The Undefeated Mind

Alex Lickerman’s The Undefeated Mind was a book I found through this article on time anxiety. It’s a very readable overview to 10 concepts of resilience, from the viewpoint of a long-time Nichiren Buddhist (and professor of medicine). For some reason I found the first half of the book a lot more engaging than the second, which is reflected in the abbreviated notes below.


Core to resilience is the idea that the way events impact us depends on how we view them. The event itself carries little impact. Generally speaking there are two components to how we respond to an event: the emotional, which we cannot control, and the intellectual, which we can control.

By exercising our intellectual control over how we respond to an event we can create strength through moments of adversity. Lickerman relates the value of this concept through a story about failing an exam in medical school. As he writes, “I wanted to transform the experience of failing into a genuine benefit, into something I could one day say with conviction I was glad had happened to me.”

The Meaning of Victory

At a broad level we’re incapable of wanting not to be happy. So why is this so difficult to achieve? Lickerman suggests two reasons:

  1. Desiring happiness doesn’t teach us how to achieve it.
  2. Happiness requires both the presence of joy and the absence of suffering.

When we ground our happiness in attachments that second aspect can become even harder to achieve. By relying upon attachments we make ourselves more vulnerable to suffering since we have more to lose.

We don’t suffer, according to Nichiren Buddhism, because we face obstacles; we suffer because we face obstacles we don’t believe we can overcome.

One thing that can help us overcome these “impossible” obstacles is to allow that simply because a problem is not solvable in the way we want does not mean it is not solvable at all.

Resilience, in other words, doesn’t consist only of returning to our original level of functioning after a loss; it also consists of not experiencing its decline in the first place.

He defines an undefeated mind as one that continues on in spite of feeling discouraged or despairing.

Find Your Mission

While set-point theory suggests that our well-being is determined primarily by heredity and personality traits that are ingrained early in life (and are thus relatively constant throughout our lives), this isn’t the only outlook on happiness. Recent research indicates that we have some measure of control. Notably, we can make ourselves happier by helping others.

Helping others has not only a positive impact on our (and their!) happiness, it can have a ripple effect of up to three degrees of separation. The friends of the friends of our friends can be influenced by our actions.

Lickerman makes a distinction between a mission (e.g. inspire people to greatness)and a strategy (e.g. be a school teacher). The former is longer lasting as any given strategy may feel while the mission itself remains unchanged.

Make a Vow

resolve doesn’t merely come from the decision to act; resolve is the decision to act. Or rather, the recurrent decision to act.

Losing our self confidence is the fastest path toward losing our resolve. The strategy Lickerman suggests is to, “accept the disappearance of our self-confidence as a reflexive response over which we have little control and to focus instead on regaining it as quickly as possible.” The best way to do this is to bias ourselves to action. Simply taking action can actually help generate the type of feeling we desire.

People who succeed, in other words, don’t succeed because they’re necessarily smarter or more creative than people who don’t…They succeed because they have an increased tolerance for failure, paradoxically suffering even more failures than people who don’t succeed.

Successful examples we compare ourselves against can help, but only if they’re people with whom we identify and who followed a path we think we can also take. We also need to be convinced that they’re people who succeeded not because of a special ability but because of their own efforts.

That we don’t know how to solve a problem doesn’t mean it’s not solvable; it means we can’t solve it if we remain as we are.

Expect Obstacles

It’s important to view obstacles as a benefit and something that enable us to build strength. While performance in good times is roughly equal between optimists and pessimists it diverges during times of suffering. However, Lickerman distinguishes between two types of pessimists:

  • Depressive pessimists: believe they lack the necessary ability to succeed and therefore that their efforts are irrelevant.
  • Defensive pessimists: worry about negative outcomes but use their anxiety to motivate themselves into action.

It helps, for our own resilience, to attribute our success to our ability and our failure to a lack of effort. This way failures are not character judgements nor reflections of our identity but are tied to something we can control, our effort.

When we expect a task to be easy but then find ourselves unable to complete it, for example, we tend not to try as hard on subsequent tasks and therefore perform more poorly on them.

Stand Alone

If we don’t accept responsibility for solving our problems then no one else will. There’s a growing body of research that shows this acceptance of responsibility contributes to our resilience.

Accept Pain

when we focus on the benefit of pain (when one exists), we’re actually able to reduce its unpleasantness.

Meditation has been shown to significantly reduce the unpleasantness of pain (for acute pain by almost 60 percent). This applies for physical pain. When our pain is emotional attempts to suppress it are actually counterproductive and the best course of action is to accept it.

Let Go

We face a paradox when it comes to attachments: they’re what make life interesting and fun but are also the cause of our worst pain when we lose them.

It’s better to try and find a benefit amidst loss than it is to focus on making sense of that loss. There are four additional things Lickerman outlines that can help in this benefit-seeking.

  1. Understand that loss was inevitable.
  2. Prepare for distressing discussions about the loss.
  3. Rebuild our self image after the loss.
  4. Recognize that happiness is still achievable and its true source never left us.

We forget, in other words, the crucial difference between building our happiness out of our attachments and building our happiness out of a strong life force that enables us to enjoy our attachments.