Sangfroid and The Inner Story

( A few readers asked me if I had stopped blogging. 

The plain truth is everytime I tried to write a blog post, I got stuck. Sometimes this happened because there was important work which came calling. On other occasions the idea or concept under discussion seemed very silly. The rest of the time it was sheer inertia.

But as they say ‘Action begets action’. Here’s a genuine attempt to cut through all that inertia and set the ball rolling again. Do let me know what you think… )

As an HR professional, one of the things I do as part of Talent Management is facilitate interactions where people get assessed to take on higher responsibilities. For me, these assessment sessions provide an opportunity to observe human behaviour under varying conditions of pressure, stress and competition.

In a recent session I had the good fortune of listening to a business leader who told them –

“Success happens twice. The first time in your head and the second in reality. Unless you are convinced that you are 100% ready for the next role  and unless you have already started demonstrating those behaviours, no external assessment will help you get there”

As I saw the expectant faces of the people who had come for this assessment, I realized there was a lot of sense in what was just said. As my mind raced back to the assessment sessions, I could clearly see that the ones who had come looking for validation of their capabilities by a panel of assessors inevitably failed to make it.  Whereas the ones who were convinced beyond doubt that they were ready for the next role passed with flying colors.

As I thought about it there were two distinct elements which contributed in the success of such individuals:

a) Sangfroid – the ability to remain calm under pressure

b) The Inner Story  – the narrative about external events which repeats itself in our heads


John D Rockefeller

The art of keeping a cool head when everyone around you is losing theirs is perhaps the most important quality for anyone who wants to get ahead in life. And like most skills and behaviours, this can be learnt and self-taught through the right discipline, attitude and application.

Ryan Holiday in his blog talks about the ‘obstacle being the way’ and gives the example of the legendary billionaire John D Rockefeller and his unearthly ability to keep calm under pressure situations:

Rockefeller had barely begun his career as a bookkeeper and investor in Cleveland, Ohio when the Panic of 1857 struck, a massive national financial crisis that originated in Ohio and hit Cleveland particularly hard. Just as he was finally getting the hang of things, here came the greatest market depression in history.
But even as a young man, Rockefeller had sangfroid: unflappable coolness under pressure. He kept his head while everyone else lost theirs. Instead of bemoaning this economic upheaval, he quietly saved his money and watched what others did wrong. He saw the weaknesses in the economy that many took for granted.
This intense self-discipline and objectivity allowed Rockefeller to seize advantage from obstacle after obstacle in his life, during the Civil War, and the financial   panics of 1873, 1907, and 1929. As he once put it: He was inclined to see the opportunity in every disaster.

Ryan’s book The Obstacle is the Way is a must-read for all those who wish to learn sangfroid. The book also puts in perspective the attitude of the Stoic philosophers who produced some of the best work on being calm amidst the raging storms in life.

Obstacle is the Way

The Inner Story

There is an old fable which goes like this:

Once upon a time, there were two brothers who set out to a nearby kingdom in search of work. After facing a lot of rejection, they end up getting a gig with the local construction crew. The elder brother becomes a stone cutter and the younger one gets the job of a brick layer.

As time goes by, the elder brother becomes more and more frustrated with the hard labour and takes to venting his frustration with anyone who is willing to listen. The younger one however remains cheerful and happy while impressing his superiors through his humility and attitude.

One day, a stranger comes walking to the construction site. He notices that the elder brother is slacking in a corner with a sullen face and grumbling to some fellow workers.

He goes and asks him “Hello my good man! You seem to be upset about something. If you don’t mind, may I ask what’s the matter?”

The elder brother jumps at this opportunity to complain about his job.

He says “Oh what do I say of the miseries I have had to face! This building we are constructing never seems to end. We have been at it for more than a year and still my supervisor comes with more work. I wonder who would want to build such a monstrosity!

The stranger smiles and says “Indeed! I hope your troubles soon vanish. I will pray for you. Have a good day!

As the stranger continues walking he notices a bricklayer beaming with joy and laughing with his co-workers. ‘Now there’s a happy bunch’ the stranger thinks to himself and approaches them.

Hello friends! I was just passing by and couldn’t help but notice you were all looking very happy! May I ask what’s the good news?

The young bricklayer smiles and says “Welcome friend! We are part of a construction crew who are building the world’s biggest cathedral. I found out from my supervisor that we have completed half of it today and within a year we will be done! I was just telling my fellow workers what an amazing opportunity we have all got to be part of this great venture!

The stranger remarked in awe “Indeed that is definitely good news! I am so glad I decided to come here today and meet all of you. I wish you good luck in your endeavor! Godspeed!

Before the bricklayer responds, the stranger sets off hurriedly with a strange joy on his face.

After a week, this young bricklayer who was the younger brother of our story is summoned by the supervisor who gives him a reward of 100 gold coins and says “My boy! You have done us all proud! I hereby promote you to the post of lead-bricklayer! You will have 20 bricklayers working under you

The younger brother is shocked at this sudden turn of events.

He says “My lord! I..I don’t know what I have done to deserve this!” Th..Thank you! But I still don’t know why I have been given this honor!

The supervisor laughs and says “Listen, I don’t know the full story either. All I know is the king was here a few days back in disguise as he was severely disappointed with the progress of our construction. But after his visit here he seems to have remembered why he started this damn monstrosity in the first place and is all excited again! He is telling everyone that a bricklayer reminded him of his vision and taught him an important lesson!

This old fable even today teaches us the importance of telling ourselves the right story. The two brothers faced the exact same situation. The elder one chose to tell himself a story of hardship, misery and desolation. The younger one however kept the larger vision in sight and decided to tell himself he was part of a great venture.

Similarly when we look at the accomplishments of great men and women, we find that they always controlled the inside story in their heads. The ones who controlled the narrative defined their own fortunes. The ones who let external events influence their minds became more cynical and invited further misfortune.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

As the writer Neil Gaiman beautifully puts it

“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can”

Write your own fate, craft your own tale. Be the author of your destiny and not just another character in someone else’s story.

Final Note

J Krishnamurti
J Krishnamurti

One of the reasons I called this blog StumbleUponLife is because life has a way of teaching us things when we least expect it. We often stumble upon truths and lessons in places we least expect. But we can’t just keep waiting for life to reveal itself to us. The effort needs to be equal on both sides. As J Krishnamurti said

“You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing, and dance, and write poems, and suffer, and understand, for all that is life.” 

I hope you stumble upon many insights as you journey through life. Looking forward to your views and comments.


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