Eight Strengths that Will Change Your Life

Soldiers bootsFor a couple of months when I was seventeen, my days were anything but typical. They began at 5:00 a.m., when I would bolt out of bed to run in formation with a number of other people. For the rest of the day, I could expect to be yelled at by drill instructors, and to perform endless repetitions of push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups. I also learned how to hang my uniform properly, spit-shine a boot in seconds flat, and make my bunk up flawlessly.

I spent those months in basic training in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. It wasn’t easy—in fact, it was more challenging than anything else I had experienced before—but that was the point. We needed to toughen up so that we’d learn the discipline, the skills, and the courage to serve in the Canadian military. The experience that I built up as a cadet certainly helped, but it still took a lot of determination to stay tough through the grueling physical and emotional demands of boot camp.

It was a surprise to me at the time, but the emotional challenges were harder than the physical ones. We had to learn to follow orders without question, even when those orders didn’t seem to make sense. We learned to respond to the harsh words of our drill instructors with a simple “yes, sir”. And we had to adjust to an entirely new way of life with very limited contact with our families. I know now that emotional challenges are almost always tougher than physical ones—whether you’re at boot camp or building a family.

Not everyone could handle the challenges of boot camp. Even some of the people who excelled at meeting the physical demands had to go home because they couldn’t handle the emotional toll. As I began serving full time in the military, I started watching people closely, paying attention to the actions of people who failed and those who succeeded. I began to keep track of what worked and what didn’t, and I started making a mental list of traits that seemed to lead to success.

After I married Lana, I noticed that these same traits also seemed to benefit people who were building families and businesses. These characteristics make up what I call “The Eight Strengths”:

• Attitude
• Courage
• Character
• Duty
• Honour
• Relationships
• Passion
• Tenacity

Remember when I wrote about my definition of toughness? I explained that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re physically strong or resilient. It means that you continue to work towards your goals, even when the going gets tough. But to pull that off, you need some very specific skills. That’s where the Eight Strengths come in.

These traits may like obvious ingredients for success, but they’re emphasized less and less these days. And in many cases, they’re disappearing because people never have the chance to develop them. Out of love, more and more parents are trying to shelter their children from challenging circumstances and experiences because they want them to have the easiest life possible. While this is an admirable goal, it doesn’t necessarily give children the opportunity to build these Eight Strengths. And those lost learning opportunities can make life difficult for children later, when it becomes impossible to shelter them.

But if you work to build these strengths, in yourself or your children, you’ll accumulate the tools needed to toughen up—no matter what happens.

Toughen Up: Keep Your Helmet On

Toughen UP Book by Claude Hamilton

Imagine that you’re travelling from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia. You’ve got a travelling companion—someone younger and more vulnerable than you. You’ve been on the road for a couple of days and your bus stops at a restaurant so that everyone can grab a bite to eat. As you’re eating, you and your friend get lost in conversation, and when you look up—your bus is gone. What do you do?

What if you were only thirteen years old? If it happened today, you’d probably use your cell phone to call your parents.

But when it happened to me, it was long before cell phones or the Internet existed.

When I was twelve, I joined the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets , the junior training program for young people who want to develop their naval skills, learn more about their maritime environment, or someday join the Canadian military. One component of the program was cadet camp, which took place in British Columbia. The summer after I joined cadets, my twelve-year-old friend and I were sent to camp for the first time. We boarded the bus and spent the next couple of days in the back seat. I don’t remember how well behaved we were, but we must have been loud, because the man who was seated in front of us certainly didn’t hesitate to complain about us to the bus driver.

The bus stopped regularly for bathroom breaks and food, but I’ll never forget the day we stopped at the restaurant with the coin-operated video games. My friend and I made a beeline for them and quickly lost track of time. We didn’t even notice when the rest of the passengers filed out of the restaurant to board the bus. By the time we looked up from our games, everyone was gone. It was just me, my young friend, and a restaurant full of strangers.

A wave of panic swept over me as I fought back tears. My friend also realized we were alone—and he immediately burst into tears. I was terrified, too, but I knew I had to hold it together for my younger friend. I had to toughen up. I still remember making a conscious decision to reign in my emotions and do what had to be done. When I speak in my seminars now, I call this behaviour “keeping your helmet on”.

I acted quickly, running into the middle of the restaurant and shouting, “Our bus left!” I sounded panicked, but I felt calm. People stopped their conversation to look at us, and one man jumped up offered to take us to catch the bus. It was a risk, getting in a car with a stranger, but at 13, it seemed like our only option. We hopped in the car and our Good Samaritan did as he promised—caught up to the bus and flagged it down.

By keeping a cool head, I was able to get my friend and I out of a scary, difficult situation. I had to judge whether or not to take a risk and I needed to make a quick decision. I kept my helmet on and it all worked out.

This was one of the earliest times in my life when I had to toughen up, but it certainly wasn’t the last. As I grew up, and eventually joined the military, “keeping my helmet on” became a mantra for me; it’s a phrase that’s gotten me through a lot of challenging situations. And in business, it’s no different. If we want to achieve our professional goals, we need to stay focused and keep our emotions in check, every time.

This is an excerpt from my new book, Toughen Up: Basic Training for Leadership Success.