How a 3-legged cat saved me, turned me into a Stoic, and why you should be one too.
I don’t mean to sound like Chicken Little — I’ve already booked 3 holidays for the next 12 months — but, now that we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel, I thought it would be useful to share what I think is a healthy coping framework to deal with any disappointments we may encounter along the way to that exit. And to help in accepting the fact that the promised land beyond may be quite different to the one we left behind.
The Stockdale Paradox
Most of you probably know this story because it featured quite prominently in Jim Collin’s book Good to Great and is a regular story in the startup world.
Jim Stockdale was the highest ranking American POW in Vietnam where he survived for 8 years before making it home alive. When asked who did not made it back alive, he said: “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.”
This leads to a very important lesson and the meat of the Stockdale Paradox:
“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.” — Admiral James Stockdale.
But it’s really important to not only see how it applies to businesses with a high degree of uncertainly but also to situations like the one the World again finds itself in.
We should remember that in the last pandemic there were actually 3 major waves, with the last one worse than the first but not as bad as the second. Does that mean that we’ll see a repeat of this trend? Not at all — but it’s definitely a possibility.
Most startup trajectories tend to follow some variation of what Y-combinator (one of the most successful startup incubators) calls “The Process”
It’s pretty easy to know when the novelty has worn off and you enter the Trough of Sorrow. The problem is that — from within — it’s impossible to know whether you’re still there, seeing Wiggles of False Hope, The Promised Land — or whether Paul Graham was just trolling us all. And that’s why the Stockdale Paradox is forever doing the rounds in the startup world…
“It reminds us to never lose faith in the long term outcome, but accept the reality of the short term pains and just accept that they’re part of the process.”
So where are we with COVID recovery? The truth is that no one really knows how this pans out in the near term, despite the never-ending procession of opinion, hope, disappointment, and crushed dreams and livelihoods.
In speaking to family and friends, I notice people making that “last gasp effort” to hang on till mid-May — or June — or whatever date has been set by whichever government they happen to be living under. But what happens if June 2021 turns into March 2022? Can people handle that potential letdown on something they can’t control without losing faith that we will prevail in the end? That’s what Admiral Stockdale was talking about.
And that is why we are best being Stoical about it and accept the reality of our situation — while having total faith that we’ll come through it.
My own framework for dealing with adversity is something I learned almost 20 years ago after a flying accident which totally shattered both my ankles. With the intravenous Pethidine beginning to wear off, I remember lying on the CT scanner table with the radiologist literally shouting at me for being so stupid and telling me that I’d probably never walk again. This was reinforced when my surgeon told me that he decided on ‘external fixation’ as he was scared that there “would be bits of bone falling all over the theatre floor” if he opened up my heels to repair them (where do surgeons find such an amazing sense of humour). After months spent trying to rebuild strength and motion back into my joints in a hydrotherapy pool, I was starting to almost believe those doctors, but my future wife always scoffed at their prognoses.
At one point I literally thought that perhaps I could just live in a pool so that I wouldn’t have to use my feet, but that’s just my “problem solving no matter how ludicrous it first sounds” nature. Even after I started transitioning from a wheelchair to crutches and limping around badly, I was starting to get depressed about all the things that I’d never be able to do again, like skiing, running, and, of course, gliding.
And then I remembered the 3-legged cat.
Specifically a recently lamed one that I’d seen years earlier, hobbling around pathetically and, with a slap to the face, I realised that it probably didn’t have any clue about all it had lost. This was its reality and the only one there could possible have been — so it found a way to adapt to it rather than fret about it.
And that’s the thing. Most of what we worry about is an expectation of how things should have been, based on our sense of entitlement to a world that we knew or saw or dreamt of. But says who?
In that moment I started my journey to becoming a Stoic and accepted the reality that I now lived in. As it turned out, I managed to walk again. And ski, cycle thousands of kilometres a year, and glide. But I still live with the damage I inflicted on myself and my future, while different from what I think it may otherwise have been, will be exactly what it was always meant to be.
“My future, while different from what I think it may otherwise have been, will be exactly what it was always meant to be.”
So I stopped worrying about what I ‘lost’, which was entirely made up and lived in my mind anyway, and got on with making the best of what was.
Does that mean that we should just accept things for how they are? Hell no! We’re human and we aspire to do more and be more and that urge drives us to do amazing things. Right now I’m dedicating myself to changing one of the things that is killing us and the planet, and even though the reality is that it’s so entrenched in our culture and mindset that changing the status quo is going to be almost impossible, I’ll still do everything to create that future vision.
It’s not that we should give up hope. Indeed we should fight for the future that we want. What we shouldn’t do is start living in that future while we’re still in this present — because it could be with us for longer than we hope.
One final thought — there’s nothing unprecedented about COVID (there I used the most hated word of 2020/21). It’s happened so often before that it’s a wonder we weren’t more prepared…but that should perhaps be the topic for a whole other post.
And those three holidays I’ve booked — they’re all fully refundable.
And looking at the silver lining that can come from forced change? I’m not saying that there’s a certain doctor involved, but I’m happily married to a certain doctor.
Book review of the week
It’s a page turner without doubt and you’ll be turning them in a flurry at that. But any work of fiction that has suggested highlights is obviously much more than a story about boy meets girl meets situation, and Deepak nicely blends his other area of interest (negotiation) into a really fun and believable tale. Even when he bends reality just a little too far, it feels more like license than looseness.
Some books prefer that you know almost nothing about them when you first meet because they’re so good at introducing themselves, and this is one such book. My advice is read it but don’t read anything about it. Let it speak entirely for itself.