Kennedy faced, as every leader will at some point in their tenure, a difficult test amid complicating personal and political circumstances. There were many questions: Why would Khrushchev do this? What was his endgame? What was the man possibly trying to accomplish? Was there a way to solve it? What did Kennedy’s advisors think? What were Kennedy’s options? Was he up to this task? Did he have what it took?
the first obligation of a leader and a decision maker. Our job is not to “go with our gut” or fixate on the first impression we form about an issue. No, we need to be strong enough to resist thinking that is too neat, too plausible, and therefore almost always wrong. Because if the leader can’t take the time to develop a clear sense of the bigger picture, who will?
Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil—nothing is so self-blinding.
“I think we ought to think of why the Russians did this,” he told his advisors. What is the advantage they are trying to get? he asked, with real interest. “Must be some major reason for the Soviets to set this up.” As Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy’s advisor and biographer, wrote, “With his capacity to understand the problems of others, the President could see how threatening the world might have looked to the Kremlin.”
This understanding would help him respond properly to this unexpected and dangerous provocation—and give him insight into how the Soviets would react to that response.
It became clear to Kennedy that Khrushchev put the missiles in Cuba because he believed Kennedy was weak.
Clearly, a military strike was the most irrevocable of all the options (nor, according to his advisors, was it likely to be 100 percent effective). What would happen after that, Kennedy wondered? How many soldiers would die in an invasion? How would the world respond to a larger country invading a smaller one, even if it was to deter a nuclear threat? What would the Russians do to save face or protect their soldiers on the island?
These questions pointed Kennedy toward a blockade of Cuba.
It gave both sides a chance to examine the stakes of the crisis and offered Khrushchev the opportunity to reevaluate his impression of Kennedy’s supposed weakness.
What’s most remarkable about this conclusion is how calmly Kennedy came to it. Despite the enormous stress of the situation, we can hear in tapes and see in transcripts and photos taken at the time just how collaborative and open everyone was.
In the tensest moments, Kennedy sought solitude in the White House Rose Garden (afterward, he would thank the gardener for her important contributions during the crisis). He would go for long swims, both to clear his mind and to think.
A Russian tanker ship approached the quarantine line. Russian submarines surfaced. An American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and the pilot killed.
Would Kennedy’s emotions get the best of him? Would he blink? Would he break?
No. He wouldn’t.
The space Kennedy gave Khrushchev to breathe and think paid off just in time. On October 26, eleven days into the crisis, the Soviet premier wrote Kennedy a letter saying that he now saw that the two of them were pulling on a rope with a knot in the middle—a knot of war. The harder each pulled, the less likely it would be that they could ever untie it, and eventually there would be no choice but to cut the rope with a sword.
Suddenly, the crisis was over as quickly as it began.
Careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.
to borrow the image from the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher who himself had stared down countless crises and challenges, Kennedy had been “like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands, unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.”
In these situations we must:
- Be fully present.
- Empty our mind of preconceptions.
- Take our time.
- Sit quietly and reflect.
- Reject distraction.
- Weigh advice against the counsel of our convictions.
- Deliberate without being paralyzed.
We must cultivate mental stillness to succeed in life and to successfully navigate the many crises it throws our way.
The crisis was resolved thanks to a mastery of his own thinking, and the thinking.
The lesson was one not of force but of the power of patience, alternating confidence and humility, foresight and presence, empathy and unbending conviction, restraint and toughness, and quiet solitude combined with wise counsel.
Kennedy, like Lincoln, was not born with this stillness. He was a defiant troublemaker in high school.
He had his demons and he made plenty of mistakes.
Trust no future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,—act in the living present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
—HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
Is it really that hard—to be present? What’s so special about that?
it was a near religious experience. To experience another person fully in the moment is a rare thing. To feel them engage with you, to be giving all their energy to you, as though there is nothing else that matters in the world, is rarer still.
Many viewers cried. Each one said the hours in line were worth it. It was like looking in a kind of mirror, where they could feel their own life for the first time.
“People don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing,” Abramović said about the performance. “It demands all of you… there is no object to hide behind. It’s just you.”
Being present demands all of us. It’s not nothing. It may be the hardest thing in the world.
There may be a beautiful sunset, but instead of taking it in, we’re taking a picture of it.
We are not present… and so we miss out. On life. On being our best. On seeing what’s there.
We pay thousands of dollars to have a device in our pocket to ensure that we are never bored.
Tolstoy observed that love can’t exist off in the future. Love is only real if it’s happening right now.
The best athletes, in the biggest games, are completely there. They are within themselves, within the now.
There is only this moment.
The less energy we waste regretting the past or worrying about the future, the more energy we will have for what’s in front of us.
This moment we are experiencing right now is a gift (that’s why we call it the present). Even if it is a stressful, trying experience—it could be our last. So let’s develop the ability to be in it, to put everything we have into appreciating the plentitude of the now.
Don’t waste a beautiful moment because you are insecure or shy. Make what you can of what you have been given. Live what can be lived. That’s what excellence is. That’s what presence makes possible.
Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will take care of itself.
You have plenty on your plate right now. Focus on that, no matter how small or insignificant it is. Do the very best you can right now.
That’s the nice thing about the present. It keeps showing up to give you a second chance.
LIMIT YOUR INPUTS
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
As a general, Napoleon made it his habit to delay responding to the mail. His secretary was instructed to wait three weeks before opening any correspondence. When he finally did hear what was in a letter, Napoleon loved to note how many supposedly “important” issues had simply resolved themselve
he had to be selective about who and what kind of information got access to his brain.
It’s not enough to be inclined toward deep thought and sober analysis; a leader must create time and space for it.
Each of us has access to more information than we could ever reasonably use.
“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.”
Books, spend time reading books—that’s what she meant. Books full of wisdom.
It’s why lawyers attempt to bury the other side in paper. It’s why intelligence operatives flood the enemy with propaganda, so they’ll lose the scent of the truth.
Yet we do this to ourselves!
“Eisenhower Box,” a matrix that orders our priorities by their ratio of urgency and importance.
Eisenhower found, was urgent but not important.
the first thing great chiefs of staff do—whether it’s for a general or a president or the CEO of a local bank—is limit the amount of people who have access to the boss.
Marcus Aurelius says, “Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
Knowing what not to think about. What to ignore and not to do. It’s your first and most important job.
Thich Nhat Hanh:
Before we can make deep changes in our lives, we have to look into our diet, our way of consuming. We have to live in such a way that we stop consuming the things that poison us and intoxicate us. Then we will have the strength to allow the best in us to arise, and we will no longer be victims of anger, of frustration.
It’s as true of food as it is of information.
If you want good output, you have to watch over the inputs.
It means pushing away selfish people who bring needless drama into our lives.
EMPTY THE MIND
To become empty is to become one with the divine—this is the Way.
“but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.
Marcus Aurelius once wrote about “cutting free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past”
We’re overloaded, overwhelmed, and distracted . . . by our own mind!
But if we can clear space, if we can consciously empty our mind, as Green did, insights and breakthroughs happen. The perfect swing connects perfectly with the ball.
By relying on what’s not there, we actually have something worth using.
That space between your ears—that’s yours. You don’t just have to control what gets in, you also have to control what goes on in there.
Because the mind is an important and sacred place.
Keep it clean and clear.
SLOW DOWN, THINK DEEPLY
With my sighted eye I see what’s before me, and with my unsighted eye I see what’s hidden.
Epictetus talked about how the job of a philosopher is to take our impressions—what we see, hear, and think—and put them to the test.
The world is like muddy water. To see through it, we have to let things settle. We can’t be disturbed by initial appearances, and if we are patient and still, the truth will be revealed to us.
- Think about what’s important to you.
- Think about what’s actually going on.
- Think about what might be hidden from view.
- Think about what the rest of the chessboard looks like.
- Think about what the meaning of life really is.
Sit alone in a room and let your thoughts go wherever they will. Do this for one minute. . . . Work up to ten minutes a day of this mindless mental wandering. Then start paying attention to your thoughts to see if a word or goal materializes. If it doesn’t, extend the exercise to eleven minutes, then twelve, then thirteen . . . until you find the length of time you need to ensure that something interesting will come to mind. The Gaelic phrase for this state of mind is “quietness without loneliness.”
These are answers that must be fished from the depths. And what is fishing but slowing down? Being both relaxed and highly attuned to your environment? And ultimately, catching hold of what lurks below the surface and reeling it in?