There are countless stories of tenacious winners from the world of sport – such as cyclist Lance Armstrong, who recovered from testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour de France seven times – who are seemingly naturally tough. Similarly, business leaders like Gerald Ratner, whose famous gaffe ruined his jewellery business and yet subsequently launched, grew and sold a multi-million pound health club and now leads an online jewellery firm, clearly have something special. Such folks are always popular on the corporate speaking circuit regardless of how well they understand what has happened to them and how others can apply it to themselves – we just love a victim or ‘loser’, of whatever kind, who recovers and beats the ‘system’. It is this quality that creates leaders – people who others will follow regardless of their present misfortunes.
As some of you know, I spend much of my time supporting people who seek to achieve things they never dreamt they could, and among them there’s a smattering who have taken hard knocks along the way, so anything I can glean to help me understand the phenomenon of recovery is helpful. My eye was therefore drawn to a new study which suggests that this quality of resilience is inherited and that it may be difficult to boost people who are not naturally resilient!
Tony Vernon at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, led a questionnaire-based study of 219 pairs of twins which probed the genetic and environmental contributions [nature and nurture] of four traits associated with mental toughness: control over life, commitment, confidence and the ability to face new challenges.
The analysis, published in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences, found that 52 per cent in the variation of mental toughness was down to genetics. It also correlated strongly with extroversion. In contrast, being neurotic or anxious indicated a reduced likelihood of possessing mental toughness.
“It’s about not letting setbacks destroy you,” says Peter Clough at the University of Hull, UK, who designed the questionnaire. Clough agrees that mental toughness is mostly inherited, but says that natural worriers can deal with anxiety by learning to purge negative thoughts.
Sometimes it helps to read and re-read academic studies and look at them slightly sideways on. This is a case in point. What Vernon has demonstrated is that roughly half of our ability to be mentally resilient is attributable to our genetic make-up. The other half is down to our ‘environment’ which is partly due to the context in which we are at the current time, and partly due to the ways in which we have been brought up.
Now, I can’t do much about the genetic component, but I am pleased to say that I can do quite a bit to help with the other two. So, if you find yourself suffering from the gloom around us at the moment, don’t despair – give me a call!