Francis Ngannou: How to be resilient

Francis Ngannou was ecstatic because he was put in prison! No really. He was imprisoned in Spain for breaking immigration laws. And instead of being afraid or sad, he was intensely happy. Because he knew that he had finally made it to Europe.

Today, Ngannou is the world MMA heavyweight champion. And one day, a movie will be made on him. Because he literally lived through hell to achieve his success.

Ngannou was born in Cameroon in abject poverty. His father was abusive. He didn’t even have enough money to buy pencils for school. He would often go hungry and get to eat only 1 meal a day! At the age of 9, Ngannou started working digging sand mines – to help his family with money.

Even in such dire surroundings, Ngannou had hope. Ever since he had seen a Mike Tyson boxing video, he wanted to become like him. 

Ngannou would find gyms and train and train and train. But he was a realist and knew that he could not achieve his dreams from a country like Cameroon. And so, at the age of 25, he sold all of his meagre belongings and decided to go to Europe. 

The gruelling journey that almost kills Ngannou

Cameroon to Nigeria to Niger to Algeria to Morocco – the journey through Sahara, often on foot took Ngannou a few months. But crossing over from Morocco to Spain seemed impossible. Half a dozen times, he was caught by the authorities and sent back to the desert or to a prison in Morocco. He cut his torso on barbed wire once.

Another time, while crossing the desert, he was so dehydrated and thirsty, that he stooped down to drink water from a filthy stream filled with dead animals. “I may die if I drink this water, but I will surely die if I don’t!”

And so, after 14 months of attempts, when he finally crossed over to Spain and was put in a prison on the Spanish side, he was joyous! Because he knew that asylum would now be granted to him!

After 2 months of prison life in Spain, he was released. He took a train to France. Where the first thing he did was find a gym where he could start training. When he realized that more money could be made in mixed martial arts fighting than in boxing, he shifted his focus to MMA. And soon start winning bouts after bouts!

Nature and nurture mixed together and gave Ngannou a mean fist! His punch was more powerful than a Ford Sedan hitting someone at its highest speed! Which allowed him to rise to the top.

But it was his resilience that got him to bounce back every time he was down. That kept him going.

How can you become as resilient as Francis Ngannou?

The basis of resilience stems from hope. If and only if you’re hopeful and optimistic can you be resilient. You need to have a goal to chase after – to get out of your struggle. You need to stop the negative thought cycle in your brain. Only then can you always bounce back. 

Here are 3 ideas from the depths of science that can make you more resilient.

1. Role models are necessary. But what do you do if you don’t have any?

Emmy Werner was one of the first psychologists to study resilience. She followed the lives of 1700 kids who came from broken, alcoholic ridden, abusive homes. And she found that the kids who grew to be productive out of them and who were resilient and stood up after facing struggles multiple times had one thing in common. They all had a role model – someone they could look upto, to gain hope from. To see what is possible and to set their dreams.

Ngannou could see a life beyond Cameroon, beyond poverty because of Mike Tyson!

But what if you don’t have good role models? Should you stick in decline just because of a lack of role models? No. If you can’t think of good role models that inspire you, you need to come up with anti role models.

That’s what Southwick and Churney tell in their book “The science of resilience.” It’s enough to have bad role models – people who provide an example of what you shouldn’t do. 

For Ngannou, this was his father. His father was strong and a part of a local gang. When Ngannou became older, a lot of local gangs asked him to join them. But Ngannou always refused – because he didn’t want to become his father!

2. Chase adversity

Given a choice between easy and hard, choose hard. Because, it is facing adversity that makes you resilient. Resilience is a muscle. Discomfort makes it stronger.

According to WHO, Icelandic men are one of the longest living men on the planet. On average, they live till the age of 81 – 13 years more than the world average! Dr. Kari Steffanson started studying the genetics of the Iceland population. And he found that 1100 years ago, their DNA was the same as those of their neighbours – the Norwegians. But today, their DNA has become a lot more resilient!

And thats all because of the hard life on Iceland. Where food was scarce, sun didn’t shine much, and life was hard. The hard life helped them build resilience. 

3. Distance yourself from your thoughts

In 2018, Ngannou had challenged the then heavyweight MMA champion Stipe Miocic to a fight. And he had lost. But the worst match of his career was the one after that. Where he lost against Derrick Lewis via unanimous decision. The media called it the most boring match till then. Because none of the 2 competitors went on the offensive. 

Later on, when Ngannou made his comeback and defeated 4 opponents by knockouts in under 90 seconds, he was asked about the snoozefest of a fight. And he said that he carried the Stipe loss with him in his next match too. 

It was only when he could look “at” his loss and not “from” his loss could he fix his mindset and become a fighter again.

Selda Koydemir, a psychotherapist who helps divorced people get their mojo back says the same thing. After a bad divorce or a long marriage, a person often thinks that he will never find anyone again, he will die alone. Its only when they learn to distance themselves from this negative thought, to realize that they failed but are not a failure – can they become happy again. 

Koydemir provides these people with a trick. Thank your mind as soon as it goes to a place of negativity. “Thanks, I hear you, but I’m good.” This exercise helps people distance themselves from their failures, helps them realize that they have a choice. And that makes them resilient!

Action Summary:

  • Life is filled with failure. Successful people stand up one more time. Successful people are resilient.
  • Resilience is a mindset, a choice that you make. Nothing changes except the thoughts in your mind – which propels you to be a fighter. 
  • Figure what you have to do. Take help from inspiration role models and anti role models. Do the hard things. And distance yourself from failure when you fall.