8 Traits of Tough-Minded People. How Many Do You Have?

A tough-minded person can face difficult facts and long odds with resolute optimism.

Check these eight traits of tough-minded optimists to see how many of them you have.

Tough-Minded Optimist

These tough-minded optimists may be of average intelligence and looks, but they know how to keep themselves motivated, and they approach their problems with a can-do philosophy. They are experts at building a strong, positive esprit de corps in their family or on their team, and they emerge from tragedies somehow stronger and more attractive.

Alan Loy McGinnis, The Power of Optimism

Be tough minded but tenderhearted.

H. Jackson Brown Jr., Life’s Little Instruction Book

Sonia was an A student in high school. Once she arrived at Princeton, however, her academic career underwent a major shake-up.

Her first paper came back with a grade of C on it.

Sonia went to her professor’s office to demand an explanation. The professor said her paper lacked analytical structure. Also, she wasn’t writing in complete sentences.

Stunned, Sonia took that summer to give herself a crash course in writing. She devoured grammar, vocabulary, and writing books at her city’s best bookstore, Barnes & Noble.

The next semester, her new professor noted that the analytical structure of her first paper was solid, but her adjectives were off. She was using them in the Spanish style (Sonia’s first language), and not the way an English writer would. Also, her verb tenses were wrong.

The next three years, Sonia took courses with the same professor, improving her command of English writing and analysis all the while. She eventually graduated summa cum laude and went on to Yale Law School.

After a distinguished career as a federal judge, she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve.

Her full name and title, of course, is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Sotomayor exemplifies tough-minded optimism.

Here she’s talking to NPR about those early struggles with writing:

You know, failure hurts. Any kind of failure stings. If you live in the sting, you will – undoubtedly – fail. My way of getting past the sting is to say no, I’m just not going to let this get me down.

What is a Tough-Minded Optimist?

A tough-minded optimist is unsentimental and realistic. What separates a negative person and a tough-minded optimist is the overriding belief that the tough-minded optimist will prevail, despite long odds and difficult circumstances.

The world is changing at a rapid pace. Turbulence, uncertainty, and volatility are the new status quo. Whole industries can disappear overnight.

In this climate, it can be tempting to despair. The new reality of constant change is tough.

  • What do you do if you’ve been laid off for the second time in three years?
  • How do you make the right career choices if you’ve been saddled with six-figure debt since graduation?
  • Who looks out for you when politicians, executives, and bankers all seem incentivized to make themselves rich at the expense of everyone else?

The tough-minded optimist didn’t burst from the womb with a sunny disposition. They don’t lead especially charmed lives. Many, like Justice Sonia Sotomayor, have faced setbacks that many of us aren’t familiar with.

What the tough-minded person has is a set of traits that make them more resilient in the face of uncertainty.

A Tough-Minded Person …

1. Figures It Out as They Go

Tough-minded people acknowledge the fact that circumstances change over time. They embrace it.

Emergent strategy rejects the arrogance of thinking you can plan every detail in advance. Emergent strategy recognizes that the world is changing too fast for top-down, rigid planning to succeed. When the strategy is allowed to emerge over the course of a project, you’re more likely to have success.

Tough-minded folks are resilient. They aren’t surprised when reality crushes the plan. Instead, they’re prepared to solve problems as they go.

2. Isn’t Waiting for the “Perfect” Solution

Iterate. Adapt-and-inspect. Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

These are all agile ideas that try to get at one central truth: the 100% perfect solution isn’t real and it’s not coming. It’s an excuse for wallowing in inaction and decision paralysis.

Taking one action, any action, is the way to beat perfectionism. Perfectionism is a form of procrastination (and not the good kind). Tough-minded people are willing to put themselves out there with a solution they know isn’t perfect, but has massive value and potential.

3. Knows How to Say “No”

Tough-minded people are willing to have an awkward conversation. Boss overloading your plate because someone else on the team is slacking? No. Family member wants you to join a church group for a cause you don’t even care about? No.

One little word, so much power.

Managing your time is as much about maximizing the work that you don’t do. If a tough-minded person knows that she isn’t right for the job, she’s willing to take a stand for her time and energy.

4. Is Willing to Push Out of Their Comfort Zone

Modern life makes it easy to sit still in your comfort zone, never venturing beyond the routine. The same faces, the same office, the same bar, the same TV shows. Contemporary conveniences have made it possible to stagnate while appearing to move forward in life.

Because it’s so easy, few people explore their Adjacent Possible, the realm just beyond their experience and skill level.

Here’s critically acclaimed comics writer and author Warren Ellis on where he gets his ideas:

I flood my poor ageing head with information. Any information. Lots of it. And I let it all slosh around in the back of my brain, in the part normal people use for remembering bills, thinking about sex and making appointments to wash the dishes.

Eventually, you get a critical mass of information. Datum 1 plugs into Datum 2 which connects to Datum 3 and Data 4 and 5 stick to it and you’ve got a chain reaction. A bunch of stuff knits together and lights up and you’ve got what’s called “an idea”.

Much of what we call creativity and innovation is merely the combination of ideas that were already in a person’s head.

5. Knows When to Slow Down

The tough-minded person understands the benefits of slowing down. She knows that success in any endeavor worth doing (the masterpiece worthy of a Lifetime Achievement award) is a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s a marathon even when the end goal is a race, like an Olympic downhill skier training for Sochi. Seth Godin put it best: “You don’t win an Olympic gold medal with a few weeks of intensive training.”

Gradual progress is working every day on your side project for an hour, even if you have a day job. It’s not killing yourself for one week and then never looking at the project again. The paradox of taking massive action is that most of the time it means slowing down.

6. Knows When to Rough It

Tough-minded folks working towards a goal can envision a better future. They know that they’re working towards something important.

That’s why they don’t need to live in the lap of luxury. They’re comfortable living on a budget, not because they think it’s temporary, but because they know they were put on this earth to do more than consume.

And besides, “roughing it” means different things to different people. Most financially independent people wouldn’t trade their freedom for marble toilets and a bigger lawn.

7. Fights for Their Autonomy

The tough-minded person knows companies aren’t out there looking for her interests. If she wants to have autonomy, mastery, and purpose in her work life, she’ll need to fight for it.

(Yes, she will have to fight, despite the fact that it will benefit her organization immensely if she has these three things.)

While companies like Atlassian and 3M are ahead of the curve on employee autonomy, we’ve seen a recent slate of struggling companies backsliding on remote work arrangements, including Best Buy, Yahoo, and HP. Command-and-control organizations are on the wrong side of history. But until things change in the main, the tough-minded person is willing to fight for their independence and autonomy.

8. Knows When to Quit

Sometimes a situation is unsalvageable. Tough-minded people know this. That’s why they’re willing to quit a cushy job, even though other folks won’t understand and might label that person a failure.

The stigma that attaches to quitting is real. It takes thick skin to shake the label of quitter. That’s why we often persist with bad bosses and bad relationships to the detriment of our health and well-being.

But the tough-minded person has a higher purpose in mind. She can quit when she knows something isn’t going to work out, because time is the most precious resource in her life. Throwing good time after bad isn’t a winning strategy.


When in your life have you had to be tough-minded? What tactics did you use and what was the outcome?

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