Faith in the End of the Story

Or: just keep swimming!

Last week, fellow comedy-writer Gem — who’s currently submitting material to The Skewer — replied to my newsletter and described a rollercoaster I know all too well:

I got a couple of (very, very small) bits on, so spent some time hyperventilating and spontaneously breaking into a jig over the course of two weeks.

Last week, of course, nada, so I was devastated. I got over myself eventually, though, and will plough on. If you have any thoughts to share on resilience I’m all ears.

I do have thoughts!

But first, a quick detour: I’m a big fan of The Tim Ferriss Show, and two of my favourite episodes are his interviews with the author Jim Collins — who describes himself as “a student and teacher of what makes great companies tick”. I like his methodical approach to things, and he’s especially good at distilling what he’s learned into easy to understand ‘concepts’.

For example: the hedgehog concept (what can you be the best in the world at?), fire bullets, then cannonballs (start with low-risk experiments before going all in), and the wonderfully-named Big Hairy Audacious Goals (ambitious, compelling goals with a clear finish line).1

And for the specific problem of resilience? There’s the Stockdale Paradox.

To paraphrase: Admiral Jim Stockdale was a US Naval officer, who spent seven years in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. When Collins asked how he kept going despite having no idea how it was going to end, he said: “I never lost faith in the end of the story.”

And when Collins asked who didn’t make it out, he replied:

“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.”

And this is what Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox: “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.”

Is it inappropriate to segue from a war story to comedy? Maybe. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes!2 Because while the stakes are lower, we do have our own brutal facts we have to confront too.

The competitions we’ve entered probably aren’t going to go anywhere. The sitcoms we’re writing probably aren’t going to get made. The tweets, blog posts and sketches we’ve written probably won’t be seen by enough people to justify all the time and effort that went into making them…

… but as long as we keep going and keep getting better, I’m sure it’ll work out eventually. 🥳

  1. Technically, these are for building companies that last — but most of them can just as easily apply to creative pursuits. If you’re interested, I heartily recommend the list of concepts on his website.
  2. In fairness, Collins segues from that to business, an arguably far less noble pursuit than comedy.

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