How to be Resilient in Times of Crisis
Learn the Lessons of the Stockdale Paradox
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” reflected Albert Camus on resiliency in the face of tragedy. And as Seneca advised that “to bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden,” it’s often this resilience that gets us through our times of crisis.
It’s often said that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. And it’s true — as paradoxical as it may seem — some of our best behaviors come alive under the worst of circumstances. While it’s easy to turn on the news and see people acting at their worst, there’s no shortage of heartwarming stories to counteract them.
It’s easy to split this up into simply good and bad people — the seeming Amy Klobuchars and Rand Pauls of the world. But it’s much more than that. How we respond in a crisis comes down to the level of resilience that we’ve cultivated in our lives. It’s that resilience which determines how we respond when life throws us these unexpected disasters.
Most people think of resilience and compare it to hardness, as in, resilient people have a tough outer shell and nothing affects them. They just keep going about their daily life, regardless of what’s happening around them.
But this isn’t a resilient person. It’s a psychopath. Pretending that nothing’s wrong and ignoring the world around you isn’t resilience, it’s irresponsibility. It’s the mark of someone who’s unwilling or unable to adapt into a changing situation. Neither of which is helpful.
Resilience is about adapting in positive ways. It’s about taking bad situations and using them to elevate our response. As Eric Greitens described it,
“Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength — if we have the virtue of resilience.”
Epictetus once said, “It is not things which trouble us, but the judgments we bring to bear upon things.” That doesn’t mean we sacrifice reality for wishful thinking. It means that we’re fully in control of how we respond. It means that we balance our ability to confront today’s reality with complete ownership of coming through it in the future. And it means that we adopt something called the Stockdale paradox.
The Stockdale Paradox
“A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish.” — Epictetus
In 1965, Admiral Jim Stockdale ejected from his plane after it was struck over North Vietnam. After he landed in a village, he was severely beaten and taken prisoner into the Hanoi Hilton, his new home for the next seven and a half years. Over that time, he was routinely tortured and denied medical assistance for a severely damaged leg.
Yet as the senior Naval officer in the camp, he maintained the burden of command. He developed an internal communication system to counter the sense of isolation. He instituted systems to better help soldiers hold up under torture. And when his captors wanted to use him as propaganda for a well-treated prisoner, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor.
Stop and think about that for a minute. You’ve endured years of abuse. Your leg never fully healed. You have no idea whether you’re going to survive to see your family. And when you’re told that you’re going to be put on parade, your response is to disfigure your scalp with a razor. And when your captors cover that with a hat, you one up them by beating yourself in the face with a stool until it’s swollen beyond recognition.
Seneca once said “fate guides the willing but drags the unwilling.” If that isn’t someone who refuses to abdicate responsibility for his own fate, I don’t know what is.
And through it all, he made it out. He stayed committed to his men, loyal to his country, and faithful that he would ultimately survive. When Jim Collins asked him how he kept going, he said,
“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.”
Stockdale refused to relinquish responsibility for his actions. He remained committed to owning both his condition and his response. But that ownership alone wouldn’t have been enough. It’s only half of the solution — hence the paradox. Stockdale countered his optimism with a commitment to brutally facing the facts. As he watched his other captives give up, he associated it with a sense of naïve optimism. They were unwilling to face the reality in front of them, and they lost hope when their flawed assumptions failed to happen. As Stockdale described this counter point,
“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.”
Stockdale took complete ownership for his situation, never playing the victim or blaming others. But he coupled that with a willingness to brutally face the facts of his reality. Elon Musk shares this same philosophy for managing challenges, encouraging a positive outlook without succumbing to the blind spots that come with naïve optimism,
“I think that wishful thinking is one of the most profound human failings, the major reason that people adhere so strongly to wrong ideas. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be optimistic. You simply have to be realistic as well.”
Resilience comes from balancing these two aspects — realism and optimism. It’s critical that we brutally face facts about our current crisis — glossing over the details only worsens the problem. But at the same time, we need to take responsibility for coming through it. We need to recognize that we all share this problem, so we all need to be part of the solution.
It’s Not Your Fault. But It’s Your Responsibility
“When you hit a speed bump, some people become deer in the headlights, some people finger-point, and some people go political. But some people take ownership, accept accountability, and rally. It’s obvious which of those you want on your team.” — Jeff Bussgang, Founder of Open Market, The Startup Playbook
When an issue happens, it’s tempting to look around for someone to blame. And in our current crisis, that’s an easy thing to do. There’s no shortage of poor decisions and mismanaged efforts. It’s a finger-pointer’s paradise.
We do need to hold people accountable for their actions. And November can’t come soon enough. But it’s one thing to hold people accountable and another to give ourselves an excuse.
Because when we blame others, that’s really what we’re looking for — an excuse. We’re giving ourselves an out. It’s their fault, not ours. They should fix it, not us. Too often, we associate responsibility with blame. Asking who’s responsible is like asking who’s at fault. And few of us are looking to take the blame for someone else’s screw-ups. It certainly isn’t our fault that there aren’t enough tests or ventilators.
But there’s a critical difference between being at fault and being responsible. Mark Manson covered it well with the following example,
“If you woke up one day and there was a newborn baby on your doorstep, it would not be your fault that the baby had been put there, but the baby would now be your responsibility.”
Assigning blame is just another way of diverting attention away from ourselves — either to avoid fault or responsibility. As Joseph Brodsky said in one of the greatest commencement speeches of all time, “Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”
Watch those who’re the quickest to cast blame on others — they’re also the ones who never take responsibility to genuinely improve the situation. Or they make all sorts of promises, fail to do anything, then claim credit anyways.
There’s likely very little about the ongoing crisis that’s your fault. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take responsibility to help the situation. It doesn’t mean that you should abdicate your ability to positively influence others. As the great Henry Wordsworth Longfellow once said, “Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”
Brutally face the facts of the situation. And take responsibility for doing what you can to come through it. That’s resilience. And we need more of it.