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Survival Mindset: 3 Lessons on Perspective and Optimism from History

Some of the most valuable lessons in life come from studying the experiences of people who have endured trials we would never want to endure ourselves.

That’s comforting, at least to me, as we continue through a season of global uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. People have spent a year adjusting to unprecedented challenges, and there are those who are predicting that a mental health crisis will be part of the ongoing fallout even after the coronavirus is under control.

Yet, we don’t have to start from scratch as we work to figure out how to deal with the challenges of the unknown. I’ve come to believe that no matter our difficulties, the most important place for a leader to begin is with adopting the right mindset. And to keep my attitude in the right place during hard times, I often think back on the lessons I’ve learned from three men who survived ordeals that are difficult for me to imagine.

Viktor Frankl

It’s been 75 years since Frankl’s classic book Man’s Search for Meaning was first published in Austria. After surviving the German concentration camps, Frankl explored the psychological lessons he retained from the experience. And there were many lessons, indeed. For instance, Frankl concluded that there are only two races: the decent and the indecent. There were decent Nazi guards and indecent fellow prisoners, he said, and that’s a helpful perspective when we’re tempted to stereotype people around us.

But the most enduring lesson for me from Frankl is that life never ceases to have meaning. No matter what we might be going through, our lives have purpose. And no matter what’s going on in our personal or work lives today, remembering that life has purpose can help us start with the right attitude.

Interestingly, the original title of Frankl’s book in German translates to “Nevertheless say ‘Yes’ to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.”

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Admiral James Stockdale

I’ve shared this story before, but it’s worth repeating, because repetition is a key to retention.

Stockdale was a pilot whose fighter jet was shot down during the Vietnam War, and he became the most senior naval officer held captive in Hanoi, North Vietnam. Years later, Good to Great author Jim Collins asked Stockdale how he coped as a POW, and Stockdale described a fascinating paradox that involved attitude. Prisoners who were unable to balance reality with their optimism had a much harder time, he said, because they were continually disappointed when their hopes weren’t realized.

“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,” Stockdale said.

It reminds me of a quote often attributed to motivational speaker William Arthur Ward: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

Louie Zamperini

Like Stockdale, Zamperini was a prisoner of war, but his trial was much more extensive. Zamperini’s plane went down over the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Eight men died, but he and two crewmates, Russell Phillips and Francis McNamara, survived the crash. McNamara died after 33 days at sea, but Phillips and Zamperini lasted 47 days before their raft drifted its way to the Marshall Islands. Then they became prisoners of the Japanese until the end of the war.

Many POWs in Japan were beaten and tortured, but Zamperini, who had been an Olympic track athlete, was singled out by a particularly sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe.

Zamperini’s story is told in the book and movie Unbroken, and it (especially the book) includes dozens of lessons about the importance of courage and positive attitude. But the one that stands out to me involves forgiveness. Zamperini returned to the US as a celebrated hero, but his life drifted into shambles as he delt with the psychological repercussions of his ordeal. Only after learning to forgive did his life turn around.

He later returned to Japan, where he met with many of his former guards and personally forgave them. Watanabe wasn’t there, but Zamperini returned a few years later (to carry the Olympic torch) and left behind a letter in hopes that it would reach his former tormentor. He didn’t downplay the pain Watanabe had caused, but he said love had “replaced hate” for his enemies and that he had forgiven him.

My troubles pale in comparison to these stories. And, in fact, one lesson is the reminder that in our worst of times, we are still much, much better off than many other people. Whatever we face in the coming months and years, it’s unlikely to be as severe as the experiences of Frankl, Stockdale, or Zamperini. But because of their stories, we can remember that life always has purpose, that we must balance optimism with realism, and that forgiveness and love are the key to peace. And with those lessons, we can face anything.

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