On September 9th, 1965, in the middle of the Vietnam war, admiral Jim Stockdale was flying his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk when it was struck by enemy fire. He was forced to eject.
Stockdale ended up becoming the highest-ranking US Military officer held as a prisoner-of-war. Imprisoned for almost 8 years, he was repeatably tortured and never knew whether he’d ever lived to see his family again.
While under this extreme stress, he did everything he could to increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken. He instituted rules that gave the men milestones to say certain things after X minutes under torture. He even instituted elaborate methods of communicating in the camp and risked his life to exchange secret intelligence information with his wife through letters.
Stockdale made it out alive and wrote about his experience in the book “In Love and War”. When Jim Collins interviewed him for his own book, “Good to Great”, Stockdale said that he never doubted that he would make it out alive, and furthermore, that he would be able to turn the experience into a defining moment of his life.
In contrast, he said that the people who didn’t make it out were the optimists. They were the ones saying that they’d be out by Christmas, then Easter, then Christmas again and so forth. Those people died as their faith slowly withered away.
He later 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.”
This serves as an important reminder that despite all the things out of our control, we reserve the power to choose what role an event will play in our lives.
You might get screwed over by a business partner, lose your job, your house, get cancer or end up in a car accident that wasn’t your fault. No matter what happens YOU have the power to define those events for yourself.