I highly value personal toughness. I don’t, however, expect this from everyone around me. In other words, I don’t go around hurting other people’s feeling, saying, “Hey, I’m sorry you’re offended; I’m just a straight-shooter.” No, I try to balance toughness with kindness, and I don’t pretend to be a valid arbiter of other people’s reactions.
I think one, highly-politicized example of this is trigger warnings on campus. I am largely in the Jonathan Haidt camp, in the sense that I don’t think we are helping our young people by implying avoidance is a good way to avoid pain. I think that’s akin to teaching them, “You’re too weak to handle this; you’re too weak for the hard stuff.”
If I were a professor in one of these classrooms, I would absolutely issue trigger warnings, because it is important to take care of people. Ideally, I would also sit down with the otherwise-triggered students for a one-on-one discussion after class, but I shouldn’t try to force healing or toughness on someone who’s hurting, even, or especially if I can’t understand why they are.
My toughness is also not some sort of misguided, toxic masculinity. I have all the feelings. Shoot, I cried at the end of Avengers: Endgame in a crowded movie theater, so I am definitely not calling for callousness. I simply seek toughness when the chips are down. When kindness is not offered. When toughness is required.
Another common way thinking about toughness is as stoicism. When I first heard about the philosophy of Stoicism, I was a sophomore at the Naval Academy, and we learned about it by examining the life of Admiral James Stockdale and his heroism while serving as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. 1
Admiral Stockdale had been very affected by the writings of Epictetus
in his middle years–pre-Vietnam–as a graduate student at Stanford, and it would later sustain him during seven grueling years in the “Hanoi Hilton”
In his own words:
On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap,
at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane–the cockpit walls not
even three feet apart–which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire, its
control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds
to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main
street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered
to myself: “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of
technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
“Ready at hand” from The Enchiridion as I ejected from that
airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files
in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those
things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A)
those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that
are “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those
things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B)
those things that are beyond it. All in category B are “external,”
beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I
covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power,
within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and
involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions,
my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what
is going on, my own good, and my own evil.²
Toughness for me is exerting rigid control over everything in "category A" when everything in "category B" is hard. I think the ultimate measure of a philosophy’s utility is how well it stands up at the limits of human experience. Stoicism has passed that test countless times throughout the ages.³
Another warrior I have immense respect for is Jocko Willink. He is impossibly intense, but also funny. Undeniably tough, but also intellectual. I’ve learned a lot from him in the few years since he emerged into public life.
Perhaps most important of these lessons is his version of what I call optimistic stoicism:
How do I deal with setback, Failures, delays, defeats, or other disasters? I actually have a fairly simple way of dealing with these situations, summed up in one word: "Good." This is something that one of my direct subordinates, one of the guys who worked for me, a guy who became one of my best friends, pointed out. He would pull me aside with some major problem or some issue that was going on, and he’d say "Boss, we’ve got this thing, this situation, and it’s going terribly wrong." I would look at him and I’d say: "Good." And finally, one day, he was telling me about something that was going off the rails, and as soon as he finished explaining it to me he said, "I already know what you’re going to say."
And I asked, "What am I going to say?"
And he said, "You’re going to say: ‘Good.’" He continued, "That’s what you always say. When something is wrong or going bad, you just look at me and say, ‘Good.’"
And I said, "Well. I mean it. Because that is how I operate." So I explained to him that when things are going bad there’s going to be some good that will come from it.
- Oh mission got canceled? Good. We can focus on another one.
- Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good. We can keep it simple.
- Didn’t get promoted? Good. More time to get better.
- Didn’t get funded? Good. We own more of the company.
- Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good. Go out, gain more experience, and build a better resume.
- Got injured? Good. Needed a break from training.
- Got tapped out? Good. It’s better to tap out in training than to tap out on the street.
- Got beat? Good. We learned.
- Unexpected problems? Good. We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.⁴
Beyond the Stoic ideal of an imperturbable rock, Jocko points out that bad news is just an opportunity to get better.
I love this reminder to ignore what’s out of my control and to instead focus on what I do control. I especially like it as a one-word reminder. In my day-to-day life, I put that one word in between action and reaction:
- Depending on your age and pop culture IQ, you may associate Admiral Stockdale with the jokes about him after the vice-presidential debates in 1992, when he was Ross Perot’s running mate. Please spend some time learning about the actual man. Dennis Miller gave perhaps the best counterpoint in his own comedy special in 1994: “Now I know [Stockdale’s name has] become a buzzword in this culture for doddering old man, but let’s look at the record, folks. The guy was the first guy in and the last guy out of Vietnam, a war that many Americans, including your new President, did not want to dirty their hands with. The reason he had to turn his hearing aid on at that debate is because those fucking animals knocked his eardrums out when he wouldn’t spill his guts. He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet…he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.”↩︎
- Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior], Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1993, p 7.↩︎
- If you’d like more inexpert opinions on Stoicism, Erik and I discussed the topic at length on our old podcast, Seasons.↩︎
- Jocko Willink, Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, 2017, pp 58-59.↩︎