Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mental toughness, part 1

Graham Jones’s Thrive on Pressure: Lead and Succeed When Times Get Tough (McGraw-Hill, 2010) was written for business leaders, but some of the principles apply equally well to traders and investors. Take mental toughness, for instance. It is an attribute that is key to success because it enables people to sustain high levels of performance under pressure. Fortunately, according to Jones, mental toughness can be developed. This task involves learning four skills: “staying in control under stress, channeling your motivation to work for you, strengthening your self-belief, and directing your focus to the things that really matter.” (p. 54)

I’m going to summarize Jones’s skills in four separate posts. Quite frankly, stretching out this theme is a way for me to minimize stress. Normally I do most of my reading on weekends, but as I said yesterday Labor Day weekend was not the most productive. I’m behind. Yes, the oats and hairy vetch are planted, but I managed to read only two books, the first of which I reviewed yesterday. (The second review is written and I’ll post it tomorrow.) Upshot: cut me some slack as I enter once again the sometimes smarmy world of self-help.

Stress, according to Jones, is the dark side of pressure. “At its best, pressure energizes and invigorates leaders. It sharpens their focus and brings out the best in them. At its worst, pressure crushes and drains them.” (p. 57) As an example of acutely severe stress he recalls a conversation he had with a “senior leader” at an investment bank during the financial meltdown. “She admitted to being clueless about what might happen next, describing it as ‘trying to manage a waterfall of uncertainty and anxiety.’” (p. 58) The source of this stress was external, but most stress, Jones argues, is self-imposed and therefore manageable. “The basic choice you have is between viewing the pressure as either positive in terms of providing an opportunity for you to thrive, or negative in that it poses a threat that results in stress and feeling anxious.” (p. 66)

Jones offers three strategies for staying in control under stress: keeping your stress symptoms under control, challenging the thinking that causes you stress, and tackling the sources of your stress.

To keep your stress symptoms under control you first have to recognize and record these symptoms—for instance, you might have poor concentration, you might doubt yourself, you might be hesitant to make decisions, you might be low on energy, you might overeat. And then you have to devise a plan to deal with these stress symptoms. There is a wide range of possible strategies, from meditation to lifestyle changes.

Your “stinking thinking” can also cause stress. Jones suggests that you identify your typical automatic negative thoughts and learn to stop them. Techniques can be as simple as thought-stopping statements such as “Take control” or imagining a red stop sign. You can also reframe your negative thoughts by asking whether there’s another way to view the situation or by trying to see your “stinking thinking” from the outside.

Finally, you have to work on the sources of your stress. Jones suggests an exercise in which you first list the demands on you, then list the supports you have at your disposal to help meet these demands, and identify the constraints that currently limit you, perhaps getting in the way of satisfying the demands. Based on these lists you can choose something that you would like to work on, maximizing your supports and minimizing your constraints. Your choice must meet the following criteria: “1. It should be in your control to do something about it. 2. The changes you wish to make should be realistic. 3. Any changes you make will have a real impact, rather than merely ‘papering over the cracks.’ 4. Any changes will start to have an impact in a relatively short time frame.” (p. 110)

(to be continued)

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