Toxic Hope

I am a great believer in hope. It was Rick Warren who said in his book The Purpose driven life”: “You need hope to cope.” I have always believed that, and to a great extent still do.

However, I was mountainbiking with my son when he shared how Hope can be Toxic. In a sense it was quite a new thought to me, yet so true. For example, it is dangerous for a well-meaning doctor to give false hope to a dying patient and his family. Also for a government predicting that the country will be out of the economic recession in two years time. Or for a teacher promising a hard-working matriculant that he will definitely pass his exams. And for a farmer hoping that this year it will rain, after seven years of drought and scientifically proven global warming.

I was reminded of this classic wisdom: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). When a situation drags out and nothing that you positively expected happened, your heart gets crushed. You see that so often in the America’s got talent show. So many mislead youngsters, with dreams to become the newest celebrity (in spite of their lack of talent), and so strongly encouraged by believing parents and friends, often ends up with shattered dreams. Reality unfortunately often disproves the notion “you can achieve whatever you believe”.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, shares a conversation he had with Admiral James Stockdale. He asked him about his coping strategy during his period in a Vietnamese Prisoner of War camp. When asked which prisoners didn’t make it out of Vietnam, the admiral 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.”

From this Jim Collins developed the Stockdale Paradox:

  • You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

  • You must confront the brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

So, the challenge is not to live with faith and hope in spite of realities, but to apply faith and hope in reality. And often this type of realistic faith can lift you far above the current reality, because you practically acted on it without bluffing yourself.

So, how do we as business people apply this principle to our everyday realities in South Africa and the world? I think the following might help:

  • Firstly, accept the fact that “stuff happens”. Setbacks are part of life on planet earth.
  • Then, when the going gets tough, make a decision: to positively hold on to life, to adapt your dreams and plans when you need to, to be fiercely resilient and to prevail untill the breakthrough comes.
  • After that, do a reality check and face it: what’s wrong, what’s right, what are the facts, what are the certainties and uncertainties? It is what it is. Tell yourself: I will handle this.
  • Then, control the controllables. Make a realistic plan – then execute on it. Make peace with the rest.
  • And work hard to stay positive!

Yes, hope can be toxic. But when you face reality as it is and decide to keep going no matter what, hope can be a powerful source for perseverance and resilience. Right now, this world needs hopeful people who can face and deal with uncertainties, unpredictabilities and new realities. May you keep on running your race strongly, persevere all the way and be a blessing in all you do!