Why we all need to be a little more Jack Reacher right now. I’ve read every one of the 24 books written by Lee Child about the loner, rule-bending, all-action hero, Jack Reacher. According to the sales figures, so have millions of other people. But in case you haven’t had that particular joy, I wanted to share a little piece of advice that Reacher, our six-foot five-inch tall, former military police officer, lives by: “Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.”
He meets a wide array of seemingly impossible situations with a readiness and a mindset, which for the most part, enable him to succeed, at least by a fictional, action-hero definition! It’s a maxim many non-fictional characters have lived by too and I think it is an approach we could all consider adopting right now.
Without getting all Grief Curve-y on you (Kubler-Ross, 2014) it is generally accepted that we will all have experienced our own version of transitioning through different phases, as we adjusted to being in lockdown. These phases are accompanied by different emotions, thoughts and beliefs. Much of how you have experienced the last few weeks will have depended on any number of factors, including the pandemic’s direct impacts on your life and the lives of those you love.
The frustrating thing is that none of us has control over the current situation. We can, do and should acknowledge our feelings, sometimes of sadness and grief and sometimes closer to anger but reacting, based only on emotions, such as our anger or despondency, would be wrong.
Hoping for the best, whilst planning for the worst enables us to influence outcomes and give us a sense of some degree of control, in a situation that is otherwise largely outside our powers of direction. Whilst such an approach gives you no guarantees of a positive result, it does allow you to manage your responses both emotionally and also practically.
Being quicker to see a viable solution because you have prepared for it, could be the difference between your business surviving or going under; of your team members staying engaged and productive or them being dispirited; you working through a pre-considered plan or responding irrationally, fuelled by raw emotion.
The ancient stoics used a visualisation approach called premeditatio malorum, which in the words of philosopher Seneca, required us to:
“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”
In more recent days, in my work as a sports psychologist, we referred to this strategy as “worst case scenario planning.” In fact, I was led through this process myself once by my own sports psychologist, as we planned my approach for an especially tough International competition I had entered. We planned a range of bad scenarios and how to meet them, including in the early round-robin stage where we envisioned that I would get a terrible draw, facing many of the strongest opponents in the competition; an unusual occurrence, thanks to the effects of seeding that tended to keep the strongest athletes apart until later rounds.
The weird thing was that this worst-case scenario played out almost exactly as we had visualised. The rehearsal I had done in the weeks leading up to the competition enabled me to meet the situation with a sense of equanimity because I had prepared for the worst. I wouldn’t have been able to produce such a positive response without the mental practice my sports psychologist and I had completed. Ultimately, it didn’t make a difference to the final result, but it did enable me to perform well under the sort of pressure that, I remain convinced to this day, would have affected me very negatively without such preparation.
The Stockdale Principle, named after US naval officer James Stockdale and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, also speak to the idea of optimism coupled with a healthy dose of reality. Both Stockdale and Frankl were POWs and separately reported that prisoners died in camp at much higher rates when they had committed themselves to a specific date by which they hoped to be free.
James Stockdale, who went on to be a Vice-Presidential candidate, is quoted in the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, as holding a mental framework of ‘realistic optimism.’ Stockdale balanced the paradox of acknowledging the awfulness of his situation, which for him included repeated bouts of torture, with holding on dearly to a healthy optimism and belief that he would ultimately prevail. Frankl, following his own horrendous experiences in Auschwitz, referred to such a mindset approach as ‘tragic optimism.’
A little more Jack Reacher.
Counter-intuitively, preparing for the worst, produces positive outcomes, not in the result necessarily but certainly in the way we meet difficult times. The irony is of course, that like Jack Reacher, we could apply this approach to our life in general, not just when confronted with extreme difficulty.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
(Reinhold Niebuhr, 1933)