It is easy to define physical strength. It is the ability to move the body to produce force. When that force is in a certain direction you can measure it. Statements like “I squat 200lbs” or “I deadlift 300lbs” measure the physical strength of a person.
But how about mental strength? Not so easy to define. My definition is to be able to make the right decision in a complex scenario. To untie a clusterfuck. The more complex the task and the knot, the higher the mental strength.
Whether it’s finding Waldo, designing a complex system, solving math olympiad problems, playing challenging video games, playing chess, flirting, handling relationships, showing leadership, writing an essay like this one, or dealing with a loss, we are trying to find order in complexity. We need to connect multiple different pieces of knowledge and uncertainty in order to come with the best possible solution or behavior.
I define mental strength to be about the complexity of the situation. Computational complexity fits nicely to define mental strength. If we need to find Waldo in a painting with 100 characters, it takes 100 units of mental strength as we need to consider each character. If we are playing chess, and we end up in a situation where we only have two possible moves, such as when the opponent attacks our king, the mental strength is not just two units. Because in order to evaluate each option we need to imagine what could happen several steps ahead. If we consider 20 possible scenarios to follow each possible move, then we have 40 total units of mental work.
When I was growing up by reading lots of books and competing in math olympiads, I prided myself on being clever, on having that ability to go into complex math problem and find the solution. My math biceps was strong, and on a good day I’d “lift” multiple math problems.
But I wasn’t every day at the same mental conditioning level. Some days my mind was quick and I could see the connection between the different parts of the problem. And I could go and solve multiple problems without getting exhausted. Those were the great days. I felt really motivated and calm, and present in the moment. I wasn’t anticipating the way the results would affect me - I was just enjoying solving the problems, having fun, and dedicating my fullest attention to it.
But there were also days when I could just not see the steps towards the solution, even though I could have. It wasn’t that the solution required an obscure unknown theorem. Instead, it required a slightly ingenious way of combining the elements of the problem statement. In those days my mental biceps would fail to lift 10 pounds, even though I had previously lifted 20 pounds easily.
Such variability continues to this day. But why? Why are some days better than the other and some days worse? How can I know and prevent it, so I am at my best when I need it?
I’ll attempt answering this by drawing more parallels to physical strength. And my answer is that this is due to fatigue and injury. Mental fatigue and mental injury. And I define mental resiliency as the ability to muster mental strength even when fatigued or injured.
Mental fatigue, is when we don’t have the full capacity on our disposal. For me it means thinking so hard and so often about a problem that the brain runs out of energy and needs a break. The brain needs energy to run, just like actual muscles and the energy reserve can get depleted and take a while to replenish. Glucose-heavy food and caffeine might do the trick in the short term, but their effects wont last.
Mental injury, from my point of view, is having emotions which wouldn’t let go. This emotion would distract us and redirect part of our energy and strength towards it. And the emotion could be either positive or negative, and either one can decrease the mental strength. And those could be internal and caused by us, or external and caused by other people and events. We could have a crush on someone and not be able to forget them for the duration of the mental task. We could have anticipation for the results of the task, amplifying our perception of what’s at stake and getting stressed about it.
We could have lost someone. When I was nineteen and one of my best friends died in a motorcycle crash. We had flown to USA on the same flight and we lived door to door in college. After he died I was stressed and had trouble falling asleep for months. I tried to keep up with school and social life, and I did OK, except that I also got into drinking a lot. I did show some mental resiliency, though it came at a dear long term cost. And that is taking me a while to pay off, but at least now I feel confident to say I’m not dependent on alcohol for my happiness. Life went on and time healed me.
Last Friday was the ten year anniversary of my friend’s death and I didn’t even remember. I’m not proud of that. Actually I’m ashamed I didn’t remember. But I find comfort in knowing that the ripples from his death cannot cause a drowning tsunami for me, the way they did initially. And I got practice swimming in the high water and didn’t drown. And I now remember the good times we shared and all I learned from him.
Two days ago another wave hit. My grandpa. And while I’m still ducking under that wave, I already know that it will pass through and I’ll get a gulp of fresh air and look at the sun. And I’ll remember the good times. I’ll remember how my grandpa taught me to play chess, and how he joked and he tried hard to recover for eighteen years after he had a stroke and had his right side paralyzed. I’ll remember how he learned to do everything with half of his body, and how he learned to walk again and go for a walk every day the weather allowed. I’ll remember him for the progress that he made and for his desire to live.
For me, the answer to the complex mental problem of dealing with the loss, is to have grattitude for the good things that did happen, and to move on. I’m grateful for the time I had with my grandpa and with my late friend. I feel their loss, but I am growing my appreciation for having them in my life. I am also feeling gratefulness for my own life, and a desire to live. And I want to develop mental and physical strength and resilience to be living as fully as I can while alive.