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Brian Johnsons

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Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

THE BIG IDEAS

BY JAMES B. STOCKDALE HOOVER INSTITUTION PRESS 1995 245 PAGES

Your Brothers Keeper


vs. Whats in it for me?

Chiseling Our Integrity


--> Delight with life!

Courage

Im going to talk about heroes and heroism.

= Endurance of the soul.

How to Be Invincible
Is it within your control?

Heroes vs. Bums

Adversity sorts them out.

I know you midshipmen have thought about this subjectit was probably a touch
of the romantic that initially stirred you to come to this place (certainly was true
in my case). Its just that today were grounded into the idea of egalitarianism,
that its somehow unfair, or undemocratic, to recognize, let alone admire, those
uncommon and special people who over history have risen to challenges in ways
totally incompatible with conventional wisdoms view of so-called instincts of selfpreservation. In other words, weve become too self-conscious and embarrassed to
talk about certain human behaviors limited in distribution to a highly selective few.
So tonight, I want to throw self-consciousness and embarrassment to the wind
and, for a half hour or so, talk about something you should know: the history, the
literature, and yes the reality of heroes. Let me tell you, they are out therethose
of confounding selflessness and seeming immunity to fear; those with fires burning
in their breasts, fires that may turn the tide for you as leaders someday. They have
eluded concise definition since the beginning of recorded history. Aristotle would
say only that they do exist and exist as the polar opposite of the beaststhat as
the beasts are a cut below the normal human, the heroes are a cut above him,
somewhere between the humans and the gods.
~ James B. Stockdale from Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

Remember, you are an actor


in a drama of such sort
as the Author choosesif
short, then in a short one;
if long, then in a long one. If
it be his pleasure that you
should enact a poor man, or
a cripple, or a ruler, see that
you act it well. For this is
your businessto act well
the given part, but to choose
it belongs to Another.
~ Epictetus

Vice Admiral James Stockdale is an American hero.


We featured Stockdales wisdom in our Note on another one of his speeches that was turned into
a book (that speech is also part of this book), called Courage Under Fire.
Stockdale spent nearly eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He spent four of those
years in solitary confinement and was repeatedly tortured. He was the commanding officer of
hundreds of other U.S. soldiers and received the Medal of Honor for his service beyond the call
of duty.
The passage above is from a speech he gave to alumni of the Naval Academy and this book is a
collection of speeches he gave toward the end of his life forming this compilation: Thoughts of a
Philosophical Fighter Pilot.
This is an incredibly inspiring look at the powerful mind and equally powerful moral
commitment of a hero. (Get a copy of the book here.)
Its packed with Big Ideas and Im excited to share some of my favorites so lets jump straight in!

PhilosophersNotes | Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

YOU ARE YOUR BROTHERS KEEPER (VIRTUE + VICE)


The turning point in
anybodys life, he said, is
when you come to that fork
in the road where you have
to decide whether to risk
your life or to lose your
conscience. One road leads
up, one down. To survive at
any cost is to think me first,
to lose your conscience,
to take the low road. To
support others at any cost,
is to risk your life, to take
the high road.
~ James B. Stockdale

Father OMalley asked that I talk about ethical notions of the sort that would qualify as growing
within a persons interior self and not simply a set of lessons learned from without. Be assured
that Im not just building a set of guideposts for prison or for a more general military setting. My
conclusions are infinitely general. From this eight-year experience, I distilled one all-purpose
idea, plus a few corollaries. It is a simple idea, an idea as old as the scriptures, an idea that is
the epitome of high-mindedness, an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under
pressure. If the pressure is intense enough or of long enough duration, this idea spreads without
even the need for enunciation. It just takes root naturally. It is an idea that, in this big easy
world of yakety yak, seems to violate the rules of game theory, if not of reason. It violates the
idea of Adam Smiths invisible hand, our ideas of human nature, and probably the second law of
thermodynamics. That idea is that you are your brothers keeper.
Thats the flip side of Whats in it for me? If you recognize the first as an expression of virtue
and the second as an expression of vice, as Im sure any student of Father OMalley would, let
Bacons distinction add relevance to my concentration on adversity on this graduation day of joy:
Adversity doth best induce virtue . . . while luxury doth best induce vice.
Thats from the first chaptera commencement address Stockdale gave in 1981 called The
Melting Experience: Grow or Die in which he talks about how his 8 years in prison shaped his
character.
Rule #1?
You are your brothers keeper. Period.
The question is NOT Whats in it for me?
The question is How can I help?
As Martin Luther King, Jr. taught: The first question which the priest and the Levite asked
was: If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But... the good Samaritan reversed
the question: If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?
Christopher McDougall tells us that leading with love and compassion is at the root of the
ancient Greek word for hero.
In Natural Born Heroes he says: And what Plutarch taught them is this: Heroes care. True
heroism, as the ancients understood, isnt about strength, or boldness, or even courage. Its
about compassion.
When the Greeks created the heroic ideal, they didnt choose a word that mean Dies Trying
or Massacres Bad Guy. They went with hrsprotector. Heroes arent perfect; with a god
as one parent and a mortal as the other, theyre perpetually teetering between two destinies.
What tips them toward greatness is a sidekick, a human connection who helps turn the spigot
on the power of compassion. Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not
softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the
more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.
Heroes care.
Theyre willing to go beyond the call of duty to protect and to love.
In the Age of the Selfie its more important than ever for us to shift our focus from Whats in it
for me? to How can I be my brothers keeper?
Which begs the question: How can YOU help more today?

PhilosophersNotes | Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

CHISELING OUR INTEGRITY > DELIGHT WITH LIFE!


Its time to talk about
heroism and what I think it
is. This may sound strange,
but to me a hero is a man
who will not accept the
status quo if it does not
meet his standards. ... He will
stand up and turn his world
around.
~ James B. Stockdale

Integrity is a powerful word that derives from a specific concept. It describes a person who
is integrated, blended into a whole, as opposed to a person of many parts, many faces, many
disconnects. The word relates to the ancients distinction between living and living well.
Contrary to popular thought, a person of integrity is typically easygoing with a sense of humor.
He knows himself, reflects a definite and thoughtful set of preferences and aspirations, and
is thus reliable. Knowing he is whole, he is not preoccupied with riding the crest of continual
anxiety but is free to ride the crest of delight with life!
Lets talk about integrity and the resulting tranquility.
First, integrity. When we live with integrity we are an integrated, complete whole rather than a
dis-integrated, crumbling array of conflicting parts.
In Primary Greatness, Stephen Covey tells us that A life of total integrity is the only one worth
striving for.
He also tells us about the Latin phrase Esse quam videri, which means To be rather than to
seem. This should be the motto of every person seeking primary greatness. Unfortunately, too
often, seeming to be substitutes for real integrity. Its seeming as opposed to being.
To be rather than to seem. Thats the target.
The result? Tranquility.
> Knowing he is whole, he is not preoccupied with riding the crest of continual anxiety but is
free to ride the crest of delight with life!
David Brooks echoes this wisdom in The Road to Character. Heres how he puts it: We dont
live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek out pleasure but deep down, human
beings are endowed with moral imagination. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of
pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. As John Stuart Mill put it, people have a
responsibility to become more moral over time. The best life is oriented around the increasing
excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility
that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal
thing, the combination of some set of ideals and some man or womans struggle for those
ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.
How do we build that type of integrated character?
By chiseling away one choice at a time. As Jim Rohn advises in Leading an Inspired Life:
Personal success is built on the foundation of character, and character is the result of
hundreds and hundreds of choices you make that gradually turn who you are at any given
moment into who you want to be. ...
Character comes from a Greek word meaning chisel, or the mark left by a chisel. Of course,
a chisel is a sharp steel tool used for making a sculpture out of a hard or difficult material, like
granite or marble. ...
Character isnt a magic wand; character comes from chisel, and I hope youll remember that.
Youve got to chisel your character out of the raw material of yourself just like a sculptor has to
create a statue. The raw material is always there, and everything that happens to you, good or
bad, is an opportunity for building your character.
Hows YOUR integrity?
What is important to you? What are your values?
How are you living with integrity to those ideals? How are you falling short?

PhilosophersNotes | Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

How can you optimize 1% more today as you take the next baby step to total integrity?
(Note: Total integrity, a la Conquering Perfectionism 101, is a guiding star *not* a distant short.
Its an asymptotean ideal well never actually hit yet one that is still the only thing worth
striving for.)
Heres to living for holiness, chiseling our integrity and being our true, integrated selves as we
ride the crest of DELIGHT with life!

COURAGE = ENDURANCE OF THE SOUL


The notion that human
beings are always victims of
their circumstances is an

Theologians have found many exalted lessons in the story of Job. One of them is that we
should not try to measure the standards of the infinite with those of the finitethey are
incommensurable. The lesson I take from Job is simpler. Life is not fair. There is no moral

affront to those bold spirits

economy or balance in the nature of things such that virtue is rewarded and vice is punished.

who throughout history have

The good man hangs on and hangs in there. It is significant that the nearest Plato comes to a

spent their lives prevailing over


adversity.
~ James B. Stockdale

definition of courage is in the dialogues of Laches where Socrates is talking to a general under
whom he served whose motto is Courage is the endurance of the soul. The Greeks admired
the bold stroke, the audacious dash, but reserved top credit for the man that holds on under
pressure. They knew by bitter experience what stress situations are. They knew what it means
to break under pressure and what it means to hold on. On the battlefield, says Aristotle, the
greatest pressure is fear of death and the temptation is to run away. But the courageous man
holds on.
One of the themes of the book is the fact that lifeagainst all wishes to the contraryis simply
not fair.
Things happen.
The only relevant question is: What do we do when those things happen?
And, thats where courage comes in. The highest regarded quality in Greek culture was courage
an ability to hold under pressure.
I love this definition: courage = endurance of the soul.
Hows yours?
P.S. Endurance of the soul sounds a lot like Grit, eh?

IS IT WITHIN YOUR CONTROL?


George Bernard Shaw said
that most people who fail
complain that they are victims
of circumstances. Those
who get on in this world,

I want to step off the chronology escalator for just a minute and explain what memories of The
Enchiridion I did have ready at hand when I ejected from that airplane. What I had in hand was
the understanding that a Stoic always keeps separate files in his mind for (A) those things that
are up to him and (B) those things that are not up to him or, another way of saying it, (A) those
things that are within his power and (B) those things that are beyond his power or, still another
way of saying it, (A) those things that are within the grasp of his will, his free will, and (B) those

he said, are those who go

things that are beyond it. Among the relatively few things that are up to me, within my power,

out and look for the right

within my will, are my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my attitude

circumstances. And if they


cant find them they make
their own.
~ James B. Stockdale

toward what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.


The ancient (1st century) Stoic philosopher Epictetus played a central role in Stockdales life and
his wisdom permeates nearly all of his talks. (He often refers to Epictetus as his patron saint. :)
In his late 30s (before being shot down and imprisoned), Stockdale was an up-and-coming
Navy pilot with a very bright future who spent a couple years at Stanford getting his Masters
in international policy. He finished the program early and decided to see if he could explore
philosophy during his remaining six months.

PhilosophersNotes | Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

Quite fortuitously, he connected with a Stanford professor named Phil Rhinelander who became
Who is the invincible man?
He who cannot be dismayed
by any happening beyond his
control.
~ James B. Stockdale

his mentor. As a parting gift, Rhinelander gave him a copy of Epictetuss Enchiridionthinking
Stockdale would enjoy the wisdom.
Little did he know that, three years later, Stockdale would be shot down and imprisoned for
eight yearswith this going through his mind during his last moments of freedom:
On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4
airplanethe cockpit walls not even three feet apartwhich I couldnt steer after it was on fire,
its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement
in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I
whispered to myself: Five years down there, at least. Im leaving the world of technology and
entering the world of Epictetus.
The cornerstone of Epictetuss wisdom?
Of things some are in our power, and others are not... examine it by the rules which you
possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power
or to the things which are not in our power: and if it relates to anything which is not in our
power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you.
If its within your control, fantastic. If its not, then be prepared to say it does not concern you.
Stockdale elaborates: stop kidding yourself, just do the best you can on a commonsense basis
to make your station of life what you want it to be, but never get hooked on it. Make sure in your
heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with indifference. Not with
contempt, only with indifference.
And so on to a long list of things that some unreflective people assume theyre assured of
controlling to the last instance: your reputation, for example. Do what you will, its at least as
fickle as your station in life. Others decide what your reputation is. Try to make it as good as
possible, but again, dont get hooked on it. In your heart, when you get out the key and open up
that old rolltop desk where you really keep your stuff, dont let reputation get mixed up with
whats within your moral purpose, whats within the power of your will, in other words, whats
up to you. Make sure its in the bottom drawer, filed under matters of indifference. And so too
with your health, your wealth, your pleasure, your pain, your fame, your dispute, your life, your
death. They are all externals, all outside your control in the last instance, all outside the power of
where you really live. And where you really live is confined to the regime of your moral purpose,
confined to matters that can be projected by your acts of will: like desires, aims, aversions,
judgments, attitudes, and, of course, your good and your evil. For a human, the moral purpose,
the will, is the only repository of things of absolute value. Whether they are projected wisely
or foolishly, for good or for evil, is up to you. ... Your deliverance and your destruction are 100
percent up to you.
I love that vision of putting all things outside your control (station in life, reputation, health,
wealth, life, death) into the BOTTOM DRAWER. They are not your primary concerns. You are
indifferent to them.
Our focus? The things of absolute value?
Our moral purpose. Our will. Our commitment to doing our best and to being GOOD.
This is a very (!) tough one to crack but unbelievably important. Do your best. Forget the rest.
Howre you doing with that? How can you +1% it?
P.S. From a mundane perspective, Im always asking myself: Can I do something about that? Is
it within my control? Yes or no. If no, then it makes NO sense to get upset about it. All I have
control over is my RESPONSE to it.

PhilosophersNotes | Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

Of course, easier said than done. But make it a sportsee how often you get annoyed by the
mundane and practice using those moments to step back and choose a wiser response. Build that
musclediligently, patiently, persistentlyso the strength is there when you really need it.
I dont subscribe to

SORTING OUT THE HEROES AND THE BUMS

environmental, genetic, or any

It sort of fell out of Epictetuss proclamation that difficulties are what show mens character.

simple determinism. Will is

Therefore, when a difficult crisis meets you, remember that you are the raw youth with whom

the thing. Man makes his


character here on earth. I am
the master of my fate, the
captain of my soul.
~ James B. Stockdale

God the trainer is wrestling. But our bottom line was this: The challenge of education is not
to prepare people for success but to prepare them for failure. I think its in the hardship and
failure that the heroes and the bums really get sorted out.
Want to sort out the heroes and bums?
Enter: Hardship.
The wisest among us remember that wind extinguishes the candle and fuels the fire.
Let us remember that the Obstacle Is the Way. Let us see the Upside of Stress. Let us cultivate
our Iron Will.
Let us choose to be guided by our brightest ideals in our most challenging times as we give
ourselves most fully to the world and embrace the heros commitment to be our brothers keeper.

Brian Johnson,
Chief Philosopher

If you liked this Note,


youll probably like
Courage Under Fire
Natural Born Heroes
Primary Greatness
Mans Search for Meaning
The Power of Ideals
The Road to Character
Extreme Ownership
An Iron Will
The Upside of Stress
The Obstacle Is the Way
Legacy

About the Author of Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot


JAMES B. STOCKDALE

Vice Admiral James Stockdale was a senior research fellow at the Hoover
Institution, served in the Navy from 1947 to 1979, beginning as a test pilot and
instructor at Patuxent River, Maryland, and spending two years as a graduate
student at Stanford University. He became a fighter pilot and was shot down on
his second combat tour over North Vietnam, becoming a prisoner of war for eight
years, four in solitary confinement. The highest-ranking naval officer held during
the Vietnam War, he was tortured fifteen times and put in leg irons for two years.

About the Author of This Note


BRIAN JOHNSON

Brian Johnson loves helping people optimize their lives as he studies, embodies
and teaches the fundamentals of optimal livingintegrating ancient wisdom
+ modern science + common sense + virtue + mastery + fun. Learn more and
optimize your life at brianjohnson.me.

PhilosophersNotes | Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot