As a teenager I have a vivid memory of walking into someone’s house and being drawn to a painting on their hallway wall. At the time it spoke deeply to me and in recent times that memory has become front of mind again.
The painting depicted a lighthouse in very rough seas. There were people clinging to the lighthouse for grim death while some seemed to be drowning. I remember seeing one person clinging to the lighthouse with one hand and is reaching out with the other hand to a nearby person.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t believe how much has happened over these past few years. From pandemics to natural disasters, everyone has been affected by something.
What has happened to you over the last few years?
What have been some of your experiences?
I ask because where you are right now with the events, feelings, and experiences you find yourself in is your current reality.
I invite you to stop and think about or even better write down exactly what your current reality is – warts and all.
All around me I see current realities as depicted in that painting from years ago. I see people who are clinging to the lighthouse for grim death. That lighthouse for some is the optimism and hope that they will come out of this relatively unscathed, for others it is the deep desire for a return to “normalcy” and for others the lighthouse is representative of a brighter and better future for all. I see others “drowning” in their own fear, worry and stress.
My heartfelt desire is to be the third category – clinging to the lighthouse, knowing I’m only a strong gust away from drowning myself, and yet, at the same time, having the courage to reach out to pull someone else out of the depths of their despair.
A role model whose story I’ve turned to for both clarity and inspiration over recent years is the story of Admiral James Stockdale. While fighting in the Vietnam War, he was captured by the Viet Cong and held as a prisoner of war from 1965 to 1973. During this time, while living in subhuman conditions, he experienced some of the most brutal torture ever inflicted upon another human being during any conflict.
Nevertheless, he lived to tell his tale. However, it was not because of unwavering optimism or naivety, but by fully accepting the brutal reality of his situation, resolute in his belief he would survive.
“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”.
Around him, the Admiral saw many of his colleagues “drown”. When asked who didn’t survive, he replied “Oh that’s easy, the optimists… They were the ones who optimistically maintained ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’. Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say ‘we’re going to be out by Easter’. Easter would come and go. And then Thanksgiving and then it would be Christmas again. They died of a broken heart”.
One of the things that hit me most as I read his story was what he did to not only keep himself alive but how he worked staunchly to help others incarcerated with him. It’s in this way I see he embodies that third image in the painting of the person clinging to the light house whilst still reaching out to help others.
Stockdale knew that no-one could survive endless physical or mental torture. To help himself and others he developed a step by step system of rules. For example, he advised his colleagues to endure a certain amount of torture time then give away some information.
He was instrumental in organising his colleagues. He invented elaborate communication systems to stay connected with isolated prisoners.
So that guards could not video him as propaganda for their war effort, he slashed his body and beat himself with a stool.
He taught his colleagues a simple code of blinking morse code when they were being videoed for propaganda. Armed with this subtle weapon of defiance, his co-prisoners now had a smidgeon of hope their messages were getting out.
So, where did he get his absolute resilient spirit from? Admiral Stockdale constantly reminded himself of quotes from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things”.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”.
Stockdale, despite his internment, knew he still had the capacity for free will. He fully accepted that he could not change his reality. He had zero control over the external events – what was happening to him.
The only thing he could control was how he chose to react to it.
Stockdale also knew he couldn’t control “when this was all going to end”. He witnessed first-hand those who were addicted to hope and consequently did not survive.
Instead, he tackled the hopelessness and inhumanness of his situation and came up with ways to deal with the worst of them.
“You have to have faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.
In this moment, for those who see ourselves as a leader, we each have the choice to both accept our current reality and simultaneously, reach out to those around us – whether it be our family, our friends or our team.
Right now – grab a pen and a piece of paper and write down your answers to these questions. Your answers will provide insight in to how you can step up and lead yourself and those around you.
What system of rules could you put in place to give you, and those around you, something to fall back on when things get tough?
What could you do to improve communication with those you are isolated with?
What could you do to improve communication with those you are isolated from?
What must you do to stop yourself from “drowning”?
What could you do to help others so they too can “keep the faith”?
On top of all of this, we also need to be conscious that most of our reactions to external events are really patterns of behaviour we learned and developed in childhood. Whilst we usually act with some deliberateness in the workplace, our “worst” traits are typically most apparent when we’re under stress around people and in environments we feel most safe in – i.e., in our home surrounded by our family.
Unfortunately, our reactions are often so deeply embedded that often we are unable to make significant changes on our own. This is where working with an experienced coach or mentor makes a huge impact. Coaches, like Rob or myself, not only understand how the sub-conscious mind works, but can also quickly help you break through these old patterns of behaviour that are holding you back in life.
Here at Kaibizzen, we have spent over 18 years investing in supporting highly-motivated, performance-focused business owners live the life they truly want.
If you’d like to understand more about what drives your reactions and confronting your reality head on, contact us today.
What does it take to actually remove yourself from the day-to-day grind of business? Learn from our panel of Business Owners who've Been There, Done That.