Why optimism is not what you need and how to survive 2020 and beyond
On Sept 9, 1965 a man called James Bond Stockdale was shot down over Vietnam.
Stockdale ejected from his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, which had been struck by enemy fire and completely disabled. He parachuted into a small village, where he was severely beaten and taken prisoner.
Stockdale was held as a prisoner of war in the Hỏa Lò Prison (the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”) for the next seven-and-a-half years. As the senior Naval officer, he was one of the primary organizers of prisoner resistance. Tortured routinely and denied medical attention for the severely damaged leg he suffered during capture, Stockdale created and enforced a code of conduct for all prisoners which governed torture, secret communications, and behavior.
In the summer of 1969, he was locked in leg irons in a bath stall and routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda.
When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his friends’ “black activities”, he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into a confession.
During the course of his captivity, due to torture, his leg was broken twice.
The Stockdale Paradox
What relevance has this to us and the situation many of us especially small business owners and the now unemployed find ourselves in?
In a business book by James C. Collins called Good to Great, Collins writes about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp.
I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.
When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.
Stockdale then added:
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox.
Stockdale wasn’t the first to find himself in such a situation. Viktor Frankl found himself in the horrors of Belsin concentration camp in WW2. He realised that it was hope and purpose that would help him survive.
So as many of us face our own certainties, as we see our businesses, livelihoods, hopes and dreams smashed by the Blitzkreig of the Coronavirus, we can learn a lot from what Stockdale and Frankl went through and the mindset they adopted.
Blind optimism may be comforting but it’s unwise and unhelpful. We must confront the brutal facts of our new reality. However painful that may be.
What might serve us better is getting clarity on our purpose and why. The lockdown will pass, the economy will re-start and for most of us people will still need our products and services.
Some of us may have to adapt, we may have to adjust our sights and do without but we will survive.
Tomorrow will bring good things, stay alive to see it.