The Battles of the Mind and Achieving Mental Resilience| A Q&A with Broadcaster Gavin Hewitt

27 June 2018

To overcome external forces and battle the mind, my experience has taught me that you need to pay attention to these six facets. In this blog I’ve shared some of my personal experiences on how I have achieved mental resilience in my career.

As a young man one story left a lasting impression. It was about prisoners of war in freezing temperatures. If during the night they went to lie by the stove, they knew the extreme cold would kill them the next morning when they went back outside. So, this is when I really learnt that survival was a battle of the mind.

Looking back over thirty years of frontline reporting there have been stories of resilience, of survival, of failure, of fear, of moral dilemmas, but more often than not the real battles were won or lost in the mind.

1. Resilience

With international journalism competition is fierce, this is something I learnt in the Iran-Iraq war. I had found a way to send my material across the Iraqi border into Kuwait beating everyone else by at least a day. At the time there was a British freighter with 23 crew on board trapped between the front lines. One of my competitors swam out to the ship and organised a rescue. It was courageous and testimony to the power of resilience and determination.

2. Failure

The attacks of 9/11 were one of the biggest stories of the modern era. Getting to Ground Zero involved by-passing numerous road blocks but on the day President Bush stood on the rubble we were there. We were the first BBC TV team to report from where the towers had collapsed - and then failure. A technical failure and we missed the main news. A crushing blow for the team yet the business - no business - allows for lengthy reflection.

3. Survival

Time and again my survival depended on putting myself in the mind of others. In 2008 we were filming on a road outside Gori during the war in Georgia. I watched a Russian plane complete an attack on the city and then turn. I realised that in his mind our camera on a tripod looked like a weapon and that he was lining up to attack us.

Thinking in this way gave us those few seconds to run before the rockets came in.

4. Mind Games

On almost a daily basis there are mind games to overcome; the signals that we send out to those we work with or meet.

In 2003 myself and my crew were embedded with an American frontline unit in Iraq. An adviser with a background in special forces advised me that not a single soldier wanted us there. He told us that on our first morning the unit would be watching, making their assessments of us. He persuaded us to be up first, to wash in the freezing cold with icy water, however painful; he said we had to win the mind games.

5. Choices: moral dilemmas

In dangerous places or in the midst of disasters there are often difficult, disturbing moral dilemmas. In the desert do you share water with another network even if it puts your own team at risk?

During the Pakistan earthquake a desperate crowd in Kashmir was clinging to our helicopter, gradually tipping it over. The pilot told us to kick people off to save the flight. What do you do?

6. The mind and power

All successful politicians read the minds of their audiences. I covered the election campaigns of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Obama understood the power of his personal story, that he embodied the American dream. In campaign stop, after campaign stop, he told his crowds that he was the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman in Kansas. In no other country on earth, he said, is my story even possible. It was almost a perfect pitch, tapping into deeply-held American beliefs.

Trump brought with him the psychology he’d learned from Reality TV. A show needs new story lines; that controversy and outrage dominate the news channels and build an audience. He played to his audiences fears and resentments, encouraging chants and slogans that made his audiences feel they were insurgents, part of a movement.

What then are the qualities that bring success?

From my experiences, what I’ve seen and learnt, I can narrow it down to resilience, certainly and endurance, surely. To put yourself in the minds of others is essential, being cunning of course plays it’s part, but above all, being empathic is key.

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