By Andrew McConnell, the co-founder and CEO of Rented.
A common refrain in 2020 was: “I can’t wait for 2021!” While almost universally felt and expressed, for me, this always raised the question of what magic would occur between December 31, 2020, and January 1, 2021, that would change all that the speaker wanted to put behind us. There is no question that 2020 has been a year for the record books, but what made these speakers so confident that come New Year’s Day, everything would be different?
Such a belief, or perhaps it was just a hope, makes me think of Commander James Stockdale. A former Vice Admiral in the U.S. Navy and a Medal of Honor recipient, Commander Stockdale was the most senior naval officer held captive during the Vietnam War, locked up as a prisoner of war from 1965 to 1973. During that time, he saw and personally experienced innumerable horrors. He saw that a few like himself survived to be released, while many more did not.
When asked about those prisoners who didn’t make it out, Commander Stockdale responded with what has become known as the Stockdale Paradox:
“The optimists … 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.”
That’s right: The people least likely to survive the harrowing experience of a prisoner of war camp were those with the most positive thinking. Their optimism blinded them to the realities and personal limitations of their own situation.
To put it another way, as prisoners of war, these people had no control over when, and if, they would ever be released. By continually setting arbitrary timelines, these poor souls gave themselves a false sense of hope that was ultimately dashed by the harsh reality that they had no control over the timeline whatsoever. Though admitting you have no idea when you will ever see your family and loved ones again could be perceived as a pessimistic outlook, it is also the entirely realistic one in such a situation. It also turned out to be the best recipe for survival.
No one can credibly argue that what the majority of us experienced in 2020 would in any way compare to what Commander Stockdale and the other prisoners of war experienced in Vietnam. That said, their experience and the Stockdale Paradox hold valuable lessons for all of us. They remind us to take S.T.O.C.K. of our situation.
Stop assuming things you can’t control will turn out how you want them to, on the timeline you wish.
As with the prisoners of war, a blind belief that things will end up how you want them and when you want them to will make the emotional impact that much worse when they don’t play out that way. In addition, closing your mind to other possibilities will blind you to the need to prepare for alternatives.
Take a hard look at reality, what you control and what you don’t.
This is a common refrain at my company. Throughout 2020 we had to remember that we did not control things like infection rates, lockdowns, and people’s propensity and desire to travel. All we could control was what we did ourselves.
Own what you can control.
While there was a lot we did not and do not control, what we do control is what we do every single day. This is delivering for our clients, whether through our core offerings, price cuts to help our clients navigate a tough economic climate, or launching temporary and innovative products and services to help our clients survive and thrive when their livelihoods were at risk.
Cease to spend time and mindshare on what you can’t control.
Our ability to deliver on our core offering, and even to expand what we offered as things seemed to be crumbling around us, especially in the travel industry, was made possible by the fact that we did not waste time, resources or mindshare on things we did not control. What are you currently thinking and worrying about over which you actually have no control? How is that taking away from your ability to positively influence those things you can control?
Keep positive, but realistically so.
None of this is to suggest positivity is necessarily a bad thing. It is just that your positivity must be rooted in reality. And that reality must be framed by what you do, as well as what you do not, control.
2021 is indeed a new year. While none of us knows what it will bring, we can all take S.T.O.C.K. of what we can do to make it the year we want it to be. There is no time like the present to start.