How to Toughen Up – 4 Steps

By January 31, 2012Millennial

How do you toughen up yourself? Simple answer: Get out there and do something!

Toughen UpIf you have read anything about me, you know that I grew up on a family farm. A farmer’s life teaches you many things, and one of them is that no one is going to do the work for you. This goes for easy and tough work alike.

This will sound like “when I was your age,” yet that is not the intent. Having said that, when I was a teen on the farm, we did not have the nice air conditioned cabs that most farmers sit in today. On those hot August days, I was on the tractor, under the sun, surrounded by dust, with the AM radio blaring over the tractor noise. At the end of the day (between 9:00 pm and 10:00 pm), while taking a shower, I watched the dirty water drain off of me. All clean, my skin took on a deeper color from the day before. All in all, I was just a little tougher skinned.

Today, I may be at a higher risk for skin cancer, and my kids tell me I need a hearing aid. Other than that, I learned that hard work has to be done if you want to get things done, and the best way to toughen up yourself is to jump in and get busy.

President Theodore Roosevelt really said it best:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” (April 23, 1910, Citizenship In A Republic speech)

This has always been one of my favorite quotes and core to my life philosophy.

All this relates to toughening up. Getting thicker skin means that you have to just get out there, take a deep breath, absorb what comes your way, reflect a little, and then repeat.

Toughening Up in Four Steps:

Step 1: Take a deep breath. When the criticism – constructive, petty, or otherwise – comes our way, we need to take a deep breath to center ourselves. Our initial reaction may be the correct one, but we need to get our second wind before deciding. Just breathe! Take a long, deep breath and release the comment as you exhale. Don’t look back. Be confident in who you are and what you stand for.

Step 2: Absorb it. Whatever comes our way, we cannot run from it. We need to take it in and then let it roll or roll with it. The elements worth anything we should keep. All others we just need to put behind us. By doing this, we will not let the words or actions hang around, festering inside. There are two choices:  Know it was said or done in spite and not worth another moment of time or do something with what was received.

Step 3: Reflect. Does it really matter? This is where we need to be really honest with ourselves. What was the intent of the remark or action? What caused it? Reflect to understand the meaningful comments and actions. If the intent is well-meant, then we need to explore and determine how to get better in what we say and do. In the end, it is about strengthening and improving ourselves – one way or another.

Step 4: Repeat. Life’s hurdles are never-ending. This is a continuous process, which makes us stronger, more confident. It is not being cocky, but it is changing constructively and keeping centered in doing the meaningful work we were called to do.

It is just like those days on the farm. There are certain elements that toughen our skin while the rest we need to let run down the drain, just like the dirt and grime at the end of a day. We need to dive in to do the work, no matter how challenging it may be. It is the best way to continue to grow and strengthen our resolve and, ultimately, our soul.

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • Frances says:

    Jon, nice to find your writing,thank you. I am in the strange predicament of being recently diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease…well, I didnt realise how much my dopamine interuption was affecting my life till I got on Sinemet. The last month has been peaceful and quietly powerful as I regain my true sense of self. I tell you this,as I have long felt “overly sensitive” and needed a thicker skin. I still need prompts but feel stronger everyday.also ,loving that quote ,its wonderful,Frances

  • Jim says:

    Good article. Just today I had a run-in with an aggro driver who actually got out of his vehicle to tell me how I’m this and that, and a bad driver and so on, when he was the reason we almost collided, and I’m the reason we didn’t. Instead of just shutting my door and driving away or telling him to go on, I tried to debate him and he simply yelled over me. Times like these I feel like too much of a pacifist; it’s not that I don’t want to defend myself, but it seems like when I get down to it I always falter. Is this wrong? I’m still have much time to fully mature, but I often feel as though I don’t have some “it” factor that all my friends seem to have.

  • shawmu says:

    I had a tough week. What helped even out the rough patches is your second step: absorb it. After taking a deep breath, I listened to the feedback I received and decided not to react, but just hear what my team needed to share with me. The result? We worked through some tough topics with the team’s trust intact. Afterwards, one of the team members shared with me that the way I handled it communicated to the team that it’s okay not to be perfect. That it’s safe to have tough discussions as a team.

    I don’t share this to toot my own horn, but as a lesson we can all learn from. In the end, when we allow ourselves to put down our fists and open our ears progress becomes much more possible.

    You share with us important insights, Jon. I only hope that people hear them without too much of a filter and that nagging voice saying, “yeah, but…”

    • Jon M says:


      You always seem to lead by example, and this is just another proof point. Often it is our human nature to put out “fists” up and began to defend, rather than listen, absorb, and determine the rational and integrity-filled next step. 

      I appreciate your insights and all that you do. I hope that we have an opportunity to meet at some point. It is good to see people like you guiding the next generation of leaders (I’ll toot your horn for you, gratefully!).

      Thanks, Shawn!


  • bend_time says:

    farm kid here too. hard, never-ending work in every kind of weather…don’t ever want to do that again,.but i am strong because of it, just sent my niece the same roosevelt quote this morning. happiness and security are not the same thing. we have to get up and risk. just keep getting back up. cows have to be milked twice a day, every day, twice a day. life is like that too. so do it: live.

    • JonMertz says:

      Always good to meet a farm kid! It is a great way to be brought up, and I wish my sons would have had the same opportunity, at least to have spent the summers working on a farm. It is about getting up and doing the work. A simple yet powerful to live life! Thanks for your comment and insights!

  • Erik Keen says:

    When I was much younger I remember visiting the Museum of Natural History in NYC.  I can’t remember what displays I saw that day, but I’ll always remember an exerpt from that Roosevelt speech engraved inside the front entrance of the museum… “who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  It was profound to me then and still is today.  When I read the everyday news I am constantly reminded of the craven and terrible capacity of mankind, but these words in practice give us and our Maker pause, and reason to believe in the nobility of human spirit and achievement… Erik (New Plymouth, NZ)

    • JonMertz says:

      Thank, Erik, for your comment and reflection. The human spirit is incredible, and I also grab hold of those words spoken by Theodore Roosevelt. I spent part of my work career in Washington, DC, and I would frequently visit Theodore Roosevelt Island and read those words and others. It was always a source of inspiration. Thanks again for your comment and time. Jon

  • Sageguru Amos says:

    the four steps are dandy and applicable if one is unschooled, where life experience teaches one to be fair, honest, hardworking (and other good adjectives) all in service to the community; while a college degree teaches one to be a cheat, an embezzler (and other bad adjectives) in service to oneself and the corporation

    • JonMertz says:

      Although life can put up various barriers, most colleges try to expand one’s perspective and enable students to be good citizens in whatever they choose to do. I don’t agree with your perspective on colleges, but appreciate your willingness to participate in the conversation. Thanks.

  • Dan says:

    At first I thought this was going to be a right wing anti-liberal rant and was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t. Even though my farming experience was rather limited, I’ve come to many of the same conclusions you have.
    I think it would be wise for us as a society to let younger generations know it isn’t always catastrophic if you make a mistake. In fact it’s best to go into a situation knowing you will not be perfect the first time out. Fall on your face, then get back up, you may stumble but you’ll keep moving forward.

    • JonMertz says:

      Dan, Thanks for your comment. I was surprised by your lead in! However, mistakes should not be viewed as an end but as a beginning to learn from them. Moving forward, coupled with learning, keeps us all growing. Thanks again for your comment and insights! Jon

  • Dirk says:

    I need to post these on my office wall!

  • Steve Rice says:

    Love how you provide philosophical context and then practical hands-on suggestions for dealing with specific obstacles that we all face at one point or another.

  • Randy Conley says:

    Excellent thoughts, Jon. My grandpa would always say “Have a thick skin and a soft heart” when it comes to dealing with people. He didn’t grow up on a farm, but he was part of that “greatest generation” that seemed to hold those kind of values in high regard.


    • Anonymous says:

      A great philosophy to life! I hope that we adopt some of the ways of the Greatest Generation… we need their inspiration to continue. Thanks, Randy!

  • I tend to avoid the words “toughen up” as they initally lead me to think of hardness and force, however as you’ve described these steps I view them as active, centered, thoughtful and flexible.

    Living a great life requires challenge, learning, adaptation and growth and the best life has to offer most often comes when I’ve overcome adversity. I don’t have to do anything in life perfectly, all I truly have to do is show up, do, learn what works and what doesn’t, adjust my path and move on.

    My favorite of the steps you listed is “take a deep breath”. I love that you mentioned our initial repsonse is often the correct response, and that it’s still important to stop and check in with ourselves before reacting. I come from a place of strength and confidence when I allow myself time to check in with me.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post!


    • Anonymous says:

      Good points, Chrysta. “Toughening up” does not mean to harden up your soul but to gain strengthen in navigating life’s challenges. It is easy to either avoid taking the step out or continuing to take the necessary steps forward. We need to brush off the things that don’t matter while taking in the things that do. Thanks so much for your addition to the conversation! Jon

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