How to be Resilient in Times of Crisis

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

“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.

“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.

“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.”

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Jake Wilder

Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.