“As I ejected from the plane, I broke a bone in my back, but that was only the beginning. I landed in the streets of a small village. A thundering herd was coming down on me. They were going to defend the honor of their town. It was the quarterback sack of the century.” -Admiral James B. Stockdale (1995).
When Stockdale landed he was beaten unconscious, his clothes torn off his back and if not for the local police that seized him, he most likely would have been killed. Stockdale suffered a broken leg and a paralyzed arm before they took him into custody as a prisoner of war, an experience that has become one of the most inspiring stories of loyalty, defiance, and what hardships in our life can teach us about our moral character.
In the eight years James B. Stockdale went through the hell of the Ho Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) he was the highest ranking Naval officer captured and held as a POW in Vietnam. In darkness and solitary confinement for four years, Stockdale held on to wisdom from the ancient stoics. He had studied philosophy while at Stanford in 1962 in route to be a strategic planner at the Pentagon.
From Aristotle to Descartes, Kant, Hume, Dostoevsky, and Job among others were all cherished by Stockdale and became an anchor for his tenacity and moral leadership in and out of his capture. However, the impact of one philosopher on Stockdale was above all others and those teachings became a sort of a guide for him in life and career. He says, “I read every one of Epictetus’s extant writings, through two translations… I was flying in combat almost daily as the air wing commander of the USS Oriskany, but on my bedside table, no matter what carrier I was aboard, were my Epictetus books.”(1993)
On September 9th, 1965 Stockdale flew right into a flak trap and his A-4 plane was shot to pieces. As he ejected and was floating 200 feet down to earth, he tells us that his last words as a free man were, “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus”.
So what wisdom did Epictetus provide for Admiral Stockdale and what can we gain from this insight. The most sighted by Stockdale in his book, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (1995) encompass this quote by Epictetus, “In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.” (1955)
Simply put, find out what you have control over and focus on that. In fact, you will probably find that you have a lot less control than you originally thought. However, the benefit will be that your life will simplify as you subtract from it useless stress and confusion. After you successfully verbalized your brief, budget plan, sales pitch, and even asking someone to marry you, the control is no longer yours. To fret over things that we have no control, Epictetus very eloquently says, “…act well the given part; but to choose it belongs to another” (1955). Leaders who can better understand this principal will induce efficiency, both cognitively and practically. Allowing for the allocation of one of the most expensive and precious goods, your time.
Stress: The Necessary Ingredient
Stockdale lived in leg shackles for four years and for the remaining four years continued living in a stress induced environment, to say the least. “Every effort was being made to break my will…tapping on the walls to other prisoners would result in torture…exercising leadership to others would result in the same.” His ongoing fear while in the Hanoi Hilton was not from the anticipation of the pain from torture, but the stress of eventually “losing my honor and self-respect”.
In 1980 Stockdale was asked to speak at the University of Texas at Dallas and gave a speech labeled, The Role of The Pressure Cooker, a personal favorite. In this speech he defines some of what he considers, essential ingredients of leadership, stating that “stress is essential to leadership” and that it is stress that provides the knowledge and tools that allow us to handle the rigors of life and leadership. He pointed to characters like Miguel de Cervantes and his amazing story of imprisonment in an Algerian prison. He spoke of both Job from the Bible and Boethius and how his time under stress aided in the content that produced the classic- The Consolation of Philosophy. It is man’s ability to “improvise” while under pressure that is the education of stress, and if this can be taught then it is best done in “a stressful regime- in a crucible of pressure, whether that crucible be a classroom or a total environment”.
Stockdale is sure to point out that one does not need to be imprisoned to learn of the benefits of stress, but merely to not shy away from the stress that we encounter. As a matter of fact, we can hear what Stockdale is saying about stress not only in the ancient stoics from our past, but also in the words of moderns. The brilliant Nassim Taleb echoes this, as is captured in the title of his book Antifragile (2012). One of Taleb’s more salient points is that disorder or stress induced into the system makes one more robust over time. He uses the examples of load bearing exercises (physical stress) and how placing the body under stress not only increases muscular strength and bones, but could benefit you walking down an ally.
As I reflect back on my own experience in the 75th Ranger Regiment, I recognize how stress has added benefit in my own life that goes well beyond my military service. By design, my path through infantry school, airborne school, Ranger Assessment and Selection (RASP) and onto the Army’s primer leadership course, Ranger School were all framed in an atmosphere of stress.
It was there in these “pressure cookers” that served to produced a level of stress that would later prepare me for the multiple combat deployments, make me a better manager, and an overall better person. But is not from military experience alone that I’v gained this education. It can be found encompassed in a daily regime of exercise where you have the ability to induce different levels of stress and choose to overcome. Years of navigation through the school system in both my graduate and undergraduate studies was just a different form of pressure cooker.
The work struggles and obstacles in business also provide a ripe atmosphere for the stretching that leads to growth. The fact is, there is no domain dependency when it comes to the benefits of stress. For instance, pushing yourself on a bike ride in the morning, trying to build a complex rocking chair in the garage, or working frantically on a fix for an error in your code lend themselves to increase your propensity to approach new and challenging problems. These all benefit you as a person and increase your value to your company as they provide time-under-tension. It is in this environment that we innovate and create new ways to approach future obstacles.
Every encounter in nature, society, and relationships are part of our education called experience and will give us the choice to be learners or non-learners. The choice is yours…
It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul. – Ernest Henley, Invictus
What we can learn from Stockdale and what we can do:
- There are very few things that we act upon, but many that are acted upon us. Find out what you have control over and it will simplify your life and your business interactions.
- In struggle and obstacles lies the value of growth and success. Go and do something that scares you. Instead of your daily jog, sprint a mile as fast as you can…
3. Finding an anchor, target, or focal point and it will sustain us through darker days. Stockdale was a constant learner, this provided context when he was going through hard times. Pick up a book on Cervantes, Solzhenitsyn, or Marcus Aurelius.
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James Bond Stockdale, Courage Under Fire- Speech delivered at the Great Hall, King’s College, London, Monday November 15, (1993).
James Bond Stockdale, Role Of The Pressure Cooker, Lecture delivered at the University of Texas as Dallas in November. (1980)
EPICTETUS, & HIGGINSON, T. W, The Enchiridion. New York, Liberal Arts Press. . (1955).
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.