A while back on John Gruber’s Daring Fireball I came across a link to a Jim Collins interview with Admiral James Stockdale. I’ve written about Admiral Stockdale before, but his example set under the direst circumstances imaginable led to an almost overnight improvement in my own character. As a 20-year-old, I was very prone to overreacting to just about everything, but learning about Admiral Stockdale reset the scale I used when measuring my own personal “hardships.” This changed everything, and it changed quickly.
I like Admiral Stockdale’s succinct definition of stoicism:
A Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.”
This is manifestly true, and to my way of thinking, the only thing really in category (A) is my own attitude and response to the world. I now consider each particular hardship as training, and I have often found I can apply this mindset in the moment. When I fail the test real-time, I am still strengthened by applying this mental frame in hindsight.
Before sitting down with the admiral, Jim Collins wondered about how he avoided despair as a Prisoner of War:
Then all of a sudden it dawned on me, “Wait a minute, I’m getting depressed reading [In Love and War], and I know the end of the story. I know he gets out. I know he reunites with his family. I know he becomes a national hero. And I even know that we’re going to have lunch on the beautiful Stanford campus on Monday. How did he not let those oppressive circumstances beat him down? How did he not get depressed?” And I asked him.
He said, “Well, you have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail—-get out of this—-but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person. Not only that, Jim, you realize I’m the lucky one.”
I said, “No, I don’t.”
He said, “Yes, because I know the answer to how I would do, and you never will.”
We cannot control the trials we face, but we can turn them into training. When something is hard, it can make us better. When we prepare for this training, our thoughts can more easily fall into healthy patterns. Patterns we should learn ahead of time.
That is my goal for studying The Practicing Stoic. I will prepare and reinforce the mental patterns I need during a trial, and I will practice them when I am inevitably tried.
Book Club : The Practicing Stoic