Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military officer to be imprisoned during the Vietnam war. He was held prisoner for 8 long years without any rights, release date, or certainty about whether he would survive. Upon release, Admiral Stockdale was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Jim Collins, author of the bestselling book Good to Great, met Stockdale after that. Collins asked him how he survived. “I never lost faith in the story. I never doubted that I would not only get out and prevail in the end but also convert this experience into a defining event of my life”, he said. The next obvious question followed: “Who didn’t make it out?” The answer to the question was as unexpected as snowfall in summer. “The optimists”, answered Stockdale. “They kept saying that we would be out by Christmas. Christmas then became Easter, which became Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.” The optimists died of broken hearts more than physical torture.
Optimism - the hope that things will get better - is a trait which all human beings possess. What differentiates us is how long we can hold on to it. There are 2 kinds of optimists:
- The vast majority who expect things to get better instantly and give up when they don’t. Such people often blame the environment, conditions or other people for their failure, without realizing that they either needed to change their perspective or were remarkably close to success when they gave up.
- The almost-negligible minority who possess eternal optimism and eventually succeed. They live by the quote: “Everything is okay in the end. If it is not okay, it isn’t the end.” These people persevere with a goal until they achieve it, no matter what.
But merely possessing the optimism that you will eventually prevail is not enough. You must be able to face the hard, brutal facts, and do something about it. Admiral Stockdale possessed these traits in abundance. He confronted the fact that he wouldn’t make it out of incarceration by simply waiting to be released. So he shouldered command and did everything he could to increase the number of prisoners who would survive the ordeal without breaking down mentally. He realized that no one can face torture indefinitely, and devised step-wise systems to ensure that the men had something to look forward to. For instance, saying certain things after x minutes to a person being tortured, an internal communication system to reduce the sense of isolation among prisoners that the captors were trying to induce. Stockdale and his men followed these systems with military-esque discipline (no pun intended).
There is nothing wrong in being an optimist. In fact, possessing this trait is commendable. But expecting things to magically fall in place is where most people often mess things up. Do you know how many people have quit, and how many companies have failed because they refused to acknowledge what they saw in the mirror and lacked the discipline to fix it? Yes, you need discipline. Discipline is not following a strict routine; it is doing things that matter consistently till you achieve the desired results.
Let me relate a personal experience with you. I own a Yamaha RD350, which also happens to be MS Dhoni’s favorite motorbike. It was in rickety shape when I bought it. I gave it to a mechanic who promised to restore it back to its glory days. To cut a long story short, he fleeced me of a lot of money and left the bike worse off. He also turned a good friend against me. Another friend, who also owns a similar bike, advised me to sell it and go for something more modern. At that time, I underwent a surgery, and lost out on a potential promotion as a result. My whole world was crumbling. I cried for days. But I resolved that I would fix both the bike and my friendship, no matter what it took. For a year, I asked people for help with the bike, but nothing moved. Then, I met an unassuming mechanic who said that he was leaving Mumbai for good in 3 weeks. He surveyed the bike and said that he could fix some urgent issues, and that I could take care of the rest gradually. But getting the other work done from someone I didn’t know could land me in the same soup again. I was faced with two choices. I could either let him finish the difficult part and then find someone else to restore the bike cosmetically. Or I could push the limits and get everything done in 3 weeks. For three weeks that followed, my schedule was: work from 3:30 am - 12:30 pm (I worked at a call centre then), have lunch and leave by 2 with the mechanic to buy parts, return by 5 and work with him on the bike till 9:30 at night, sleep by 11 and wake up by 2:30 to get ready for work. After 3 weeks, when I unveiled the bike to my friends, the sheer admiration in their eyes when they rode it was the icing on the cake. The cake, of course, was that I had a gorgeous-looking beast in my garage which was the envy of many boys and men in the locality. And oh! Everything eventually worked out with the friend with whom my relation was strained. To this day, we remain good friends.
I don’t mean to brag, but I displayed each of the important traits for those 3 weeks: the belief that I would eventually prevail, facing the brutal facts, and self-discipline. If I achieved all this in 3 weeks, imagine what you can do in 3 years!
Remember, you can achieve everything that you set your sights on. It is going to be difficult, very difficult. If excellence was easy or mediocre, everyone would achieve it. And that would make us lose out on the fun of pursuing something with our hearts and minds, sticking to it, and eventually coming out on top. There would be no difference between Beethoven and a rookie musician, or Sachin Tendulkar and any other cricketer. That would suck, right?
I hope you realize that there is a lot more that goes into being successful than what self-help books prescribe. Being likable, having a good posture, maintaining eye contact, speaking well etc. are all fine. But what you really need to do to be respected and successful is to excel at something. And to excel, you have to work your ass off. You have to face the truth, however harsh it may be, possess remarkable self-discipline to do the right thing at the right time, and believe that you will eventually prevail.
What are your thoughts on this? I would love to hear from you.