in Philosophy

Winning the War with Ourselves

Every day we’re at war with ourselves. Stoicism, the Hellenistic philosophy, is my most useful weapon in combatting the enemy of Resistance, the negative force that impedes our climb toward greatness.

With Jim Collins’s book Built to Last being a recent nightstand fixture of mine, while reading it, I recalled the story of Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale as told by Collins in another of his bestsellers, Good to Great. Stockdale flew the first sorties into North Vietnam and was shot down early in the conflict. He was imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” for eight years.

I’ve linked to a video of bestselling author Steven Pressfield in the first paragraph. In the video, Pressfield discusses Resistance and how to overcome it. While writing this post, I also learned that he is a reader and devotee of Collins’s work. He mentions Good to Great as the second favorite book of (after Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) Marine general Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, who was appointed head of United States Central Command in August 2010.

While writing Good to Great, Collins had the opportunity to meet Stockdale. From their conversation, Collins took away a very important lesson he later included in the book. Stockdale related to Collins the following about his time in prison in Vietnam:

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, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

Stockdale, however, made a point of distinguishing faith from optimism. As Collins explains:

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, 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.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “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.”

What separates people, Stockdale says, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how individuals deal with the inevitable difficulties of life.

The Stockdale Paradox effortlessly captures this. It is a signature of greatness in people and organizations, corporations, even nations (think Great Britain during WWII, under the leadership of Winston Churchill). Adversity strengthens the soul and hardens the body. It strips away the noise and clutter of life and allows the mind to focus on what will have the most impact.

It’s not enough to believe you will simply survive. You must believe in your ability to prevail.

Collins never explicitly raises the issue of philosophy or Stoicism, but there it is, on paper, in one of the most articulate, actionable, understandable, applicable iterations I’ve ever seen.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is one of my favorite Stoic texts. In confronting the more mundane of life’s difficulties, I often refer back to the following quotation:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

The depth of Stoic thought fills books and spans generations, and has influenced modern day leaders like President Bill Clinton, who named it his favorite book. I hope you get the chance to explore this wonderful school of philosophy and learn from it. I certainly have.

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