Lessons from the stoics


“As I glide down toward that little town on my short parachute ride, I’m just about to learn how negligible is my control over my station in life.

“It’s not all up to me. I’m going right now from being the leader of a hundred-plus pilots and a thousand men to being the object of contempt.

“I can hear shouting and pistol shots and whining bullets ripping my parachute canopy and see the fists waving in the street below as my chute hooks a tree but deposits me on the ground in good shape. With two quick-release fastener flips I’m free of the parachute and immediately gang tackled by ten or fifteen town roughnecks I had seen in my peripheral vision, pounding up the road from my right”

It’s 9 September 1965 and seconds earlier Commander James B Stockdale’s A-4 Skyhawk jet had been shot down over North Vietnam. He would spend the next seven and a half years as a prisoner of war at the infamous Hanoi Hilton suffering torture and solitary confinement in appalling conditions.Miraculously Stockdale survived the ordeal and even went on to become a United States Navy vice admiral and later a candidate for Vice President. He attributed his survival to the stoic philosophy and in particular a book called the Enchiridion by a Roman slave-turned-philosopher from the time of Nero.

The stoic philosophy

“I whispered to myself: Five years down there at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus”

Stoicism as a philosophy has had something of a resurgence recently as the idea of resilience becomes increasingly important in modern corporate life.

We will face nothing like the horrors Stockdale did but can we benefit from any similar strategies to help us cope when things don’t go as planned or prevent some of the thinking distortions we can all fall into?

It’s much easier said than done, but the ability to pick yourself up and go at it again, is something we’re all having to get better at as numbers and budgets fall while demand grows.  Communicators in the public sector also operate at the heart of organisations, often dealing with a wide range of problems that can be unpleasant or upsetting.

When I read more about Stockdale I was shocked by his total belief in the power of Stoicism during the darkest of situations but also struck by how connected it was with storytelling and the inner narrative.

Such was the power of the ethos when told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, he cut his head with a razor and beat his own face until it was so swollen that he couldn’t be used as propaganda.

Here are some of the key takes from his book:

#1 The power and truth of stories

In PR we understand the power of stories and how important they are to our organisations, but what about the stories we tell ourselves?

Talking about his time as a POW 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.”

When asked who didn’t make it out he said: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. 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.”

He called this the Stockdale Paradox.

#2 We build our own prisons

Epictetus teaches us that there can be no such thing as being the victim of another “You can only be a victim of yourself,” he says. Whatever anger or emotion is attributed to another person’s actions the reality is that the individual is always in control of their own outlook.

“Tranquility, fearlessness and freedom. You can have these only if you are honest and take responsibility for your own actions. You’ve got to get it straight; you are in charge of you.”

#3 Control the controllable

Fundamentally the key to the stoic philosophy is understanding and accepting the things that are inside and outside of our control. You may not be able to control external events but you can control your attitude to them.

“Work with what you have control of and you’ll have your hands full.”

As a stoic Stockdale kept two distinct and very separate files in his mind. One for things that were up to him and another for things that were not up to him.

“Everything in category B are external and beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covert them.

“All in category A are up to me, within my power and proper subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgements, my attitude about what is going on and my own good and evil.

“To live under the false pretence that you will forever have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall…Make sure in your heart of hearts that you treat your station in life with indifference, not with contempt, only with indifference.”

#4 Reputation can be fickle

“Others decide what your reputation is. Try to make it as good as possible but don’t get hooked on it. Don’t be ravenous for it and start chasing it in tighter and tighter circles.

“As Epictetus says ‘he who craves things not under his control can neither be faithful nor free, but must himself be changed and tossed to and fro…”

#5 Don’t dwell on what you can’t do, but focus on what you can

“Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. Say this with regard to everything that happens. For you will find such things to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.”

Another famous Stoic Seneca warned about feeling sorry for ourselves and talked about the importance of taking action, even in the midst of grief.

#6 being a stoic isn’t easy

“The lecture room of the philosopher is a hospital; students ought not to walk out of it in pleasure, but in pain”.

“Controlling your emotions is difficult but can be empowering,” he says.

This reminded me of the excellent piece on the importance of pessimism in Influence magazine which you can read here: https://influenceonline.co.uk/2017/05/11/turn-pessimism-positive/

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