In my last article on preparedness I discussed preparing your body. In this article I am going to discuss preparing your mind. This is arguably just as important as preparing your body; all the supplies, food, ammunition, and “stuff” in the world won’t get you through if you aren’t mentally capable.
This article contains affiliate links.
Prepare Your Mind
I am going to offer some ideas that may improve your mental toughness, flexibility, and resilience. I’m not a psychologist or doctor or especially trained in this field. Everything offered here is based on my own anecdotal experience. Also, I am going to be very quick to point out, I am not perfect. I do not implement each of these techniques perfectly and without fail. Don’t take this as me telling you what to do; I write this as much to encourage myself as anyone else.
Adverse events are difficult. Decreased inputs of food and water create nutrition deficits that rob our brains of needed glucose. Lack of sleep can cloud our judgment and make the simple seem impossible. Stress hormones can make sleep difficult and your body’s ability to deal with them can be diminished by lack of sleep, creating a vicious cycle. Emergencies create situations that require creative thinking, recall, problem-solving. Knowledge, and the ability to retrieve it, on demand, in a stressful situation, is important to being prepared for disaster.
Accumulate Knowledge & Skill
This one is perhaps the most obvious. Knowledge can make up for a lot of deficiencies. As I’ve said here many times before, I’d rather have knowledge and minimal equipment than all the gear in the world but no knowledge. That goes for pretty much any area of study or skill. There are various ways to accumulate knowledge and skill, and this section probably won’t be surprising to any of you.
Attend training. Again, it doesn’t get much more obvious than this, but attend some training. In the firearms community many of us accept training as a given. Then I think about most of my family members – my aunts, uncles, cousins, parents – and my neighbors and some of my friends. I realize that almost none of these people have attended a class, clinic, lecture, seminar, or course of any kind in…well, basically ever. The idea of attending training as a hobby of its own is not a widely known phenomenon.
If you haven’t attended training of some kind lately, think about it. Actually, go further than thinking about it – do it. Get trained in something. It doesn’t even have to be something directly applicable to what you ultimately want to do, as I will discuss later. It doesn’t have to be expensive or exotic, though it can be. If you have already attended a large amount of training, think about the training you are planning to attend in the future. If you are only attending firearms training, consider branching out. Learn to SCUBA dive. Get some medical training. Sign up for a sewing class. Take a vocational course in welding or auto repair or computer programming.
Practice on your own. If you have attended some training, gained some value from it, and wish to improve – or just retain – the skill taught, you must practice. You can attend a week-long shooting course and finish up pretty strong. If you don’t practice, though, a year later you will have lost the vast majority of that skill. Practicing will help you maintain that skill. Done correctly and long enough it will help you refine and improve up on that skill. Continued over enough years practice can help you master that skill to a point that you will never lose it.
Read books. The nearly forgotten pastime of reading should not be overlooked. Read anything. Read your favorite science fiction drama, romance and erotica, political thrillers, or the latest fantasy best seller. Read non-fiction: history, pop-psychology, biographies, cookbooks, books about dogs, drugs, cops, criminals, rock stars, the cosmos, science… The knowledge gained from reading will help you on its face. The mental exercise of reading is its own reward, too. If there is one piece of advice from this article that I would like for you to internalize it is simply, “read.”
Foster Mental Flexibility
Mental rigidity is the enemy of preparedness. Like an inflexible body, an inflexible mind is going to limit your options. If “plow your way through” is the only option you have because you haven’t fostered a flexible mind, you have taken most survival options completely off the table before you’ve even begun to need them. Mental flexibility is a tough one to nail down, but here are a couple things to consider.
Learn stuff with no direct applicability. People love to bash liberal arts degrees or philosophy majors. Personally I think learning just about anything is good for you. Read, experience, train, and learn as broadly as you possibly can. Sure, it’s perfectly fine to go in depth in certain areas that interest or benefit you. But as I recently read in the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, broad knowledge makes you better at almost every pursuit. Having a broad base of learning makes you more creative. Again, we like to bash “creativity” as the domain of the artsy-fartsy types, by creativity is simply another word for problem-solving. With little or no creativity we are destined – cursed – to solving every problem in the same way.
I have attended all sorts of classes. I read as broadly as I possibly can. I have taken classes the have no directly applicability to really anything that I am interested in doing. I wouldn’t undo any of the time spent sitting in a class (as long as the instruction is good, but that’s another topic). I am constantly amazed at how seemingly unrelated knowledge comes around to help me out in seemingly unrelated situations. As vividly demonstrated by Duncker’s radiation problem, information from different domains is often incredibly useful.
Not only does knowing a bunch of stuff help you in unforeseen situations, I contend it also makes you more interesting. The least interesting person in the world to me is the single-faceted individual. A great example of this type of person is a Marine who has just graduated from boot camp. All he or she can talk about is boot camp, is senior drill instructor, this one time at boot camp, how great the Marine Corps is, that time his senior drill instructor said…
Trust me – it gets boring to listen to, but it’s forgivable because most graduates are young, very impressionable, and that is the first difficult thing they have accomplished in life. Less forgivable is the Marine Corps retiree that can only talk about the Marine Corps. It is very tedious and uninteresting. It might be interesting initially, but it gets old (if you’re that guy, take heed). Not all retired Marines are this way, though. I have friends with whom I can sit down and talk about our shared military service but also discuss political theory, movies, high-minded concepts, nitty-gritty details about guns and knives and flashlights, weather patterns… These are some of the most interesting people I know.
Not only are they interesting, they have an uncanny ability to talk to nearly anyone. They can establish a connection, build rapport, and make friends easily. They seem interesting to others not because they are experts in one thing, but because their knowledge has range. That is a huge asset.
Learn a foreign language is the one concrete example I can give of fostering mental flexibility. The benefits of learning a second language are immense and well documented. Do you really need to learn Spanish or French or Tagalog? Probably not. I’m betting you’re getting by just fine on the one language you know, making a second language largely inapplicable to your daily life. Still, the mental health and learning benefits of learning a language extend far, far beyond the confines of the language itself. If you want to start fostering some mental flexibility sign up for DuoLingo or LingQ and get started.
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Yes, this means the obvious: get comfortable with physical discomfort. But it also means more than that to me. It means getting comfortable with unfamiliar situations. The ultimate goal of mental preparation is to allow you to thrive in uncertainty. This could mean being able to build a friction fire with no tools on a rainy day…or it could mean making a good first impression on a potential employer at a formal event. Here are a couple of my own ideas for doing this that ask very little of you but create something larger to build on.
Stop adjusting the thermostat. This is a personal pet peeve of mine: air conditioned cooling the house to the point that everyone is wearing a sweatshirt around. For the occasional, lazy Saturday when you want to be indulgent and sit around watching movies – sure. As a habit of everyday life? Come on, man!
Get comfortable being just the tiniest bit uncomfortable. Instead of consuming massive amounts of electricity to lower your home’s temperature by one or two degrees, maybe learn to be OK being just ever-so-slightly uncomfortable. The only time we have used our air conditioning this year is to set it at 76 degrees when we are leaving the dogs at home and do not want to leave all the windows wide open. When we are home we can easily keep the temperature of the house at 80 degrees or under by managing our window dressings to prevent sunlight from coming directly in, and using doors, windows, and fans. Is it a tiny bit uncomfortable at times?
In the wintertime I am a firm believer in the “heat bodies, not air” or “heat people, not places” school of thought (here is an interesting three-part series from resilience.org on the topic). Instead of adjusting the temp up every time you are a tiny bit cool, throw on a sweatshirt. Put on some socks. Put a thin, wool warming layer on under your pants. You don’t have to see your breath or wear gloves in your home. Don’t freeze to death (or be miserably hot), but get comfortable being just a tiny bit outside of the very narrow band of perfect comfort.
Do things that make you feel challenged, uncomfortable, or out of place. We all like to hide in the bubble in which we are perfectly comfortable. Being challenged – especially on something as personal as your social graces – isn’t something most of us seek out. I was probably 20 or 21 the first time I sat down at a table with a linen table cloth and a formal place setting. It was the Marine Corps ball and I had no idea what to do with all the things on the table in front of me. No one had taught me. I was pretty uncomfortable – I was at a new unit with people I didn’t really know and didn’t want to look like the ignorant hillbilly I was. I muddled my way through it, had fun, and later educated myself much more fully on table etiquette.
I am so grateful now for having been in that situation. It forced me to function under a mild layer of stress at not knowing exactly what to do. It taught me what I didn’t know and what information to seek out. I taught me to learn how to function in unfamiliar situations: observe others, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and just make a move when it seems like the right thing to do. It doesn’t have to be a formal dinner (though if you’ve never been to one I highly recommend it – the experience will be worth more than the sum of its parts, even if you don’t realize it until years later). It could be volunteering to speak in public, attending your first competition (in whatever skill), or doing something you are genuinely afraid of, like skydiving.
Learn How to Win and Lose
Following up, let’s talk about real discomfort: the possibility of “losing” in front of others. We all like to trash-talk the “everybody gets a trophy” generation (book recommendation: The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt). But how many of you have put yourself out there where it is possible to lose, where is is possible to be the kid not getting a trophy? Like most adults, most of us probably avoid competition. We don’t like the possibility of finding out we aren’t as good as we thought we were. We really don’t like the idea of losing in full, public display of others. Participating in endeavors with a distinct possibility of winning or losing do at least two things for you.
It will place some positive, external pressure on you to improve your skill. When you expose yourself to the eyes (and potential ridicule) of others, there is some performance pressure. This is really healthy pressure (my paramedic text book would call it eustress) that drives you to practice and prepare. This is the stress process through which we better ourselves and is a good thing on its own.
In the bigger picture, competition will help you learn to deal with things not working out as intended. You will experience failure on multiple levels – your “stage plan” in a pistol match might completely go to shit if you miss a single target, necessitating an early reload, which screws up your next move… On a larger scale there is the pressure of ranking in the overall match – no one wants to be dead last, but someone will be.
If you attend nearly any kind of competition for the very first time it is virtually guaranteed that you won’t win. This is a good thing, though, and you should learn to be comfortable with that. Coping with negative emotions is a really, really important skill. Knowing how to lose – have something not work out, be disappointed, and then move on and adapt – is incredibly important in a preparedness context. Though it sucks in the moment it ultimately makes you mentally stronger.
Subtract From…and Add To
We all have something we could stand to give up. It might make us healthier, wealthier, or smarter. Giving something up also builds discipline and character.
Give up something negative. Late last year I gave up smokeless tobacco. It was (and in many ways still is) very difficult. Quitting tobacco was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. This wasn’t a first try – it was at least the sixth. Quitting tobacco was an exercise in discipline and long-term thinking. While at the time it took just about all of my discipline, it probably left me with a bit more. To say nothing of the obvious benefits. Healthier body, healthier teeth, healthier mind (with one less dependency, the other being coffee), and more money to spend on something productive. An extra pocket in my pants that isn’t filled with a Copenhagen can, and one less thing to stockpile.
I certainly gained the direct health and financial benefits of quitting. Much more importantly I gained discipline and some additional mental fortitude. Find something unhealthy that you could give up: soda, alcohol, candy bars, sugar, caffeine, Facebook…whatever. It doesn’t have to be forever – it could simply be a “sober October” style break. It doesn’t have to be something super unhealthy, either – just the exercise of abstaining from something you enjoy may increase your mental and emotional fortitude. Make a plan. Execute. It will make you mentally stronger.
Add something. Also in 2019 I added ten minutes of daily dry practice to my life. I have gotten a lot of direct benefit from the dry practice. It has brought my skill back to a very high level. It has permitted me a venue in which to practice my firearms skills when I was time/place limited or resource limited. It has allowed me to practice and master things I was never formally trained in. It has seen me improve massively. But that, I have recently realized, is not the most important thing it has done for me.
Committing to something is, again, it’s own reward. It has helped me foster some discipline. Prior to this I’m not sure there is any healthy behavior I did on a daily basis. This gives me one thing that I can always do. This helps me feel more satisfied in the day – it is always a thing I can check off the list as “complete.” It has helped me think in more long-term ways, and probably ultimately helped me quit tobacco.
I highly recommend you find something and commit to it for a period of time. I chose dry practice because I have made an enormous investment in firearms skill and it would be dumb not to maintain that investment. Yours can be learning the guitar or learning a language or starting a blog or reading a really difficult book or…any number of things. Yours doesn’t have to be daily, either. You could decide to bake a loaf of bread each week for a year, or sew an item of clothing every month for a year, or…
Add something to your life. It doesn’t really matter what it is, though you can “double dip” if it is a useful skill. Create a defined periodicity (daily, weekly, monthly). Create a length of time you wish to pursue it and I encourage you to choose a longer period – say six months to a year. Then do it. You may not see the benefits immediately, but you will begin accumulating them immediately.
Seek Out Viewpoints That Challenge Your beliefs
This is probably the most difficult one.
So many of us – nearly all of us – attempt to insulate ourselves from thoughts, ideas, opinions, and beliefs that do not align with our own. We try to avoid people, news sources, and even cities that may disagree with our viewpoints. We get angry and shitty when challenged on our religious, political, ideological beliefs. It seems impossible to have a reasonable dialogue with anyone about religion of politics (or any strongly-held belief) who holds a different position than you. In fact there is a phenomenal book on the topic that I really enjoyed: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics by Jonathon Haidt (yes, the same Jonathon Haidt from earlier).
Rather than avoiding opposing viewpoints, I seek them out. When we hear only views and opinions that buttress our own, we become entrenched. Our views harden and become brittle. This lessens our willingness to expose our views to anything that might challenge them. In turn this makes us hostile to others holding different views and beliefs, causing us to further avoid exposure to them… Ultimately this makes us mentally weak. If our views are never challenged we never have to defend them. We never have to think beyond our own straw-man arguments and the talking points our favorite news anchor gives us. Rather than independent thinking machines we become parrots.
Declutter Your Mental Life
Finally, trim some of the fat from your mental life. You and I have a finite amount of mental energy. Though the brain is nearly limitless in its capacity to learn, there are only so many hours in the day, and only so much energy to be expended. Spend that time and energy wisely. There are a few ways I would recommend trimming the fat:
Consume less “news”. I know people who are immersed constantly in “the news.” They wake up and turn on a cable news show and leave it on all morning. They listen to talk radio in their cars. In the middle of conversations they will look away to read a headline on their Apple Watch. Are they appreciably better informed than I am? No, not really. Having been “that guy” just a few years ago, I can relate my own experience. I had higher anxiety, was generally more angry, and didn’t go to the news with a genuine question – I went to the news to see how I could prove “the other side” wrong. I made the decision to give up watching the news almost completely. I’m massively happier for it, probably healthier, and have far more time and energy to spend on more productive pursuits.
Consume less Facebook. I would also recommend spending less time in your social media feed. I don’t have social media at all, so it sort of blows my mind when I see others using it. More importantly the way in which they use it – simply scrolling an infinite feed, pausing for a couple seconds here and there to consume a headline, then moving on. It is rare that I see anything of any depth consumed. That doesn’t strike me as a particularly healthy way to consume information, even if the information presented is 100% reliable.
If you don’t actually know how much time you spend on social media each day I recommend using something like your phone’s screen time tracking function. You might be surprised. If you are using a large amount of social media, consider turning off notifications. Better yet, remove the apps from your mobile devices, and only use them on your desktop computer during set periods of time. I still don’t think that will make social media consumption a net positive on your life, but like radioactive material, limiting the exposure may help limit the damage. Your social media would be an awesome thing to give up, if even just for a week.
Less TV. Television is a huge time-suck. It cuts into time spent reading, writing, being outside. The blue light and stimulation from TV can interfere with your sleep. Watching TV isn’t as mentally “active” as reading, doing a puzzle, or playing a game. It’s a huge distraction box. I’m guilt of consuming too much Netflix and Amazon Prime. Our best way to manage TV that have worked for us are to set “NET” and “NLT” times. As in, “we turn on the TV No Earlier Than (NET) 7 and turn it off No Later Than (NLT) 9.” I will admit there is creep around that and it is a constant battle that we fight, but one in which we have been overall successful so far. Reducing your time spent in front of the TV will free up time for all of the other stuff mentioned in this article.
Again, I am not the expert. I am not a doctor. This article didn’t contain any cutting edge “life hacks” to learn stuff or improve resilience. Most of this stuff is probably stuff that, deep down, you already know. Also – again – I apply this stuff only imperfectly. I’m not the unattainable model of perfection – I’m just a dude. If I can do some of this stuff, so can you. Pick a place. Get started.
One other thing: I don’t necessarily recommend doing all of this at once. It takes work. It can be tiring and frustrating. Discipline may be a finite resource. Pick one or two. Master them. Integrate them into your life so they are not even a thing you are consciously doing any more. Then pick something else.