Survival mindset: What it really means to be a tough character

The formula of dedication combined with flexibility is what maximizes mental toughness and the survival mindset

Editor’s Note and Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. Further, if you have a question for this column, please submit an email to me and Larry via this email address.

In a September 2012 column, Dr. Joel Shults penned an eye-opening critique concerning the survival mindset that he feared would reap ire from gung-ho cops trying to make their bones.

Basically, he pointed out what the survival mindset is not:

Cavalier disregard for physical health
A lopsided imbalance between work and personal life
A denial of death
Casual overconfidence and lack of precaution
Repudiation of all emotion by turning everything into a joke
Unwillingness to seek or accept outside advice

Since I’ve previously written about what I call mental toughness, and what others have termed the warrior mindset, or battlemind, I’d like to add some information — gleaned from numerous researchers studying extreme performance in the military, law enforcement, first responders, and sports training — that sheds further light on what it truly means to be a consistent high performer.

ITTS (It’s the Training, Stupid)
Nobody masters any skill without working at it, and true expertise requires two things. First, domain knowledge refers to the accumulated wisdom one accrues from continual learning and practice.

After years of such integrated experience, you begin to utilize recognition primed decision making (RPDM), the ability to size up a situation almost instantaneously and know what to do. This principle underlies all the others, because the day you stop learning is the day your skills start to rot on the vine.

Arousal Control
Boldly barreling into every situation in a highly adrenalized state is likely to be counterproductive in situations that require more reflection and restraint. The ability to amp up or tone down your level of arousal to suit the circumstances is essential for initializing and sustaining the right kind of action that will best deal with the problem at hand.

Attention Control
Many training courses emphasize being “focused like a laser beam” when encountering a critical situation. But what about events that occur on the periphery of perception, such as an unnoticed suspect trying to get the drop on you?

As experience with phenomena like tunnel-vision and weapon-focus demonstrate, it is the ability to flexibly broaden and narrow the attentional beam as needed that enables you to fully account for and respond to all the variables in a life-or-death scenario.

Masters of any extreme craft — sports, military, law enforcement, etc. — have a finely-honed ability to mentally rehearse diverse scenarios in their heads, as a supplement to — but not a substitute for — real-life training scenarios.

In the critical situation itself, this imagery is often utilized as part of the RPDM process to quickly figure out the right strategies for resolving the crisis.

Thought and Language
Humans are unique among Earth’s creatures in that we can think proactively and communicate both to others and, just as importantly, to ourselves. How many times have you survived a tough scrape by talking yourself through it? 

Well, this is a skill that can be trained and utilized systematically to “put your training on your shoulder” when you encounter a crisis scenario.

Emotional Range and Resilience
Many people mistakenly believe that being “tough” means having the emotional responsiveness of a tree trunk.

Remember: in a hurricane, the tough, rigid tree resists the wind for a while, but eventually goes down, while the slim reed next door bends and survives. One of the qualities of mature resilience is the ability to experience and express a range of emotions without getting overwhelmed by them.

If you’re always wrapped too tight, sooner or later you’re going to snap.

Openness to Advice
With regard to the first principle above, the day you think you know it all is the day you start to lose your edge.

Of course, if you’re good at what you do and have been doing it successfully for a long time, you’re probably smarter in your domain than most of the people around you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t always learn something. And that last little nugget just may be the one that saves your life in the next critical encounter.

Mature Humor
“Show me a man who knows what’s funny,” said Mark Twain, “and I’ll show you a man who knows what’s not.”

A person with a mature sense of humor appreciates the ironies in life and can laugh at him/herself, because self-criticism or any criticism is viewed as a learning tool, not an assault on one’s ego. But mature humor avoids the kinds of demeaning, cruel mockery that is designed only to lacerate another person and which, paradoxically, only reveals the jokester’s own insecurity.

We sometimes laugh to diffuse the horror of some critical life-and-death situations, and that’s okay, as long as it’s not done gratuitously at someone else’s expense.

The Whole System
The word is balance. Know when to take some off-time and cultivate interests and activities that give your survival batteries time to recharge.

Like all of the principles described in this column, the formula of dedication combined with flexibility is what maximizes mental toughness and the survival mindset, and having a full life reminds you what you’re surviving for

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