Leadership Series: Mental Toughness

Guest Author: Josh Pate


I’ve always been a guy that believes actions speak louder than words. A lot of people say or think they’re mentally tough, but the reality is they quake at the first sign of adversity—unable to handle the tough times, though they say they can handle most anything.

In sales, especially, I speak to candidates every day that say things like “I’m looking to grow my career, advance into leadership positions and make money.” However, when the rubber meets the road of having to actually prospect, cold call, handle rejection and close sales, they give up. It’s almost like someone is just supposed to hand them $70-100k+ just because they showed up. No offense, but not everyone deserves to automatically grow their career and make good money. Those that are mentally tough enough to go through the ups and downs of life, sales or whatever career they’re in deserve that.

I believe one of the main reasons I’ve been successful throughout my life and in my career is extreme mental toughness that allowed me to handle the ups and downs. I also believe just as much that the reason most people struggle in life or in their careers is because they lack mental toughness.

So, what is the reason someone has more mental toughness than someone else? Were you born with it? Is it engrained through experiences throughout your childhood? What is the reason most people today give up at the first sign of adversity? Why are people always looking for the grass that is supposedly greener on the other side or the easiest way out of a tough situation?


Here’s a quick story that reminded me of these questions a couple weeks ago.

I was attending my kids’ swim meet in our neighborhood. The meets are fun for the kids and the parents. Watching your kids compete against other swimmers their age and trying to win heats and swim the best they can is great. The kids sizing up their competition before races. The kids getting out of the water and immediately asking if they won and what their times were. All of this is and was good until the other day.


At the first meet of the year, my daughter was competing in the Girls 8 and Under backstroke. She finished first in her heat. The first question she asked me when she got out of the water was, “Why did I get the same blue ribbon that the other swimmers got instead of the first-place ribbon I got last year?” I was lost for words and quite frustrated at the time, as I didn’t understand, either. Then, I was informed that they’re not giving out first-place ribbons anymore. Instead, everyone gets a participation ribbon.


Now, what is that supposed to teach our kids—or anyone, for that matter? Are we teaching our kids that everyone wins, no matter what? Are we teaching them that everyone is equally good at all things? Are we teaching them that it’s okay to do inferior work and still get paid the same as someone who does outstanding work?

If someone is in a coding class and a peer is better at coding than them, should they get the same accolades as the better coder? If someone grows up in a poor area without a lot of money and support, will they have to work harder or the same as someone that is more fortunate to have the same opportunities in life?


The answers are simple in my opinion.

How is this teaching our kids or anyone to overcome adversity and develop mental toughness? If my daughter wants to get a first-place ribbon, she should have to work for it. In order to understand what it takes and how to work for it, she should experience loss. Otherwise, if she continues to get a ribbon every time she races, no matter what, how is she going to learn to be mentally tough enough to lose and mentally tough enough to work harder to win the next time—if that’s what she wants to do?

Furthermore, at another swim meet last week, my daughter happened to finish second. The first thing out of her mouth after getting out of the pool was, “Where’s my blue ribbon?”

Head, meet palm.

Well, they ran out of ribbons that day and had none left to give. What happens now to kids that are used to getting ribbons every time they win or lose?

You see, this is a microcosm of what’s going on in the world today. In my opinion, this is a reason children are not developing the mental toughness required to handle winning and losing. What are the differences? That you need to work harder if you want to get that “ribbon.” This bleeds into everything kids do and teaches them that they’ll win something regardless of how hard they try or whether they win or lose. When these kids enter the workforce, are they going to automatically get the job they want and be successful at it compared to a peer?


The reality—and the reality in my life.

I was fortunate to have a loving and supportive family growing up. However, there are pieces of my life that taught me how to have mental toughness and deal with adversity and that I wasn’t going to win all the time.


First, when I was growing up, sports participation awards weren’t a big thing for me. You either won or you lost. If I wanted to win, I had to work harder. I had to try harder and learn from my mistakes in order to do better the next time. This instilled in me early on that I had to be mentally tough enough to handle the hard reality that I’m not going to be good at everything or get everything I wanted. I wasn’t going to win everything. No, I didn’t get the chance to play every position on the field. You played where you played, and that was based on your ability. Looking back, I’m glad it was that way.

Second, I watched my parents live paycheck to paycheck my entire life. We had what we needed to get by, and I’m thankful for that. However, I learned a lot about the fact that families aren’t the same financially early on. They don’t have the same opportunities. You’re not given money or a “ribbon” just because you’re a good person. Watching your parents battle to keep the lights on, keep their car and pay rent so we had a place to live taught me a ton about handling adversity and having mental toughness.

You see, I had friends with families that I knew didn’t have these same struggles. A lot of them didn’t understand what it was like to watch your mom or dad struggle to keep their car from being repossessed. They didn’t understand what it was like to share a room with your sibling in a three-bedroom apartment because you couldn’t afford a place with another bedroom. Most couldn’t fathom having to help pay bills to help their parents do what they needed to do.


You starting to see where the mental toughness comes from?

It doesn’t come from being handed everything on a silver platter. It comes from being put in situations that force you to handle them in order to come out the other end on top. No winners for everything. No money that grows on trees. No easy life that doesn’t require you to overcome adversity.

I started working when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was barely even legal to be working at a local grocery store. Then I started washing cars and busing tables to have money to spend in high school and also help my parents with bills when needed. This taught me a lot about the value of hard work and being mentally tough. Some kids were in a similar situation, but the reality is that most weren’t. They were handed everything they needed or wanted. Some kids had parents who gave them cars. I had to buy my own when I was 17. I’m glad I had to do that, as it taught me about real life versus the fake reality when everything is given to you.


Third, I knew I had to go to college in order to not be in the same position I saw my parents in growing up. Going to college isn’t easy when you have to pay for it yourself. It’s not easy knowing that, in order to have money to live, you have to work and take classes. But I had to do it. At some points, I was holding down two or three jobs to pay for a place to live, food and spending money. There were no handouts to be delivered. I either made it happen, or I didn’t. Most kids put in that situation would give up or make excuses as to why they couldn’t do it. I guarantee that a lot of kids growing up today in the world where everyone’s a winner would struggle with this type of adversity.

Lastly, as soon as graduation was over, I started my career. I wanted to make money. I wanted to be successful. I wanted to not have to go through the same struggles as my parents. I wanted to eventually start a family and be able to provide for them.

I wasn’t a doctor, engineer, lawyer or dentist. I graduated with a finance degree in 2007. The market was terrible at the time. There was no way I was going to make real money unless I got into sales. So, I started my career at a company called Aerotek as a recruiter with the goal of getting into sales. I did very well as a recruiter, and it was a great first job. Until the day I found out I was having my first child at 25 years old.

That’s when I decided that I didn’t want to make $50-60k recruiting anymore, and I needed to get myself a job where, if I worked harder than the next person, I could potentially make more money faster. I needed to make more money at the time because I was still bouncing from place to place. There was no way I could do that anymore with a kid on the way.


I had to buckle down quickly to be able to buy a house and afford a family.

So, that’s what I did. I interviewed at a company called Yodle, and that’s where I cut my teeth selling online marketing to small business owners. I came in and busted my tail out of the gates. I saw success early when I crushed my first month’s quota. Then, something happened the second month. I freaked myself out. I let my mind get to me and affect what I was doing on a daily basis. I sold literally nothing that month. I almost quit because I thought I might not be able to do it.

I went home one day, looked at my newborn daughter and said to myself that there was no way other people could do this and I couldn’t. I knew I had the mental toughness to handle one bad month of sales in a new career. I wasn’t going to give up, as I knew that if I flipped the switch, good things would happen for me in the future. If I wanted to be successful and make money badly enough to provide for my family, I had the platform to do it—I just needed to make it happen.


That point in my career changed my life.

If I hadn’t had the mental toughness to handle that rough patch early on at Yodle, I wouldn’t be sitting in the seat I am today, scaling a more-than-160-person sales force at an unbelievable company that has a bright future.

When you work hard, take coaching, have a good attitude and develop mental toughness, good things will happen to you. I was eventually recruited from Yodle by my boss at the time and the VP of sales to help them start a salesforce at a startup company called xAd. It was a homerun opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. Unfortunately, when you take risk in the startup world, sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t. This one didn’t, but it did lead me to Townsquare Interactive, where I’ve been for 6 years. I’ve grown my career from sales, sales manager and sales director to head of sales.


The moral of this story is that, to grow your career, you’re going to need mental toughness. Everything isn’t going to go your way all the time. Everyone doesn’t deserve a “ribbon” just for showing up. Yes, there should be winners and losers. It’s okay to lose in your personal and professional lives sometimes. The question is: do you have the mental toughness to pull yourself off the mat and continue fighting?




About the Author | Josh Pate

Josh grew up in Gastonia, NC and attended East Carolina University, where he earned a BSBA in finance. In 2009, he started selling in the online advertising industry. In 2012, he had the opportunity to join Townsquare Interactive to continue to grow his career in sales. Since then, he’s been promoted from sales, to sales manager, to director and to head of sales. Josh loves spending time with his wife and three kids, hanging out and playing sports.

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