Coping with long-term crises

Jim Stockdale spent seven years in a Vietnamese prison camp and survived. His secret? Quoting the article “The Stockdale Paradox” by Jim Collins:

I asked him who didn’t make it out of those systemic circumstances as well as he had.


He said, “The optimists. […] They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.” Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and he said, “This is what I learned from those years in the prison camp, where all those constraints just were oppressive. You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.”

Applying Stockdale’s approach to COVID-19

This is how I apply Stockdale’s approach to the current situation:

  • I’m assuming it will last years (which it may!), not months.
  • Accepting what is, has helped me find small ways to make my life more fun now: Leaving the house more often, cycling, 1:1 outdoor meetings, …
  • I’m also deliberately sitting with my inner discomfort, while doing nothing. That discomfort has always been there, but currently it’s harder to distract myself. As a consequence, I get to know myself better.

Everything is still challenging, but at least I spend less energy fighting the reality of the situation.