Feelings, Grit, Accountability & Mental Toughness in Sales

Ed Marsh | Jun 7, 2024

Tl;dr - Hot take! Society is mentally weak. Sales requires mental toughness. That means your pool of acceptable sales candidates is small and rapidly shrinking. You're going to have to step up your sales hiring game. But if you're like most companies, your recent track record and your current team's performance don't bode well for navigating that change. Let's look at what's happening and what's at stake.

mental-toughness-in-salesLessons in Mental Toughness

It isn't new or startling that generations evolve in cyclical ways, which often leaves one generation bemused by the other, a couple ahead or behind.

That's the history of mankind and the essence of Neil Howe's Fourth Turning insights.

But it feels different now.

I acknowledge that that statement may be the strongest confirmation that it's not different.

Nevertheless, I have to write this because I'm seeing organizational jeopardy (which I fear will lead inexorably to decay and failure) in the changing way companies and their employees face challenges and common business situations.

There is a profound lack of mental toughness. 

Actually, that's not strong enough.

We've careened from mental toughness through a neutral point to a point of weakness and fragility.

In three generations, we've gone from "The Right Stuff" to a society that needs support animals on airplanes in case of bumps.

On the occasion of the D-Day anniversary (I'll publish this a day later), I'm struck by the contrast between political leadership who had served and whose courageous (except it was normal and not extraordinary) offspring served on Omaha Beach and a disconnected group who pursues crass personal interests using others as pawns.

My GenX Story

genx-feelings-mental-toughnessThis post isn't about me, but some "me" context may be helpful.

I'm GenX.

For some of you reading this, that may explain or discredit this post. That's OK. Like I said, I'm GenX.

Nevertheless, I'm going to share a personal story that I think of with increasing frequency.

In June 1987, I found myself in Army Ranger School class 10-87, and I found myself there through an unusual set of circumstances.

I wasn't in the Army. At least not officially.

I was a college kid. 

A product of private elementary school (where my mom was a teacher), of New England Prep School (where my dad was the school physician), and a rising senior at Johns Hopkins University. My Army "experience" was some classes, a couple of weekends of simple training, and three weeks at Airborne School the previous summer.


Ranger School is intentionally tough. The washout rate is high. It's designed to use the cumulative effects of hunger (one meal a day) and fatigue (a couple of hours of quasi sleep/night) over two months to simulate stress in small unit combat leadership. The typical attendees are young leaders with some years of actual Army experience.

However, at several different times, the Army offered West Point and ROTC cadets the opportunity to attend in lieu of standard summer training. The washout rate was substantially higher than for regular Army attendees because college kids are often neither mentally nor physically prepared.

I happened along during one of those times and competed hard. I earned a spot.

I was naive but determined.

I had a moment's pause, however, on our first day of inprocessing (admin time before training began in earnest) when one of our instructors, SSG Smee, stood before our group and outlined his training philosophy.

His message was simple.

"Men," he said "Let's get something straight. Feelings are like stones. They're meant to be crushed and walked on. If you can't handle that, you should probably leave now."

I realized I wasn't in college anymore.

A couple of months later, I graduated on my first attempt (no recycles.) One of about 50 of the original 150 college students in the class. I was 6'1" and 145 lbs. It was an accomplishment of which I remain proud.

Smee's briefing was one of those formative moments that we all have and which we can recall vividly and viscerally years later.

mental-toughnessWhen I share that story today, it naturally engenders incredulity. Although harsh then, it was appropriate to the purpose. It's unimaginable today.

And it is deeply part of who I am. Why I often wear a "Nobody Cares; Work Harder" sweatshirt.

It was unquestionably a gift. However, it hasn't always served me well.

In 2009, when my two businesses collapsed simultaneously, I reverted to type with impatience and intolerance for self-pity, and active and vigorous self-criticism. In retrospect, it's clear that I would have benefited from some other tools to help me process what had happened and develop a proactive plan for recovery. Instead, I just dug in.

In short, SSG Smee's words impacted me in many ways which have helped me in my entrepreneurial journey but have also worked against me at times.

So, with that bit of context to help explain my mindset, let's dig in.

The Importance of Mental Toughness in Sales, Marketing & Management

I work with many industrial manufacturers on revenue growth.

Often that entails work on various aspects of strategy, digital marketing, sales, customer success, and technology. (More on my integrated ORE™ Framework here.)

In this work, I see many companies underperforming, often for the same reasons.

  • lack of accountability and responsibility
  • lack of mental toughness to do what has to be done (from creating content to making cold calls to qualifying deals out of the pipeline)
  • lack of commitment to do what it takes 

I see these manifest in leadership, management, and individual contributors across departments, from executive management to marketing, sales, IT, and customer service.

In some cases, this slows progress, but companies gradually overcome these limitations. In many cases, these issues simply prevent progress. Activity occurs. Ongoing, durable results don't.

Underlying failures is an absence of mental toughness. 

That's my diagnosis. Many will disagree. And that's the essence of this article.

But why is there little mental toughness?

Certainly, most of us lead blessed lives with virtually material want and little discomfort. In 1987, air conditioning, cable TV, and work-life balance were unusual.

But there's more.

I believe that we've normalized and embraced anxiety. 

That's the sense recently confirmed by Abigail Schreier's discussion with Shane Parish on The Knowledge Project podcast.


This is a societal issue. It's complex.

There's clearly value in helping people recognize and process their feelings and experiences. People who have experienced trauma - whether PTSD, sexual assault or even severe workplace bullying need to process those experiences to move past them. We all experience worry, grief, and other difficult human emotions.

However, we've created generations whose first reaction to perceived slights is incapacitation and who default to fear and anxiety when faced with anything novel or uncomfortable.

And that has significant implications for business; implications that have to be addressed by companies, now, even as society moves slowly to understand and process meta-level issues.

An Inability to Conduct Business

surge in phone-call anxiety...'It really feels scary to a lot of my clients' WSJ June 5, 2024 1


Lots of stuff is "scary" or uncomfortable.

In fact, everything is the first time we do it, a bit less the second time, etc.

This includes skydiving but also public speaking, cold calling, networking, and receiving constructive feedback.

It even includes receiving phone calls, as the WSJ recently told us.

And it includes reasonable interviewing as we learned through a recent Intelligent.com Survey.

This is a crisis.

It's a crisis of anti-resilience.

It means that the pool of employees from whom we draw has anxieties that prevent them from performing basic business functions. 

It means that leaders won't make decisions - either because they experience the same angst themselves, or because they're resigned to tolerating behavior from employees who will resist actively and passively, complain, snipe, and withdraw. 

And there's one area in which it's crippling.

B2B Sales.

Success in B2B Sales Necessitates Mental Toughness

B2B sales is tough.

It involves rejection, boredom, insults, unrealistic expectations, pressure, liars, and constant failure.

Success requires resilience, grit, drive, self-honesty, determination, guts, courage, comfort with discomfort, and self-confidence.

In other words, sales constantly places people in circumstances that reduce many to anxious inertness. Success, in contrast, is predicated on mental toughness.

The very attribute that is increasingly rare.

An attribute that is hard to screen for.

Amidst a society that views those who seek candidates with mental toughness as unreasonable and uncaring.

Here's the real kicker.

Your sales (and marketing) and management people need this attribute not only for self-regulation but also because their jobs get tougher as your prospects' workforces are increasingly comprised of people with these same weaknesses.

Your salespeople will have to successfully sell to prospects who become anxious when their phone rings.

This means that your salespeople must not only be strong and resilient themselves (like many high-level athletes and military veterans) but possess extraordinary tactical skills to be able to sell to others who are too anxious to talk, too anxious to question their own beliefs and the status quo, too anxious to challenge colleagues with competing priorities, and too anxious to make decisions.

You need 2X unicorns.

Rare individuals with requisite mental toughness....who also happen to be rare individuals with extraordinary tactical sales skill.

Hiring Mentally Tough & Tactically Skilled B2B Sales Reps

A tough task for sure, but you have no choice.

So what are you going to do?

First, acknowledge the need.

Your reps who miss quota, assert that cold calling doesn't work in your industry, fill the pipeline with projects that never close, refuse to use CRM, and prolifically issue hopeless quotes aren't going to make it.

The question is whether you'll let them drag the company down with them.

Similarly, your process of hiring them isn't going to help you identify and recruit the 2X unicorns that you need.

Success will require 2nd or 3rd standard deviation sales talent.

By definition, at least 93% of the sales talent pool will be unqualified, but your current system probably indexes on "over average."

Because people surround themselves with folks of similar caliber, most of the referrals you'll receive from most salespeople will lack the requisite mental toughness and skills.

The good news is there's a solution.

The bad news is that it will require courage. Your team will say you're crazy, and you'll feel unreasonable.

You have no choice.

And you have help, if you want it. Interested in learning more? Download this free whitepaper on the modern science of sales person selection. (redirect to partner website) Or schedule a 15 min call to talk through your specific situation.


1 - The Workers Who Do Everything on Their Phones—Except Answer Calls