The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Expect Nothing: Live Frugally On Surprise

"The Stockdale Paradox" and the art of realistic optimism.

Dandelion in the yard.

“You cannot prevent the birds of worry and care from flying over your head. But you can stop them from building a nest in your hair.” — Famous Proverb

Many people consider a dandelion to be a weed. As dandelions fill my yard this spring, I am reminded again that they are just as beautiful as the daffodils and tulips next to them. And I wonder, “Why do people go to great lengths to kill these flowers with herbicides?” Like a family friend used to say to the love of his life, and wife of 60 years, “She’s like a flower....a dandelion.” I’d rather be given a bouquet of dandelions from someone’s yard than a dozen roses from a store. How about you?

Alice Walker expresses the concept of realistic optimism and adjusting expectations brilliantly in her poem “Expect Nothing.” She says, “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise ... Wish for nothing larger than your own small heart or greater than a star. Tame wild disappointment with caress unmoved and cold. Make of it a parka for your soul.” As an athlete, I use Walker’s words as a mantra that helps to create a state of realistic optimism and a mindset that enables me to walk the tightrope of “The Stockdale Paradox.” You can too. 

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A recent New York Times article titled "Before Bombs: A Battered American Dream" suggests that being barred from boxing competitions may have triggered a path of radicalization for Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Dozens of interviews have revealed that when his athletic dreams were dashed, he became isolated, angry, and his life went adrift. The Times describes Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a “cocksure fighter, a flamboyant dresser partial to white fur and snakeskin.” Tom Lee, president of the South Boston Boxing Club said, “For a big man, he was very agile. He moved like a gazelle and was strong like a horse. He was a big puncher. But he was an underachiever because he did not dedicate himself to the proper training regimen.”

This brings up the question for me as an athlete and coach about how a sense of entitlement and arrogance without putting hard work into one's training goes against everything the American dream stands for. Sportsmanlike behavior is about finding “The Sweet Spot Between Hubris and Humility.” Mr. Tsarnaev certainly didn’t learn this lesson from his mom. It was disturbing to hear his mother, Zubeidat, in a press conference last week vehemently defending her sons while not showing an ounce of remorse for the victims and loss of life at the Boston Marathon saying: “My Tamerlan was a really, really beautiful boy. Handsome like Hercules. Tall and beautiful. His body was like ‘oh my God,’ like, written. You know, shedevr [masterpiece].”

Another example of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s arrogance and lack of humility was described in the Times article: “During a preliminary round of the New England Golden Gloves in 2010, in a breach of boxing etiquette, he entered the locker room to taunt not only the fighter he was about to face but also the fighter’s trainer. Introducing what would become his signature style, he showed up overdressed, wearing a white silk scarf, black leather pants and mirrored sunglasses. Wearing a cowboy hat and alligator-skin cowboy boots, he gave the two men a disdainful once-over and said: “You’re nothing. I’m taking you down.”

How does an athlete’s ego go so far astray? What can be done to stop this? How can someone cope with dreams not coming true in a healthy way and break this cycle? The Stockdale Paradox describes a type of ‘realistic optimism’ that is at the core of becoming a healthy and resilient person. 

The Stockdale Paradox: Lessons in Realistic Optimism from a POW

Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the United States Navy. When Stockdale was flying a mission over North Vietnam in 1965 his plane was struck by enemy fire. He ejected from the Skyhawk and parachuted into enemy territory. He landed in a small village, where he was beaten and then taken prisoner. Stockdale was held as a prisoner of war (POW) for the next seven and one-half years.

As the senior Naval officer, Stockdale was one of the primary organizers of creating a prisoner alliance. He and eleven other POWs were known as the “Alcatraz Gang.” The Alcatraz Gang were kept in individual windowless cells measuring 3 feet by 9 feet with a single light bulb that was kept on around the clock. They were locked in leg irons each night and tortured routinely. Stockdale created and enforced a code of conduct for all prisoners and a sense of realistic optimism that helped them survive torture without being broken and devised a secret communication method that helped the prisoners survive solitary confinement.

James Collins wrote a business book called Good to Great and coined the term “The Stockdale Paradox" after an interview with Stockdale revealed a philosophical duality of being both realistic and optimistic simultaneously. Collins writes about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp:

“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."

When Collins asked who didn't make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied: “Oh, that's easy, 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."

Stockdale then added: “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."

The Stockdale Paradox and the Importance of Social Support

What was Admiral Stockdale's ultimate source of strength for maintaining realistic optimism? It came from the social support network he created with other prisoners. Although Stockdale was in solitary confinement, he was able to communicate through the wall to another POW in the cell next to him through a tap code that involved five letters in five rows. If they didn't have a tap code to communicate Stockdale and his fellow POWs would have lost their minds. The POWs developed friendships for life through the tap code from one cell to another.

James Stockdale, gave details on this code in a book he wrote with his wife Sybil titled In Love and War. Stockdale recalls: "Our tapping ceased to be just an exchange of letters and words; it became conversation. Elation, sadness, humor, sarcasm, excitement, depression -- it all came through."  Stockdale also describes the pleasure of coming up with abbreviations, to shorten the time it took to communicate messages. Long before texting and emoticons, Stockdale describes how they created acronyms and shortcuts:

"Passing on abbreviations like conundrums got to be a kind of game," remembered Stockdale. "What would ST mean right after GN? 'Sleep tight,' of course. And DLTBBB? I laughed to think what our friends back home would think of us two old fighter pilots [Stockdale refers to Air Force Major Samuel Johnson, in an adjoining cell] standing at a wall, checking for shadows under the door, pecking out a final message for the day with our fingernails: 'Don't let the bedbugs bite.'" Some of the acronyms entered POW popular usage. One acronym, GBU, was used as a universal sign-off. It was shorthand for "God Bless You.”

Conclusion: Loving-kindness. Not guns and bombs.

As parents and coaches how can we break the cycle that leads someone to become hateful and lash out when things don’t go his or her way? Arrogance, violence, and terrorism are not the way to create social change or to respond to having your dreams stymied by forces beyond your control.

My daughter won two blue ribbons at her first swim meet a few weeks ago. As a parent, it was a moment to rejoice in her hard work and accomplishment. However, it was also a delicate time to temper any hubris of 'victory' with a solid dose of humility. It's always a tightrope walk between believing wholeheartedly that if you work hard that you will prevail while simultaneously knowing that things don't always turn out that way. It's important to be able to bounce back and readapt when the cards of chance fall the other direction, especially when you have worked tirelessly towards a dream and it gets derailed. 

The world is a very competitive place. It’s easy to have sour grapes when life doesn’t go your way; or to blame the powers-that-be for 'conspiring' against you. As a gay teen who struggled with coming out in the early 80s, I know what it feels like to be discriminated against and treated like an outsider. I also know that non-violence, 'ferocious equanimity,' and a strong sense of community are the only healthy ways to cope with these feelings.

Recently I was one of four members of the LGBT community who were on a panel at the Beacon High School in Watertown, Massachusetts as part of a ‘week of courage’ they had planned. We all shared our coming out stories. It was a tear filled morning, but the resounding message from all of us to the teenagers was one about the power of vulnerability and the importance of sticking together, reaching out, and asking for help if you feel isolated or bullied.

We opened the symposium at Beacon with the Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis video “Same Love” which sums up the message of fostering loving-kindness and acceptance of people who are different from you better than any words I could write here.

Violence begets violence. In order to break the “Sockeroo” cycle of gun violence and bombs we need to remember The Stockdale Paradox and how POWs dealt with their captors by creating a tap code for sticking together in order to get through a situation that seemed hopeless.

Each of us should strive to keep 'ferocious equanimity' alive through our daily thoughts and actions; and to keep the channel of communication open between one another and our children. Simultaneously, we should strive to maximize our potential—while expecting nothing and living frugally on surprise. It's a tall order, I know. The Stockdale Paradox can be tricky, but luckily creating a state of realistic optimism is something that is in the locus of your control and that you can master with mindfulness and practice. 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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