With three perfect sniper shots, Navy SEALs saved Capt. Richard Phillips, the 53-year-old hostage being held by Somali pirates for $2 million in ransom.
"I share the country's admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew," President Obama said in a White House statement. "His courage is a model for all Americans."
No doubt, the captain's courage is a model for all of us. But as we await his first interview and details of how he endured his four-day ordeal, it's clear that there was much more to his survival than old-fashioned bravery. Capt. Phillips is a quintessential member of the Survivors Club whose experience offers lessons for anyone and everyone facing adversity:
1. Hold Fast. Along with anchors and knots, hold fast is one of the most popular sailor tattoos. Seamen ink the eight letters on their arms or knuckles. When they tie down lines (a.k.a. ropes) and work the riggings, they're reminded of these two essential words. Holding fast is a fundamental mindset in the merchant marine. It means being strong and never letting go.
In survival, holding fast is synonymous with tenacity, the capacity to keep going and never give up. Friends and family say that's precisely what Captain Phillips must have done for days in an enclosed lifeboat with four hijackers brandishing automatic weapons. Under incredible pressure, Capt. Phillips held fast and never let go.
In Vietnam, American POWs shared a similar mantra. "Steady strain" was the phrase they whispered to each other or tapped in code. No matter the torture and beatings, the POWs urged each other to shoulder the strain with steadiness and stoicism. Above all, they knew the dangers of getting too high and or getting too low. Steady strain meant finding a middle ground and holding on.
2. The Fighting Spirit. No matter the odds, the most effective survivors keep fighting and never give up. It's easy to resort to caricature, but Capt. Phillips is more than a flinty New Englander from Vermont. He's a 20-year veteran of the merchant marine with a reputation for intensity on the high seas. He's also an aggressive athlete and competitor who broke his neck diving for a catch in a pickup football game.
On Friday, Capt. Phillips demonstrated his fighting spirit by trying to escape his captors. He reportedly jumped into the ocean and tried to swim for the nearby USS Bainbridge. One of the pirates opened fire with an automatic weapon and Phillips was pulled back onto the lifeboat where he was bound and beaten.
3. Realistic Optimism. In almost every account, Capt. Phillips has been described as an easy-going, likable guy with a highly competitive side (in recreational basketball).
A positive mental attitude is an incredibly important part of survival, but a naïve or foolhardy attitude can be dangerous. It's a phenomenon known as the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American prisoner of war in Vietnam. In the POW camps, optimists were the first to die, Stockdale told author Jim Collins in his bestselling book Good to Great. Optimists were always hoping to be released at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but were crushed when those holidays passed and they were still imprisoned. They couldn't stand the disappointment and gave up fighting, Stockdale said. Soon after, they died.
4. The Power of Purpose. Captain Phillips offered himself as a hostage when pirates first stormed the Maersk Alabama, his ship. From the very start, he was ready to to sacrifice himself for his crew and his ship. Many of the world's best survivors and thrivers possess a sense of purpose or a calling greater than themselves. They're driven by a larger mission. And they're capable of enduring tremendous hardship.
5. The Power of Faith. In all of the news coverage, I haven't seen any mention about Capt. Phillips's spiritual faith. Religious belief is an incredibly powerful and universal survival tool. But there are other kinds of faith too. For instance, there is faith in one's country and the conviction that its leaders (and armed forces) will do everything possible to save your life. This conviction proved very important to the survival of the POWs in Vietnam. It must have been critical to Capt. Phillips as well. Indeed, his first comments reflect what he must have felt in that 18-foot lifeboat as it was towed by the USS Bainbridge, the American destroyer armed to the teeth with men and women who wanted to save him. "The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home," Phillips reportedly said.
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