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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mark Pollock, Head, Mark Pollock Trust

  • How successfully we respond to the challenges thrown up by the pandemic will depend on our collective commitment to confront them.
  • Realism – not optimism – will help us prevail in these deeply uncertain times, argues speaker, explorer and founder of Run in the Dark, Mark Pollock.

A veteran explorer offered me the following thought before I raced to the South Pole in 2009: “When you’re at zero, just get to one”.

I only really understood what he meant deep into a psychological slump in the midst of that 43-day expedition in Antarctica, a decade after losing my sight and one year before breaking my back.

By narrowing my focus to simply getting to one, it allowed the enormity of the overall task to fall away – all that was left was the swoosh of my cross country skis, stride by stride, as we powered on towards the Pole.

The South Pole Race was a challenge that I chose to take on. It was simply a race. And, no matter how bad I felt at zero, I always got to one – it just took a bit of time to get there. It’s what sport teaches all of us who try and fail and try again in pursuit of success.

Right now, the stakes are so much higher than any endurance race. Ultimately, success will be defined by our collective commitment to living in a new way with COVID-19 in our midst, as lockdown restrictions are eased globally. And as the pandemic impacts us all for an extended period of time, millions of people will be at zero – physically, mentally, economically and socially.

This expedition through uncertainty demands us to adapt our behaviour in ways that almost none of us have had to before. Yet as Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, said: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

These are the words of a man who survived the Holocaust only to learn of the death of almost all his immediate family members soon after he was liberated in 1945.

Millions faced the tyranny of uncertainty in those camps, and so many lost their lives. Frankl’s experiences, told in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, offer us a template for how to endure hardship as we seek to create stability where there is none.

In 2010, not long after getting back from the South Pole, a fall from a second-storey window nearly killed me. I broke my back and the damage to my spinal cord left me paralysed.

Lying in intensive care, at the very edge of survival, I was at zero again. Trying to make sense of it all, flat on my back and high on morphine, I felt for my phone in the middle of the night to write a blog titled: “Optimist, Realist or Something Else?”

It drew on Admiral Stockdale’s experience as a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. I remembered his story from listening to the audiobook Good to Great, by Jim Collins.

Incarcerated for eight years and tortured more than 20 times, Stockdale didn’t know if or when he might get out. His circumstances were bleak. But he survived.

As Collins read In Love and War by Stockdale and his wife, he found himself getting depressed despite knowing the book’s positive ending. So in an interview, Collins asked Stockdale how he had dealt with the situation when he didn’t know how things were going to turn out.

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.”

Collins was surprised at Stockdale’s answer and asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

Stockdale said: “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists. 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.”

As I wrote my blog, I was trying to apply his thinking as a realist to my increasingly bleak circumstances. Facing the prospect of adding paralysis to my existing blindness, I slowly began to appreciate what Stockdale meant.

It seems like the optimists became disappointed, demoralised and many of them died in their cells. Stockdale was no optimist, rather he was a realist. Inspired by Stoic philosophers, he never lost “the discipline to confront the brutal facts of his current reality”, while maintaining a faith that he would prevail in the end. And, eventually, he did.

Like Frankl, Stockdale’s approach acknowledges that sometimes we choose our challenges and sometimes our challenges choose us, what we decide to do next is what counts. In the end, it is our collective daily decisions that will determine how successful we are at getting from zero to one.