that point, Martina sort of rocketed up to No 1 and stayed there for years. And, of course, had this sort of legendary long career because she realized, at that moment of self-awareness when she was able to change and question what she had been doing, she really was able to do that all throughout her career, and keep getting better at these different skills that she needed.

Renita: So she was consistently evolving, not just doing it once...

Camille: Exactly. From that moment on, she said she got religion, that was it. She realized that that was going to be her power.

Josh: She attacked every aspect of her game.

Renita: Mmm hmmm, well, and she’s a great example because she already was very gifted and talented.

Josh: Exactly.

Renita: But I think of another player around the same time, Hana Mandlikova, who you don’t really hear about anymore because she didn’t have that kind of ability.

Camille: Exactly.

Renita: So great example of how just ability is not enough. So I’m curious, can you, in speaking with all these super-achievers from all these different fields and areas of expertise, can you translate this into the field of leadership. So how can leaders demonstrate or role model some of these aspects for their team and their colleagues?

Josh: I think it’s almost like a holistic approach. As we said, there are things like listening, it’s very important to build a community and have people allied with your cause, you know, your employees, your customers, even at some point, your competitors. And that’s a very difficult aspect too because sometimes it requires, as Camille referred to before, a bit of humility that’s involved. It isn’t like there’s one secret, that you’re going to get up in the morning and you’re going to steel yourself for the day, you’re going to lock your shoulders and you’re going to march through the day.

And I think, actually, in a way, what is the hardest aspect for all this is that the amount of cognition and self-awareness that is required, hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. And this neuroscientist we spoke to was very interesting, he explained to us that the brain is only 2% of the bodyweight but it actually gets 15% of the cardiac output and 20% of the total body oxygen consumption. And thinking hard actually makes you physically tired and I think with all of us we sometimes just wanna coast. And that’s really the hardest part, to keep yourself kicked into gear. And watching all of these, myriad traits you need to be upping your game on to be a truly great leader. Because it’s both what you’ve got on your to-do list but also being aware of the people that are working with you, the people that are allied with your cause .

Camille: And what the necessary ingredients are for success are: happiness is such a big part of being a success. Almost everybody we talked to talked about the passion for their work, that that was a motivator and a drive for them to succeed, and talked about interesting ways that they pursue that.

Renita: Yeah, it’s interesting with some of these people who started at such a young age, they certainly weren’t getting the typical aspects of external validation in terms of recognition or money. So it really has to come from within, it sounds like.

Josh: Yeah, nobody gets it in the beginning. Even Tiger Woods, when he was practicing with his dad at God knows what age, whenever he started, I mean, he wasn’t getting external rewards. So we say, the higher the goal is, the longer you’re going to have to go on your own steam.

Renita: Yeah. So what about the people who are listening to this and saying, “Wow, this really sounds like a lot of work. I’m just gonna coast.”

Camille: You know we came away with this, not everybody is going to be a super-achiever. But when you start to look at these different traits and start to borrow some of the ideas and methods of doing them, you can get a lot better at what you do and not necessarily take on everything. I always think it’s interesting, you could be a stay-at-home mom and using some of these traits to deal with your community, your kids, you know, being on the PTA. Or you could be a CEO and learning that listening and patience is going to be a big part of your success.

Josh: I think a big part of our culture now is people just trying to be better at what they do. People also attempting to be engaged in their lives, more with things that they are passionate about. And that’s been sort of a slow, incremental change in the culture. And part of the necessity of that is that people really do have to get better at what they do.

Renita: Well, it’s exciting that a book like yours even exists. It’s kind of a luxury now, in our society, that we have to be able to pursue our passions so wholeheartedly. But it’s also interesting how you’re saying that it doesn’t have to everything all at once, this kind of all-or-nothing approach. We can just pick and choose which qualities we want to focus on for the moment and then go from there.”

Camille: Absolutely.

Josh: And you know, sometimes they talk about proximal goals. Like you feel like you’re not getting to where you wanna be, it’s a focus on what’s right in front of you, how can I move forward to the next step. We spoke to this very interesting researcher who’s done a lot of work with mental contrasting. And they found that people are very successful in goal striving when they both keep in mind their ultimate goal, and also what they have to do next to get there. It might seem obvious but people don’t necessarily do it.

Renita: Right. It does seem obvious but it keeps you on track, keeps you moving.
Camille: Absolutely.

Renita: Well, thank you so much for sharing all these great stories and ideas for those of us who do like to improve our performance and focus on achievement.

Josh: Well, it was great to talk to you.

Camille: Absolutely, thanks, Renita.