Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 7, 2020
August — what a month. DNC, RNC, BLM, COVID along with the constant of job and family. No shortage of challenges.
For guidance on how to cope, I turned to the work of Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg and researcher Robin Abrahams on the famous Stockdale Paradox.
Adm. James Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 7 1/2 years. The central question they asked him was, “How did you survive without knowing the end of the story?” It is human nature to want to know how the movie ends, because if we know “when it will be over,” then we can prepare ourselves to manage for the duration.
What is amazing about Stockdale is this quote, “I never lost faith and 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.” Consider people with cancer or spinal injuries or what we call “disabilities,” or hurricane and fire victims. We are astounded at their resilience and ability to forge ahead and survive.
Now here is the golden nugget. Stockdale was asked, what was the characteristic of the ones who did not make it out of the prison camp? “The optimists, the ones who said we’ll be out by Christmas, and then said we’ll be out by Easter — those are the ones who died of a broken heart.” Stockdale goes on to say, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”
Let’s read that last sentence one more time together.
That is the paradox — living with a brutal reality on a day-to-day basis balanced against never losing hope. People want to believe the optimist (the virus will magically disappear), but “they come unglued when those predictions don’t work out.” But remember, different than blind optimism is the belief that something good could happen. Could, not will. For the entrepreneur in the trenches, he must calculate the odds of success and play for the possibility of a good turn of cards, of a customer showing up, of the investor saying yes — and at the same time, lose some sleep every night worrying about a Plan B and concocting a Plan C.
The Stockdale Paradox can be summed up as “have faith but confront reality.” A corollary here is to embrace some form of stoicism. Groysberg talks about Marsha Linehan, the founder of “radical acceptance.” She says, “You can’t change anything if you don’t accept it.” Otherwise, you will be working on something that isn’t real. Entrepreneurs need to truly embrace this kind of clear thinking. Linehan goes on to say, “that even when the darkness falls, there is always a glimmer of light.”
Psychologist John Leach says, “Once it becomes clear that rescue will not happen soon, those who survive disasters move into phases of adaptation and consolidation.” Adaptation is unlearning what we knew and what worked before and consolidation is when the “new circumstances are accepted as real.”
This requires developing extrinsic survival behaviors — how to act in a kidnapping or a shipwreck is completely antithetical to the previously routine simple tasks of how to enter a building or shake hands with a friend. You have to start over from square one with new mental energy.
Stockdale talks about the physical intimidation and says it was not won in one grand showdown, but rather “it was the plucky guy who made them start over every day.” I confess that one of my favorite movies is “Cool Hand Luke.” I have always been inclined toward the renegade and the rebel.
In the end Stockdale talks about faith and patriotism, but deepest of all is “a value system, a sense of identity.” Stockdale supports “acknowledging your errors” (we all make them), but he emphasizes the need for personal integrity, how to keep your self-respect.
At this time in our history, revisiting Stockdale seems critical and urgent. He talks about communication by leaders that bespeaks a “commonality of ritual, of laws, of traditions and of shared dreams.” Look up from your computer screen and find a purpose — it will increase your odds of survival and resiliency.
Rule No. 675
Man does not live by bread alone — Matthew 4:4