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The Optimists Vs. The Pessimists, Who’s Right?!?!


Our release date from closed business purgatory has passed, and yet here we are, still closed. This is very defeating to a lot of small businesses out there. For some, it’s a matter of survival. Can they make it until re-opening day (whenever that is) before the whole ship sinks underwater? 

I’m reminded of a story that has helped me through this entire 8-week ordeal of forced closure. It’s a story about Vietnam prisoner of war, Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale. He was held captive for over 7 years solitary confinement. Locked in a windowless concrete cell that was no bigger than 30 square feet and had a lightbulb on around the clock. 

His survival alone through this ordeal is motivation enough to know human beings are incredibly tough and resilient and can make it through anything. Today’s times are tough, but we can surely make it through too. 

Stockdale also decided his imprisonment was going to be a life-defining and teaching moment. He says, “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 also taught me something else, as he was also a student of Stoic philosophy. He showed me that no matter what happens to you on the outside, you can always control, and you can ONLY control, your inner will. 

This view of “stoic optimism” became what Jim Collins wrote about in his bestseller “Good To Great” when he interviewed Stockdale and coined the term, “The Stockdale Paradox”. 

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied, “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.”

The people and businesses who are struggling the most at this time, besides the families directly affected by this virus, are those who have decided an “end date” in their mind. Some don’t realize they’re struggling but they’re going to crash. Some have already crashed and don’t know why they feel so depressed and lost. It’s the comments like, “We shouldn’t go back to work yet, this thing doesn’t seem like it’s done yet” that are most concerning. 

Is the flu “done”? Did the arrival of the flu vaccine stop all deaths related to it? Do people who get the flu vaccine never get the flu? Will COVID-19 ever stop killing? Will the COVID-19 death toll ever hit 0 in a day in our lifetime?

These are not the questions of the pessimist, but rather a balance of realism. These are the “brutal facts” Stockdale says must not be ignored even if we want to be our most optimistic. 

Stockdale adds, “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.”

Like Stockdale, we must believe we will prevail in the end, no matter how long it takes. We will be stronger because of this time in our lives. It is this balance of optimism with pessimism or realism that will get us through. 

More important than businesses opening up, is the opening up of your mind to see obstacles as opportunities. The goal is NOT to get rid of the obstacle completely, but find YOUR best path to navigate them. 

We may never be able to rid COVID-19 from our lives. It’s very possible this is an impossible task. 

Instead of wishing for a life free of obstacles, work on yourself to be able to weather the storm. This storm may never go away, and more storms are sure to come in the future. 

Are you shaped by the storm or will you let it sink you?

-Coach Tony