First thing yesterday morning, for a change of routine*, I went for a walk with a friend who lives down the road. We walked and talked for an hour or so before the working day began, through the woods, down the hill, round and back up; squelching through the mud and breathing in the cold, damp air as the day woke up around us, the mist lifting from the ground, as the sun strained to force its way through the early morning cloud.
[* The ‘change of routine’ was, in and of itself, so important, and made such a difference to my mental state. Worth diving into that in more detail another time for sure. Watch this space.]
My friend happens to be a clinical psychologist, which always makes for a fascinating and introspective conversation. So as we walked we talked about the world and how, as simple, habitual creatures, we’re uniquely unable to process or handle the situation in which we find ourselves. Like many domesticated animals we have become defined by routine of one kind or another – and we build our lives around those routines.
Day by day and week by week we have the commute, the office, that place we go for lunch, the coffee shop, the takeaway on a Thursday night, the drinks after work, the visit to the Grandparents, the pub lunch on a Sunday.
Those fit within a more expansive set of routines, too. A couple of weeks somewhere in the Summer, a camping trip with friends, maybe a festival, gigs and plays and birthdays and traditions, getting together for the holidays.
And we’re so caught up in these routines we can’t help but hope and even plan for their return, despite the fact that this planning is a pointless and possibly damaging exercise. Because every time we plan, we create too much hope, and hold that hope tighter and tighter as the plans threaten to break apart once again.
Wondering if the plans for the wedding will go ahead. Plans to visit the family for Christmas. Plans to get the kids back to school. The holiday postponed from last year to this, and now… who knows?
Each time we hope that this milestone or that will be the one. We’ll be out of this by Easter. We might be back in the office by July. Surely it’ll all be over when the kids go back in September. Christmas is still a way away, surely…
And now we’re wondering about half term, and bloody Easter again. Do we just go round again? Keep on rolling the dice? Keep on predicting the future, and feeling so disappointed when we get it so wrong. Perhaps even feeling a bit stupid and bit naïve for thinking it’d be that simple…
As we walked through the woods [perhaps a little out of breath on the big hills] my psychologist friend told me a tale of an American airman by the name of Jim Stockdale, who was shot down over Vietnam in 1965, captured and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” – a prisoner-of-war prison where American prisoners were held through the Vietnam War. Stockdale was kept in a windowless cell with a bare light bulb on 24 hours a day. Routinely tortured for information, during his time in captivity he had his leg broken twice. Every night he was locked in leg irons.
Yet where many of his fellow POWs died, he survived. For 8 years until his release, he refused to give up hope. In his words:
“I never lost faith in the end of the story… that I would prevail in the end”
But this isn’t a story about keeping hope. It’s a story about how to keep hold of a kind of hope that doesn’t destroy you bit by bit; piece by piece.
Because when asked in an interview with author Jim Collins about those who didn’t make it, Stockdale was quick to reply:
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 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.US Navy Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale
Personally, I don’t mind a bit of optimism. When we all went to festivals back in the day I was always the one who would always look up at a cloudy morning sky and say “I reckon the sun will burn this off”. Sometimes I was right, too. But I didn’t pin all hope on it, and so if it didn’t that was okay. We had a lot of fun dancing in the rain.
But having the discipline, the fortitude and conviction, to confront the brutal facts? Right now, I think that’s as true for us as individuals as it is for any of us as family members or business leaders; as simple, social animals, desperately missing our connections in ways we cannot comprehend.
Maybe the brutal fact is that this, in some form, is going to be part of life for longer than any of us could possibly have imagined, and rather than predicting the future we must accept the situation as it is and make the very, very best of it, keeping faith that we will prevail in the end.
Maybe the brutal fact is that those most valued friendships will just have to be nurtured over video calls. Yes, young children you’ve known so well will be growing up and changing and you will miss some of that. Maybe the wedding isn’t going to be able to go ahead this year, either; at least, not as it was planned. But remember that you can stay connected, that love is patient; and keep faith you will prevail in the end.
Maybe the brutal fact is that the work will suffer in some way, or change in a way you weren’t expecting, or develop into something that you don’t understand. But be authentic and genuine, keep your integrity, stick to your values. And keep faith you will prevail in the end.
As a leader in times like this, getting the balance right is really important. Mentioned in these pages before, Harvard professor Nancy Koehn ran a webinar last year [when we thought we were in the middle of things but in retrospect perhaps were only at the beginning] about leadership in crisis. In this she talked about getting the balance between brutal honesty and credible hope.
The brutal honesty [interesting that it’s the same visceral, violent word – brutal – as Stockdale used] is that we cannot be certain. That we are at the whim of an enemy we cannot see. That predicting the future is a fools errand, as it always is. That we may yet find even darker days.
The credible hope comes from our dependable dedication to the values and ideas we hold most dear. We show up, every day, in service to the mission we have set. And yes, we can paint a picture of the future, whenever it may come, that has meaning and, yes, even brightness.
Because a bright, fresh, new dawn will come, as sure as day follows night. Perhaps not the one we imagined, or hoped for. But it will come.
So keep faith in the end of the story. We will prevail, in the end.