The 3 Keys to Being Mentally Strong

David Blaine shows us we need to prepare, train, and be patient

On May 22nd, 2002, David Blaine stepped off a crane and onto a tiny, 22-inch wide platform. 100 feet above the cold, hard concrete of New York City, he now stood on a pillar with no protection in case he’d fall.

For 35 hours, he remained there. No food, no water, and — for the sake of his life — no sleep. By the time the stunt ended, 50,000 spectators had gathered to watch him jump into a big pile of cardboard boxes. Vertigo, as Blaine dubbed the spectacle, may be my favorite stunt of his, but it’s only one in a long list of death-defying feats on his track record.

In 1999, he spent seven days buried alive in a plastic box. The next year, he was encased in ice for two and half days. He also caught a bullet with his mouth, held his breath for 17 minutes, and hung over the Thames for 44 days, consuming nothing but water.

David Blaine has been on one simple mission all his life: Bring magic to the people. In his quest to do so, he has ventured to many an edge and beyond, defying, even cheating death more than once. Luckily, most of us will never have to take such risks to achieve our dreams. But his sheer will is inspiring.

David Blaine’s best magic trick can’t be seen on video. It’s not his swimming with sharks or withstanding lightning but his superhuman mental strength. That’s the kind of trick worth copying — because it’s not an illusion at all.

Life is a never-ending journey towards fulfilling your true potential. Mental strength will help you close the gap. I studied countless articles, videos, and interviews with David Blaine to understand how he developed this trait. When I pulled all the patterns together, I was left with three components.

Here are the three keys to becoming mentally strong.


Preparation

There’s this saying that “if you fail to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.” Preparation is simply a commitment to doing your best — because part of doing your best is realizing the challenge doesn’t begin when the timer starts ticking. The challenge starts now — and it never stops.

David has a ridiculous work ethic, but most of the work he’s done over the years has happened inside his mind. As Seneca put it, “Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.” This is mental preparation.

David’s mother died in his arms. Imagine how many ways it must have broken him. After a long struggle, however, he emerged with an empowering attitude: “I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” Most of us are lucky. Our lives won’t take such dramatic turns. But we all have things we’re afraid will be taken from us one day. We all have people we’re scared to lose. The only way to keep our fear of loss from stopping us is to already let go before the loss actually happens. “The cup is already broken,” the Zen master says.

Across the aisle from “have nothing to lose,” to balance the solid foundation of rock bottom, lies the idea that arbitrary milestones mean everything. Hold on to your goals for dear life — and splice them into ever more attainable chunks. On his 44-day fast, David came up with his own superstition: If he would make it to 22 days, he’d be fine. Once he got there, he focused on the next 50% of the way. 11 days later, he reduced his goal to 5.5 days, and so on. Pretending you have already lost everything while being unwilling to give up even an inch of your unreasonable goals is how you will things into existence.

Finally, preparation is visualizing and facing your worst fears before you meet them. One way to do this is with reframing. Of all things, David was afraid of bugs. Lying in his tent in Africa one night, being circled by loud, scary, one-and-a-half ton hippos, suddenly, the cockroaches seemed to be his best friends. There is a difference between a real confrontation and an imagined one, of course, but even if the encounter takes place entirely in your head, it’ll still go a long way in preparing you for the real thing. As Dumbledore once told Harry: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” When your brain reaches its breaking point, when you’re facing illusions and hallucinations and all kinds of doubts and negative thoughts, your subconscious will throw your worst fears at you with everything it’s got. When that time comes, you already have to know they’re not real. That’s being prepared.

Training

Warren Buffett thinks it takes a bear market to reveal who’s really a good investor: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s swimming naked.” Training is another form of preparation, but instead of your mind, you’re honing your skills because skills are what’ll allow you to navigate life well when you’re in the thick of it.

Our best skill as humans is creativity. Imagination is our strongest and most dangerous trait. If we learn to use it right, however, we can handle anything. When he was young, David went to prison for jumping a turnstile on the subway. Being a frail and scrawny guy, he only had a few minutes after entering the cell block before he’d get his ass kicked. Instead of being the entertainment for bored prisoners, however, David decided to provide it with his magic. He won over one inmate, then another, then another. Eventually, he got everyone to have fun and enjoy their time — until he got out. To rely on your creativity when your life depends on it, you have to train it every day. It doesn’t matter which way, whether you write, sing, talk, or think, but you never know when that day comes — and you’ll have to be ready when it does.

Besides having creative skills, you need something else to be able to access them in highly stressful situations: You need to stay calm. Calmness is also something you can train. For his world record of holding his breath for 17 minutes, David practiced blacking out under water, like Navy SEALs do. Imagine how scary it must be to realize you’re losing your consciousness in a pool for the first time. But then, you get used to it, as we do to everything. Humans are adaptation machines. David also hung around with sharks. No cage, of course. If you want to stay calm when the going gets tough, don’t just practice hard. Practice under the hardest conditions.

Patience

Unless you’re an athlete, you should think of ‘endurance’ as a synonym for ‘patience.’ Wayne Dyer said that “infinite patience produces immediate results.” It’s not that your desired outcome will literally show up on your doorstep, it’s that you gain a sense of peace from having an unshakeable conviction that you’ll achieve your dream when you’re ready for it.

My question is: Why shouldn’t you have that certainty? Most of us don’t exert ourselves physically. Our work happens in our minds, so it is rarely that we lack the energy to do things or wait for our results. We lack patience. We’d have to sit in our chair a little longer, sleep one more night, pick ourselves up one more time. In Siddhartha, David’s favorite book, Hermann Hesse writes: “If a man has nothing to eat, fasting is the most intelligent thing he can do.” In the same sense, if our life isn’t what we want it to be just yet, the most intelligent we can do is to do our part and then practice patience. As long as we do that, we’ll get there. Why wouldn’t we?

Siddhartha is the story of a man voluntarily seeking poverty in search of enlightenment, and both this overarching theme as well as the book’s many events make a point about an unexpected enabler of patience: curiosity. Since, for most of us, little physical pain is evolved in our struggle towards self-actualization, we should be curious about enduring our situation. What happens if we release one more episode? Where would that lead us? David watched his mother fight cancer without complaining. It showed him there can be meaning in hardship. But to find it, you have to wonder what’s on the other side. What’s lies behind enduring this? The core Buddhist message is that suffering is desiring or resisting change. If you’re curious about where change leads, even if it’s painful, there will be no suffering.

A second, surprising component of patience is humility. To prove it, consider the opposite: Impatience is arrogance. Why? Because impatience makes the inherent assumption that you’ve failed. It’s too late, you’ve missed, you’re not yet where you should be — but really, who are you to say? It’s always too early to tell. Maybe, you’ve already lit the spark that’ll become your breakthrough success. You just have to give the world more time. The humble person waits, even after they think they have already failed. David’s breath holding attempt was broadcast by Oprah Winfrey in a live, one-hour special. After eight minutes, David was certain he was not gonna make it. But to — as always — bring magic to the people, he decided to wait. Even when he panicked about having a heart attack, he kept waiting. Eventually, when the medical team pulled him out of the water, he had held his breath longer than any human in history. Again, this isn’t to say, “Risk your life lightheartedly.” It’s to say: When you’re going to fail, go on. That’s where true endurance comes from.


During his fasting stunt, David wrote a message on the wall of his crate:

I do not consider myself as part of an individual race or country or religion. Just simply a human being, and this is my exploration — and now discovery — of how strong we all are in mind, body, and spirit.

Mind, body, spirit. Those are the three components of the self, and, as you may have noticed, the three keys above map to them. That’s not a coincidence. Only in union do they unfold their full potential — and thus help you live up to yours.

Preparation is for the mind. Training is for the body. Patience is for the spirit.

Preparation makes you tough on the inside. Training makes you tough on the outside. Patience allows you to enact your toughness inside and out.

One alone won’t do, and neither will two thirds of the equation. If you’re prepared and well-trained without patience, you’ll throw your potential away. If you’re trained and patient but not prepared, you’ll succumb to your fears. And if you’re prepared and patient without skills, you’ll forever spin your wheels. No, it takes all three to be a true beacon of mental strength.

Most of us will never have to risk dying to fulfill our potential, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from a man who does. Preparation, training, and patience. Those are the traits of a mentally strong person. Take them. Embrace them. Use them to span a bridge between present-you and your true, authentic, most empowered self.

These keys won’t make you invincible. They won’t always protect you from falling. But on a long enough timeline, they’ll ensure you get what you deserve. Magic or no magic, as David once said: “We are all capable of infinitely more than we believe.”

-Nik

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