What the Vietnam War can teach us about Coronavirus


These are strange days, which at this point is news to no one. Most people are hunkered down in their homes, trying to weather the storm of this coronavirus pandemic. Many businesses are closing or laying off their people. The number of positive cases of COVID19 rises every day, and so too does the death toll. Netflix and YouTube could charge us all $100/month, and I think most of us would pay it. Parents are especially thankful for Disney+ right now! 


But while some businesses are shutting down or running as lean as possible, some teams are still functioning remotely and a few others that are "essential" might even still be in the office together. As I have interacted with many of these teams lately, we have been pushing the conversations a little bit more personal than we normally would. Part of a team being able to continue to function is making sure the individuals on the team are still as mentally and emotionally healthy as possible. 

One of the trends I have noticed -and it is quite understandable- is the hope for the return of "normal" being right around the corner. 


Now, depending on which news outlet you listen to, and on which day, you may be getting many mixed messages about how long this thing is going to last. Some "experts" say we could get through it in 2-3 weeks, some say 4-5 months, and yet others are saying it could last closer to a year. The truth is...we don't know. 

No one knows because this isn't like anything anyone else has gone through in modern history. And even things like the Spanish flu epidemic in the early nineteen hundreds can't fully predict what will happen; the world is so different now than it was then. Cities were smaller and fewer people worked industrialized or office-type jobs. Zoom, Amazon, DoorDash, and Blue Apron didn't exist yet. Whatever "experts" are out there right now are really just our most-qualified guessers. 

If all that sounds glum to you, give me a chance to turn this all around. 


In 1965, the United States entered the Vietnam War. Over the course of the next decade, many US citizens serving in the war were captured. Though no one seems to have a decisive number, it was likely in the thousands. Many of these POWs were interned for 4-7 years. One of the most well-known is US Naval Officer James Stockdale. 


After 7 years of torture and confinement in a North Vietnamese prison camp, Stockdale retold the story of his experience. In what has since been termed the Stockdale Paradox, he described the difference between the men who made it out of prison and the ones who did not. This biggest difference, he said, was that those who did not survive were the optimists. 


While that may be surprising to hear, the explanation makes perfect sense. Stockdale said that the men who did not survive were the ones who were expecting freedom to be right around the corner. "We'll be out by Christmas." Then Christmas would come and go, and they would still be in chains. "We'll be home by Easter." Again, Easter would come and go. "We'll be home by Thanksgiving." But again, they would still be there. Expecting the best yet experiencing the worst would destroy their spirits and their will to survive. 


However, those soldiers who decided to survive the horrors in front of them, rather than hoping to hold on until Christmas, were far more likely to make it out, eventually. Their mindset was one of "hope for the best, but plan for the worst." So while they hoped to one day be reunited with the smell of a Christmas ham or a Thanksgiving turkey, they focused on what was right in front of them rather than what they hoped was right around the corner.


We don't know how long this coronavirus pandemic will last. It could be only a few more weeks or it could be many months. Rather than assuming things will return to "normal" soon, teams need to decide that this is our new normal, at least for now. Adjusting to that mindset will help us to adapt to our current circumstances better than the alternative. 


What can your team be doing now in this new normal? I know it's not what you "normally" do, but this is where we are right now. If you are going to survive -if your team is going to survive- then we must continue to hope for the best, while planning for the worst.