By Ryan Cruise
I've often been called an eternal optimist. Odd, because I very much consider myself more of a realist. But if I had to guess why I've so often been refereed to this way, it could very likely be my approach to adversity. As a leader of a rapidly growing startup, it's my job to look for the silver lining of opportunity in every situation, and to keep my team focused on generating ideas and solutions.
But there are times that require us to summon a few more layers to this solutions-centered approach – horribly tough times when there might not be a silver lining at all, and situations with outcomes that are far worse than we thought.
How will we fare when our anticipated "bright spots" don't happen at all? It depends on our ability to summon massive willpower, endless determination and steadfast grit.
Last week my father-in-law sent me an article containing a powerful story that captured this sentiment very well. It was written by a man named Simon Black, who shares the story of U.S. Navy fighter pilot, James Stockdale, and his harrowing account of surviving some of the most brutal circumstances imaginable. (To read the full story, visit Sovereign Man.)
Here is the excerpt that had the biggest impact on me:
One day back in the late 1990s when I was a wide-eyed 20-year-old cadet at West Point, we were told that a distinguished visitor was coming to speak, and to be seated in the auditorium by 1pm sharp.
This was pretty routine; one of the great things about attending West Point was the seemingly endless line of world leaders, athletes, scientists, and even celebrities who would address the Corps of Cadets.
During my time at the academy we heard from people like Colin Powell, Oliver Stone, Bill Clinton, and countless more.
On that particular day, the speaker was Vice Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale isn’t a household name, but as I would come to learn, he was one of the most impressive and toughest human beings who ever lived.
He was in the twilight of his life when he came to speak to us, just a few years before his death. But even at his advanced age, he had the presence of a giant.
Stockdale had been a US Navy fighter pilot. His full name was James Bond Stockdale, so his call sign became “007”. Perfect.
Stockdale’s life changed in September 1965 while flying a mission over North Vietnam. He was shot down, captured, and spent the next 7 ½ years as a Prisoner of War in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
As a POW, Stockdale was tortured regularly, beaten savagely, and exiled to solitary confinement.
But he never broke.
At one point during his captivity when he found out that he was to be paraded out in public in Vietnam, he beat his own face to a pulp with a wooden stool, and slashed his scalp with a razor blade, so that he couldn’t be used as a propaganda tool.
He also slit his own wrists once, demonstrating to his captors that he would rather give up his own life than capitulate.
Stockdale was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary leadership and personal sacrifice.
Years later in an interview with author Jim Collins, Stockdale was asked about his captivity in Vietnam—how on earth did he deal with such harsh circumstances and uncertainty?
"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 the POW camp],” Stockdale replied,
Oh that’s easy. The optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And then Christmas would come, and Christmas would go.
And then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And then 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 is a very important lesson,” Stockdale continued.
“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."
In these trying times, many of us are inclined to be optimists. We want to believe that we'll wake up three weeks from now and this horrible pandemic will have vanished into thin air. We hope more than anything that our families and businesses will have been left untouched, entirely unaffected by the virus that's swept each and every nation across the globe.
What's more likely to happen at the end of all of this is that we will have our own harrowing story to tell, hopefully to our surplus of healthy grand-kids. (I told you I seem like an optimist.) The question is then, how will the story end?
That part is up to us.