America Can Handle the Truth—As Scary As It Is


It’s been a while since I posted anything new on my blog. That fact is particularly ironic given that I am, like most everyone in the country, in lockdown with a ton of time on my hands. Strangely, I have found time to wipe down my door knobs and countertops like every 20 minutes. Now my whole house smells like a nursing facility. When I told my wife what product I was using, she realized it was Lysol she whiffed when playing under her sister’s vanity as a child. Ah, the revelations of later life, the tenuous silver-linings of a pandemic.

Yesterday—or was it the day before, or the week before?—I was watching the news and cursing all the mixed messages we’re getting on COVID-19, from face masks to social distancing to going to the park. Between the doctors, the mayors, the governors, Cuomo, Fauci, Pence, and Trump we get a range of guidance so bewildering I need at least two cocktails not to blow a gasket during press conferences. The general sense I get—primarily from the Trump administration, but other politicians as well—is that they’re trying to instill confidence at the expense of being honest. At first, the messaging was, “This will all go away when the weather gets warm.” Then it turned into, “Well, it’s pretty serious, but we’re totally prepared.” Then, at some point, it turned into, “It’s the fucking apocalypse! Stockpile toilet paper and cat food!”

Figuring It Out as We Go

The most honest statement I’ve heard came from an exhausted-looking Tony Fauci when he said (I’m paraphrasing here), “We’re figuring this all out as we go.” 

Actually, that explains a lot, though it’s not likely to reassure anyone. As much as I appreciated his honesty, it left me feeling like anything goes: Wear a face mask, or don’t. Your guess is as good as ours…

Hearing Fauci speak, though, I was reminded of reading Jim Collins’s book Good to Great back in the day. In his now-canonical work, Collins discusses the experience of Admiral James Stockdale, who was the highest ranking American prisoner at the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp during the Vietnamese War. According to Collins, Stockdale was tortured more than 20 times during his eight-year residence there. At one point, Collins asked Stockdale how he survived such an ordeal:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,’ he said, when I asked him. “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 asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale replied, 

“The optimists…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 goes on to conclude that, “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.”

Go Ahead, Hit Me With It

When I was a young entrepreneur, I took Collins’s discussion of the “Stockdale Paradox” to heart and tried to be as brutally honest with my staff as possible. When we laid people off during a bad year, I told them it was because revenue was down and keeping too many staff on the payroll could endanger the whole enterprise. I also assured them we’d pull through by working together—and gave them detailed information on the cost-saving measures we had planned. Looking back on it, I realize some folks might have preferred less information—to be told, simply, that “everything will be okay.” But I believe the vast majority of our employees appreciated the candor and knowing what sacrifices might be required of us all to survive the downturn. 

The current pandemic, of course, is a “Hanoi Hilton” moment for our leaders. They can feed us such nonsense as “We’ll open the economy by Easter” or they can candidly acknowledge that we’re in some deep shit but that, working together with a fierce determination, we will survive. We’ll lose more lives than anyone can bear, the economy will shrink more than anyone thought possible, and we may all face significant personal sacrifices, but, as a nation, we will get through it. If I could tell our leaders anything, it is this: “Respect our intelligence and our resilience. Believe in our ability to process complicated, contradictory, or partial information. But give us the brutal, unvarnished truth. And commit yourself to doing whatever is required to lead us through this mess.” Hey, we’re the country that crossed the Delaware and unleashed hell on the Hessians at Trenton. We launched Operation Overlord on D-Day. We binge-watched all eight seasons of Game of Thrones in, like, a week. We can fucking do this.

Of course, neither Trump nor Pence nor Cuomo nor even the mayor of Saratoga Springs is asking for my advice. That’s fine. I’m too busy disinfecting my cat, anyway. It would be great, though, if they read some Jim Collins and took to heart the Stockdale Paradox and the idea that we can, in fact, handle the truth.

2 thoughts on “America Can Handle the Truth—As Scary As It Is

  1. Great post Jim. The Stockdale Paradox reminds me advice from Laurence Gonzalez in his book Deep Survival. Don’t be optimistic about the situation. Be realistic about the situation and optimistic about your ability to handle it.

  2. As usual, both articulate and thoughtful. And from all of us who follow your blog, Happy Birthday

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