Never Believe You Are Helpless

“You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end… with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

That quote comes from U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale, who was captured by the Vietnamese, tortured over twenty times, and imprisoned for eight years during the Vietnam War. During that time he observed that those POWs with a deep sense of pessimism and dread would lose hope, succumb to their conditions, and eventually die.

But he also observed those who were wildly optimistic eventually became overwhelmed with despair, and false hope. According to Stockdale,

“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 also why the feel-good self-esteem movement started in the 1960s may not have worked out as planned. Simply feeling good about yourself doesn’t necessarily translate to a higher sense of capability. To put it another way, according to psychologist Martin Seligman, the feel-good self-esteem movement made “competition” a dirty word.

There is very little evidence that simply feeling good about oneself causes better grades, better work performance, or better thinking. Instead we should be focusing on self-efficacy – the strength of our belief in our own abilities to reach our goals and achieve our potential.

Those who persevere in the face of daunting obstacles are those who have a sense of realistic idealism. They have the ability to visualize and identify an ideal outcome, yet also an ability to realistically face challenges, including the unexpected challenges which will surely arise.

Another trait of those who possess realistic optimism is they lift other people up. During the depths of despair during their incarceration, James Stockdale used an alphabetic communication code by tapping on the walls of the prison cells. In this way the prisoners were able to communicate and not feel completely isolated in captivity.

Our world view is not simply a fixed condition of our situation. We have the power to choose our reaction to changing circumstances, and also to decide whether or not we have the ability to make a difference.

Pessimists, on the other hand, believe that bad events are someone’s fault, will last a long time, and undermine everything.

When things go sideways, remember that circumstances are temporary, local, and situational. It won’t last forever, it’s not everywhere, and it’s not someone’s fault.

Remember James Stockdale. Believing you can make a difference is a choice.

  • In Mindscaling’s newest course, Karen Hough teaches you how to lead in chaos. Check out The Art of Leadership Presence. Message me and I’ll send access to preview the first module of the course. It’s awesome.

SmallActs-3DShawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful online learning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, (Routledge) just released. You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? Let’s talk.

Twitter: @gshunter
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