When I was a kid I used to skip school, hide behind my house until my parents left, and then go off to play chess with John Nash.
Not THE John Nash, the Nobel Prize winner who also had schizophrenia. But his son, who was a very strong player.
We would go over to his house (where his father and mother also lived) and play all day and then I would go home before my parents got home from work.
The son also had schizophrenia and I sort of could tell but we focused our days on playing chess all day. At the time, I didn’t know who his father was.
This was a family of brilliant people. His son was a strong chess master. The father was a Nobel Prize winner. Maybe that makes them mentally strong. Maybe not.
John, the son, disappeared and we lost touch. I last saw him I think in 1988.
Since then I’ve met a lot of incredibly brilliant people. Because of my podcast and businesses I’ve been involved in I’ve met some of the smartest people, some of the most successful people, some of the most brilliant people in the world.
Maybe they are mentally strong. Maybe not.
Often many of us are very good at constructing masks and it is never really known what is deep inside of us. What we keep hidden for fear of death if others were to find out.
But I can tell you what is most in common with some of the people I have encountered and maybe then you can tell me if you think these are qualities of mentally strong people. I would like to know.
All of these things… anyone can do. Anyone can learn to be mentally strong and change the world as a result.
Wealth, health, success, strong relationships, and freedom seem to be byproducts of the traits listed below.
Here’s my trick:
I list, for each item, one-ten on where I rank and then I add them up. So somewhere between zero and 100.
Then every day I try to improve by one.
The mentally strong people I know, the ones who have achieved the most in life, have ALL had incredibly strong relationships.
Friends, spouses, partners, and so on. I’ve interviewed billionaires, well known movie directors, athletes, scientists, artists. All have believed in the saying “You are the average of the five people you spend your time with”.
If you build up strong relationships, it means they are supporting your ideas, adding to them, helping you execute them, and not constantly fighting you or dragging you down.
This is not religious but math. The brain takes up two % of the body’s mass and burns up twenty-five % of the body’s calories each day. One in four calories you eat goes to fuel your brain.
When you lie, one side of your brain has to deal with one set of lies. And the other side of the brain has to deal with the other set of lies.
So to be at optimal mental strength you now need twice as many calories. This is impossible.
So the best way to be mentally strong is to be honest so all of the fuel in your body can be used efficiently at propelling your brain from strength to strength instead of fighting off the attacks on your weaknesses.
C) IT’S NOT ABOUT ME, IT’S ABOUT YOU
Whenever a girl broke up with me, it never seemed to be about me. That’s ok. That was a line to make me feel better.
I guess I should be grateful for the many people who tried to make me feel better by blaming themselves.
But true mentally strong people constantly are focused on others. They are solving problems for other people.
They don’t think, “How can I make money” since money is just pieces of paper fueled by a mythological story.
They think, “What are problems in the world that I can solve?”
They think, for instance, healthcare is a mess. And since we all know “prevention is the cure”, how can I develop a product that helps with prevention and diagnostics.
And, if you were a genius like Elizabeth Holmes, you would drop out of Stanford, make a company called Theranos, and do exactly that.
That is just one example.
Mentally strong people are always solving other people’s problems. The problems of the individual get solved as a byproduct of solving the problems of the many.
I’ve interviewed over 150 people now for my podcast. Here is one question nobody ever hesitates on: What are the last books you’ve read?
Do you know why mentally strong people read? I have my guess.
We all have one life to live. But when you read, you get to absorb the curated life of another person in just a few days.
So if you read a lot, your one brain can hold onto the critical points of potentially thousands of other incredible people. You can bathe in their lives and come out a stronger you.
I asked Freeway Rick Ross, the largest drug dealer ever, what books he read in prison that turned around his life.
All 150 people I have interviewed gave answers instantly. I have no doubt if I ask them again next week they will all have different answers. I have never met a mentally strong person who wasn’t a voracious reader.
Because the brain burns so many calories, you have to have health in other areas of your life.
It’s hard to be mentally strong, to be creative, to execute, to change the world, if you are sick in bed.
This is not being judgmental towards those sick in bed. Sometimes we just get sick. We can’t help it.
But almost everyone I’ve ever dealt with in business or in life who has gone on to greater and great successes all acknowledged the importance of constant healthy transformation of their bodies.
This doesn’t mean lift 500 pounds. It means sleep eight hours a day. It means eat well (which simply means: less on processed foods, more on vegetables, and exchange your 15 inch plates for 10 inch plates), and move.
Movement doesn’t mean running a marathon. It might just mean walking a lot.
Our paleo ancestors got their exercise from walking and climbing on their daily hunt for food. This kept them healthy enough to be our ancestors so I thank them every day for that by following their model.
If you are talking to someone and they say something interesting but you don’t understand, do you interrupt them and ask them what they mean?
I often don’t. And then what happens? Then, for the rest of my life, I will never understand what they mean.
Sometimes I’m afraid to ask questions because I don’t want to seem stupid or I don’t want someone to be annoyed at me or I’m feeling shy.
The only way to learn new things is to ask questions and be curious. Find the people who inspire your curiosity because those are the ones you will most learn from.
Then ask them questions.
The more stupid you feel asking a question, the more you HAVE to ask the question. If you feel shy asking one question, then ask TWO questions.
Every mentally strong person has this one thing in common: the things they most remember that has changed their lives have been the answers to questions they asked.
If they never asked those questions, their lives would not have changed.
G) LEARN, SAY, REPEAT
We think we learn in school. We take a class and a brilliant professor gives a lecture and we supposedly leave the class smarter.
But here is the science. Within forty-five minutes of leaving a class, college students have already forgotten eighty % of what was said in the class. By the next day, they have forgotten just about 100%.
Here’s how to remember: First you hear something. If it interests you, write it down as a note (carry a notebook. I carry a waiter’s pad because they are cheap).
Then use it in a conversation within an hour. Then use it in a conversation the next day and then the next.
NOW there is a decent chance you have learned it. Because you build various connections in your brain that have now been programmed with that nugget of information. That’s how learning takes place. Mentally strong people learn how to learn.
H) THE IDEA MUSCLE
People say “Ideas are a dime a dozen”. This is simply not true. Ideas are “a dime for three”.
Go ahead and try. Come up with ten ideas for surprises for your spouse’s next anniversary. The first three are easy. But, for me, then it gets harder and by #seven I’m counting the list over and over again to see if I reached ten.
If you get hit by a bike and are stuck in bed for two weeks recovering, then when you leave the bed your leg muscles are so atrophied you need therapy to walk again.
The same with the idea muscle. It needs to be exercised every day or it will atrophy.
How do you exercise it? Pick a theme, any theme will do, and write down ten ideas a day. Every day.
I can tell you that when I was broke and suicidal and scared I started doing this. My life has changed 100% every six months since then. It’s been incredible. Like magic.
I wrote this and shared this with others. Now I get emails from people every six months telling me how their lives have changed.
When I was interviewing the rapper Coolio he told me he wrote lyrics down every day for seventenn years before he had his first hit. A year after his first hit he had the best selling song on the entire planet.
When he described that song to me he described which elements from which musicians who came before him that he meshed together to create his hit.
This is called “idea sex”. When you are an expert in one category and an expert in another then you are the greatest in the world at the intersection.
Exercising the idea muscle, plus learning, plus idea sex, will make you be the best in the world at whatever you aim.
What about execution? Execution ideas are just a subset of regular ideas. If you have an idea you want to execute on, then your idea list the next day should be, “What are the ten next steps I need to take?”
Should you then take them? I don’t know. Mentally strong people probably make those lists 100 times a year and only need to execute on one of them to change the world.
Give yourself permission to have bad ideas. It’s only through diligent mining of the universe inside of you that you find the gems that will light up the world.
Mentally strong people give themselves permission.
Why did the Google guys come up with the eighth search engine and think theirs was special? Why did Elizabeth Holmes think it was ok to drop out of the best school in the country to pursue a business dream?
Why did Henry Ford, after failing twice at car companies, think it was a good idea to start a third car company. Why did the Wright Brothers think it was ok to make a plane with spare parts from their bicycle shop when the government was spending tens of millions?
They all gave themselves permission to do something that has never been done before.
They all gave themselves permission to have many bad ideas.
They all gave themselves permission to risk their reputation and the forked tongues of the people who would fight them.
They gave themselves permission to slip and fall and get up and dust themselves off and try again. And again. And again. And again.
They gave themselves permission to love something so strong that every neuron on their brain would light up and conspire to make their dreams come true.
If you don’t give yourself permission to create a new world, chances are nobody else will.
I regret so many things from my past. Maybe that one time I lost all of my money, I could’ve used it to help my father live a little bit longer than he did.
Maybe I could’ve held onto my house. Maybe I could’ve been smarter about business.
And all of the time I am anxious. Will I give a good speech? Will this business I invest in work out? I hope it does. I don’t want to go broke again.
But whenever you regret the past, or are anxious about the future, you are time traveling.
Time traveling seems exciting but it isn’t. You can time travel all your life and then suddenly you are dead without ever having lived in the present moment, the only moment that exists.
Whenever mentally strong people find themselves time traveling they take a step back. They said, “What can I do right now to help otihers” instead of wasting time regretting the past or worrying about the future.
Worry and regret never solves tomorrow’s problems and only drains away energy from today.
Presence will always solve this moment’s problems.
Mentally strong people solve problems, love people, are curious, stay healthy, have idea sex, are honest with you, and make the world a better place.
I hope each day I can improve a little on each level. And if I run into you on the street, maybe we can wink at each other. We’re on the same team.
James Altucher has built and sold several companies, and failed at dozens more. He’s written thirteen books, and The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth is the book to RULE THEM ALL. (Although he is also fond of The Power of No & Choose Yourself.) He’s an investor in twenty different companies. He writes every day. He doesn’t have enough friends. Still interested in knowing him? Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Camilo Rueda López.