Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Paradox For Our Times

Every day I hear friends, family and clients telling sad stories of lost jobs, businesses, stock portfolios and peace of mind, and asking me how we’ll ever get through this economic crisis. How can I answer them, except with “there, there, everything will be OK” or “yes, we’re all headed for certain doom”? Is there an alternative response?

Yes! In Good to Great Jim Collins proposes the “Stockdale Paradox” as a way to deal with what life inevitably throws our way. The paradox is: “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of difficulties, AND at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Collins named it after Admiral James Stockdale, a Vietnam War POW in the “Hanoi Hilton” who was repeatedly tortured during his 8-year imprisonment. With no certainty of his survival, Admiral Stockdale continued to be a leader among the prisoners and took effective action to increase the number of survivors. He didn’t tell the prisoners to keep their chins up because they were sure to be rescued any day, and he didn’t roll over and wait to die either.

What a simple, yet profound, lesson for us in these troubling times. Throughout history we can find numerous examples of people who prevailed despite living amid conditions much more brutal than we are facing. Just ask your parents and grandparents how they survived and helped others survive during the Great Depression and World War II. I suspect their answers would be some variation of a lesson learned by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who spent 3 years at Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps: “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”

One of the unsung heroines of World War II was Antonina Zabinski, so eloquently described in The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman. Antonina and her husband were in charge of the Warsaw zoo when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. After the Germans bombed the city and removed the remaining animals, the zookeepers saved more than 300 people from death by hiding them in the empty animal cages, right under the noses of the Nazis. Although terrified that the Germans would kill her and her entire family, she continued to aid the Polish Underground and provided hospitality and even moments of joy to their “guests.” Antonina chose her attitude and did the right thing despite her fear and the brutal reality of her loss of friends and possessions.

And so we remind ourselves as we hear the latest gloomy predictions and unemployment numbers that when the dust settles from this round of earthly troubles—and it will—the ones left standing will be those who confronted the fear and transformed it. Let’s keep stories like this before us, along with the faith that we will prevail. Like Admiral Stockdale and the others, with no certainty of our own survival, we can still be the light that shines in the darkness to help others find the way out.