Optimism alone isn’t the answer to our problems
A view from Chris Dawson

Optimism alone isn’t the answer to our problems

How do we approach 2021 practically and psychologically?

It feels rather surreal to be saying hello to January 2021, still lacking the usual celebratory punctuations of Christmas and New Year, and with last year's painful wounds, having barely scabbed over, now freshly ripped open once again.

Our events industry is decimated. The hospitality sector is gasping for air and the supporting infrastructure for both, left on the side-lines. The Westminster governance seems illogical and confused - and the data upon which they build their twisting direction has been dubiously calculated, widely disputed, and at times found wholly inaccurate.

It's been a very hard time to be running a business or to be employed or furloughed, not knowing what the future holds, and now things are set to get much worse.

So how do we now deal with this practically and psychologically? I've observed on social channels, people seem to be meeting this over-extended hiatus with something close to blind optimism.

You've probably seen similar platitudinal posts on "staying positive", and "this will all be over soon" and "now the vaccines are here" etc. Optimism is useful, but rather counterintuitively is not the best strategy for dealing with crisis or indeed tyranny. To face down the dragon, so to speak, we need to employ more than optimistic hope.

The atrocities of the twentieth century taught us that measured stoicism can be a better approach to crisis.

James Stockdale, the US Navy admiral, and longest surviving Vietnam prisoner of war veteran, has some good advice to offer: Stockwell was tortured daily for seven years to the point where he could no longer walk. He suffered unspeakably at the hands of the camp guards, but managed to survive, while many others perished in much less time.

In what has become known as the Stockdale paradox from his conversations with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, Collins asked Stockdale which prisoners didn't make it out of Vietnam.

Stockdale replied: "Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, 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."

So one should paradoxically believe fully in realising one's aims eventually, whilst staring into the brutal reality of what one faces daily, dealing squarely with hardship, in order to survive. Collins goes on to extrapolate that whilst living this paradox, one can acquire a balance of stoicism, belief and strategy enough to overcome most situations. I think this paradox may aid our industry much in 2021.

We will eventually get back to relative normality, but we all need to adapt and overcome the immediate challenges that we still face.

For individuals this might mean finding work elsewhere in the interim. It means that to constantly apply for jobs in sectors that are shrinking is a fool's errand. If no one is playing: change the game. There is honour in adaptation, and character is to be found in how one deals with the short term, to rise again in the long.

In the summer, I was buoyed to read on LinkedIn about a former team member from years ago, who decided to start a gardening service while she was between roles. I thought to myself, that's really impressive - she has what it takes. It took me back to when I was unemployed in my twenties, and instead of signing on, I worked for a removals company with a gang of Eastern European lads and we quickly became firm friends. For about eight months I had the best time, and I will always cherish that experience, as it helped shape me mentally and physically!

For agency and business owners in the events, experiential and hospitality space this year will mean diversification and adaptation on a grand scale in order to make the economic sunrise on the horizon.

Hard decisions still need to be made, and many more jobs will be lost when furloughing ends. I believe that bosses should openly talk to employees now so that people understand this fact. To be prepared is half the victory after all. Whatever the action taken, and whatever the toil needs to be suffered - we must not lose our resolve, nor our fight. So how do we prepare our minds for this?

Nietzsche famously said, "He who has a 'why' to live for, can bear almost any 'how'." And as we face more challenges as an industry, and more damaging economic policy, it becomes more important to orientate our minds in the most advantageous way. So, finding one's "why" is not just important, but paramount.

Another philosopher and survivor of the war camps of last century, author Viktor Frankl, in his book Man's Search for Meaning, laid out three main areas for finding meaning in life.

Firstly, a great love or relationship is in of itself enough to live a meaningful life.

Secondly, a vocation or job that one truly believes in.

And thirdly, and perhaps the option that everyone has a shot at presently, is that one may find life's meaning in the pursuit of overcoming adversity and suffering itself. So to allow myself to be momentarily optimistic, if only for irony: at least we all now have plenty of stone upon which to sharpen our spiritual swords!

Frankl's work has been developed further by the somewhat controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson who nets everything down to one meta theme: responsibility. And of responsibility, his most important substrate is to speak one's truth, especially to tyranny. Perhaps something to keep in mind for this year.

Maybe our collective responsibility as an industry, is to become more active ourselves, and also support the groups and individuals that already speak on our behalf, some of which I have listed below. There are also some links for those seeking help and support on a personal level too. If this is you - don't wait, please call a number today. You are not alone.

So I hope these great figures' lessons and teachings helps people in some small way, and here's to wishing everyone a better year ahead, eventually. I warmly welcome your comments.

Chris Dawson is founder of Ted Experience and Ted Staffing.

Useful links

Forgotten Ltd - support for small business owners and their employees

HospitalityNet Covid-19 survival guide for the hospitality industry

Silent Nights

The Self Space