As innovation leaders, we live in a space of “comfortable discomfort.” It is routine for us to be in a constant state of failure, which is how we refine and move forward through the innovation process. In golf, they say, “it’s okay to play bad, but play bad fast.” In innovation, we embrace a similar notion that “it’s okay to fail, but fail fast and fail to learn.” Meaning, we understand it is perfectly normal that as we iterate, we are constantly examining and accepting the failures that lead to breakthrough products and services. It is part of the job, but let’s not discount the toll this can take on our minds. One of the most important skills we can acquire to avoid this innovation fatigue and personal burnout is mental toughness. In the context of creativity and innovation leadership, mental toughness is the habit of following through on ideas even when it’s hard.
Here are four resources that have helped me develop mental toughness. I believe they can do the same for you.
- 75 Hard. A few months ago, a good friend told me about a 75–day program she’d just finished. She was working out twice a day, drinking a gallon of water every day, and reading 10 pages from a nonfiction book every day. If she missed any of the tasks, she had to start back at the beginning of the 75 days. I was skeptical at first. But then I learned that the 75 Hard isn’t just about fitness, but rather about building mental toughness. You build mental toughness by committing to something big, then following through on it. I signed up. At first, I struggled to drink all that water and to make time to work out every day. But I persevered, and now I’m on day 57. It’s built my confidence that when I set a goal, regardless of how uncomfortable it is, I can follow through on that goal. I recommend reading the 75 Hard website and picking up the book.
- Winning by Tim Grover and Shari Wenk. Tim Grover was Michael Jordan’s strength trainer and mental coach when he won his six championship rings. It’s only natural that he would write a book about developing the mindset to win. One of the wisest insights Grover shares is that life is both a marathon and a series of sprints. As innovators, we can become complacent. We enjoy the journey, rationalizing that we’ll get to the destination eventually. Grover lights a fire under us as innovators, reminding us we still need to move fast and get things done. By balancing between “marathon” and “sprint” modes, we can make rapid progress while avoiding burnout.
- Make Your Bed by William McRaven. This fantastic book for mindset is a series of vignettes about McRaven’s Navy SEAL training. In SEAL training, they teach you that making your bed – and the way you make it – sets the pace for your day. I got the same advice from my parents as a kid. But I didn’t fully realize its value until I read this book. As innovators, we need to make sure we’re getting the primary things done well before we move on to more complex challenges. McRaven’s best story is about the Navy SEAL training obstacle course. He was on track to beating his personal record when he got to a rope he needed to climb down. He carefully climbed down. When he got to the bottom, his commander said, “When will you learn, McRaven? You gotta go head first.” From then on, McRaven started going head first, jumping down the rope commando-style. Sometimes we’re cautious or hesitant about jumping into innovation. But when we’re driving innovation sprints and projects, the best thing we can do is go head first, even when the work is challenging.
- Breath by James Nestor. This book is about breathwork. It brings awareness to the critical role breath plays in our physical and emotional health. I tried exercises from Breath for running; they helped me heal from a calf pull by calming the pain. I can use the same techniques in stressful situations and difficult conversations. When I want to influence, I’m trying to empathize with the other person. By using breathwork, I can center myself to stop feeling attacked during a disagreement, and instead engage with intention. If you’re in fight or flight mode when you’re trying to drive innovation, it kills your creativity. Using breathwork to reduce your activation will help you build mental toughness to fight burnout.
Innovation leaders are facing many sources of burnout, from stressful situations to poor mindsets. Innovation leadership isn’t just about being nice, prioritizing others, and facilitating. It’s also about mental toughness and resilience. We need to be able to fail and rise again while driving towards consistent results.
I challenge you to take on these books and the 75 Hard. Use them to build the foundation for your next level of innovation leadership. When you commit and follow through, focus on mastering your craft and being the best, dive in head first, and breathe to center yourself, you win. You fight burnout. You succeed as an innovation leader.