Reputations grow around accomplishments. For one man, his reputation is for a single line, which he never spoke.
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
Henry Morton Stanley led an expedition up the Congo River in 1887. It was his third expedition. It became a disaster.
Left alone, his men brutalized the Africans. Those they used for labor they let die from poison food and disease. Africans were beaten and maimed.
The wilderness changed the British gentlemen into savages.
But it did not change Stanley.
In Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, the relate what kept Stanley sane when everyone around them was losing their souls.
Stanley said, “I lay no claim to any exceptional fineness of nature; but I say, beginning life as a rough, ill-educated, impatient man, I found schooling in these very African experiences which are not said by some to be in themselves detrimental to European character.”
In short, Stanley learned to stay focused through his difficult circumstances.
What can Stanley teach us about dealing with trying times? With most closeted in their homes and isolated from others, we find ourselves in our own urban jungle.
First, Stanley made decisions.
“I have taken a solemn, enduring oath, an oath to be kept while the lest hope of life remains in me, not to be tempted to break the resolution I have formed…But death, even this; I shall not die, I will not die, I cannot die.”
Many times people slip into something they never imagined. They never thought about who they were going to become. Taking time to set standards can prevent the subtle decay of time. We tend not to fall intentionally but are overcome by accident.
Stanley’s lesson is simple. Think about the challenges you will encounter and decide how you will respond when they come. What happens when the 3 pm cravings gnaw at your stomach? How will you respond?
What happens after two weeks of stir-crazy indoor activities? Your children fuss. (It usually doesn’t take two weeks, but two hours). What is your plan for that?
The concept is to respond, not react. When we know what we will do, it is easier to do right.
Stanley’s second secret is so simple to know but so challenging to do.
When we are WFH or stuck inside, it is easy to get sloppy. Put on the jeans and t-shirt. Nobody will see. Don’t take care of your appearance. Let your house go to rack and ruin.
After all, what difference does it make?
According to Stanley, it is vital.
After a while, Stanley’s camp ran low on food. Finally, all the food was gone. Men devolved into absolute madness. Their appearance suffered along with their health.
How did Stanley handle deprivation? He shaved..every morning.
“I always presented as decent an appearance as possible, both for self-discipline and self-respect,” Stanley wrote.
Energy and purpose dwindled. Why bother lathering up his face and putting razor to the whisker?
Simple. It gave Stanley the feeling of control of an uncontrollable situation.
People are created with “agency,” a psychological term for your ability to do something because you can.
When conditions suffer, find one area you can control. For Stanley, it was his appearance.
Paul Harvey learned what Stanley knew. Harvey was the velvet-voiced commentator of the late 20th century. Harvey was the host of a radio program of news and comment. At one time, he had the largest radio audience in America. When Harvey spoke, it was gospel.
As his popularity grew, his accumulating wealth allowed him to construct a studio at home. He started doing his radio show at his home studio. He thought, “No one sees me. Why bother getting dressed up?”
After a few weeks, his agent called him. “You don’t sound as sharp as you did. What did you change?” Harvey thought and realized he had relaxed his appearance. His performance mirrored his wardrobe. He started wearing a coat and tie again, and soon the old Paul Harvey was back.
Harvey, like Stanley, found an anchor in his outward appearance. How they addressed the simple personal discipline of proper dressing affected their mind.
I know all the arguments against it. Who cares? It doesn’t bother anyone else. But in some way, when you change your habits, you alter yourself in subtle ways.
To stay sharp, look that way. It doesn’t take a tie, but it does mean when you are working, show up like it’s an important meeting.
We may never travel up the Congo. Few suffer the deprivation Stanley experienced. But in our own “shelter-in-place” moment, we need to heed the lessons of the explorer.
It will keep us sane through our own jungle.