Coping with change in a healthy way; or, avoiding the comb-over

The ancient Chinese curse of “May you live in interesting times” is getting a work out these days, and I don’t think it’s over. The fuse seems lit for any number of expanding crises, from the Mid-East and North Africa to oil prices to inflation to runaway national debt. Unemployment remains at historic highs, particularly if you count true unemployment. Food prices are rising. My grass is dead (and don’t tell me it’s just because it’s winter – I know Bernanke is behind my brown lawn). That’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of change, a lot of holy crap. It’s pretty intimidating.

Well, have a nice night.


OK, no, I’ve got a little more to say.

First of all, it’s normal to be disconcerted by change. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force, like a pink slip or $12-a-gallon gas. Getting forced into motion by that kind of jarring change is just plain uncomfortable – no way around it.

But, it’s also important to remember that NOTHING gets better or stronger without discomfort. Not muscles, not talent, not nothing. If you are comfortable, you are not moving forward. It’s one of the immutable laws of nature, right behind “Don’t piss off tigers or skunks.”

That said, we still have to deal with the discomfort that comes with change. This is often called “coping with change.” But “coping with change” is an incomplete strategy statement, because there are healthy coping techniques, like gaining perspective, going with the flow and keeping a sense of humor, and there are unhealthy coping techniques, like denial, drugs and comb-overs.

The trick is to cope with change in a healthy way, or at least not in an unhealthy way.

One of our nation’s most heroic men was the late Admiral James Stockdale. Some of you probably remember Admiral Stockdale as the somewhat dazed looking running mate to Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential election. Others of you were not born in 1992, and that’s just damn irritating, frankly.

But before Perot, Admiral Stockdale was a Vietnam War hero and the highest-ranking prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton, an inhumane POW facility. During his time in the Hanoi Hilton, leading the other dispirited and broken American prisoners, Admiral Stockdale developed what “Good to Great” author James Collins would later call the Stockdale Paradox.

When Collins asked the Admiral how he coped with being a prisoner of war in those brutal conditions, Stockdale said, “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."

Not everyone made it out of the Hanoi Hilton however, and Collins asked who didn’t survive the experience and why. "Oh, that’s easy, the optimists,” Stockdale said. “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. 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.”

That is the Stockdale Paradox: Never lose faith that you will prevail in the end; at the same time, always maintain the courage and discipline to acknowledge and confront the hard reality of your situation.

When the poop hits the fan, and it will in some form in all of our lives, more than once, you must take on the hard reality and deal with it, but you must not lose faith that you will make it through, maybe even as a better person than you were before.

Or, to trivialize the issue (as I generally do to wrap up an essay), accept the fact that you are losing your hair without losing your head..