Mental Toughness for Students

Knowing how to study effectively is one of the most important factors of being a successful university student, but studying is only part of a much larger challenge. Your learning and studying are supported by physical and mental processes that keep your thinking sharp and your focus steady.

A valuable characteristic that most students need to spend more time developing is “mental toughness,” also called “resilience.” Mental toughness is the ability to face challenges calmly and effectively, and to not let setbacks derail your path to success. In many ways it’s similar to grit, which I’ve discussed in a previous post.

This morning I came across Patrick Allan’s post on mental toughness on It’s a quick read and a great introduction to strategies that can help you beat back the many challenges of university life.

It’s impossible to study well if your mind is distracted with worry about your problems. A dose of mental toughness will help you now and every step on the path to success.

Getting Gritty about Grit

“Grit,” or “perseverance,” is one of the key factors in success. It’s the quality that keeps students motivated and working hard when life is at its most challenging. Put most simply, it means never giving up on your goals and your vision of the future. Grit means focusing on your long-term success. As psychologist Angela Duckworth explains, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Duckworth is an expert on “grit” and her 2013 TED Talks Education presentation gives a quick and clear introduction to the concept of grit and how you can make it work for you. She focuses on children in her talk, but the ideas apply equally to university students.

You can click here to visit Duckworth’s TED Talks speaker page. You’ll find a survey to help you discover how gritty you are already, and a link to Duckworth’s research lab and insight on how to get even grittier.

The Power of Ideas

Many of my blog posts will focus on tips and strategies for achieving success at university, things you can do. Another group of posts will explore ideas or perspectives, things you should think in order to succeed.

Some students find it hard to see the value in learning specific things to think. They only want to know actions they can take, like how to read a text effectively or how to maximize study impact (see future posts). Actions are important. But ideas are extremely powerful, too.

Everything you think is an idea. You become comfortable with your ideas over time. They seem to become part of you, and new ideas can feel strange or even trivial. But on the quest for success you must be open to new ways of thinking. Our ideas, our perspectives on life, shape our entire existence.

Imagine that your TV falls off the shelf and smashes and you can’t afford a new one.

If you focus on all the sit-coms and awards shows you’ll miss and all those cozy nights on the sofa binge-watching mysteries, you’re bound to be upset and frustrated. But imagine, on the other hand, convincing yourself to see your destroyed TV as an opportunity. Maybe the extra free time will give you a chance to develop new skills or hobbies, or finally get outside and do that forest hike you’ve been planning. Or, perhaps the TV accident motivates you to find a better job so you can afford the things you want.

With the first mindset, when you’re focused on the demise of your beloved TV, you’re sad and angry. With the second, more positive frame of mind, you’re excited about making a change. The reality is the same; the TV is still broken. The difference is how you think about your situation.

Ideas matter!

Changing the way you think is one of the surest paths to increased success in your studies. Stay tuned for much more on this.

Embracing Challenge (East and West)

Developing the proper mindset toward challenge is one of the most important paths to success as a student.

If you expect your study life to be easy, you’ll never live up to your potential. But you need to remember that excessive struggle and stress can also derail success. As with so many things in life, the key is finding the balance that works for you.

The most effective level of challenge is different for every individual, but understanding how challenge is viewed in your culture can help you explore this critical element of university life.

Alix Spiegel has written about cultural perspectives on challenge in the Mind/Shift blog at She says, “The way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual behavior.” And, as Spiegel explains:

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

Spiegel points out a general difference between Eastern and Western cultures. In the West, we tend to envision educational struggle as revealing a lack of ability. Students often want to avoid challenge because it may reveal their limits. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, widely perceive struggle as a good thing, a sign of emotional strength and dedication. .

There are counterexamples to these general perspectives, but they often hold true, and so they impact students who are entering a new educational culture.

My advice is to learn to embrace challenge and struggle. A lot of research indicates that this is the best way to succeed in university life. I’ll introduce you to some of these ideas in a future post.