Don’t be an Optimist: The Stockdale Paradox


Girls can do anything!

Up until yesterday, I had no idea who Admiral Jim Stockdale was and had never heard of the Stockdale Paradox before. But now that I have heard of Admiral Stockdale and his Paradox, I can’t stop thinking about it. More importantly, I can’t stop thinking about you and how it applies to your current situation.

Allow me to introduce Admiral Stockdale to you, through the words of Jim Collins and his book Good to Great, from which this excerpt was taken:

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking United States military office in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a step-wise system–after x minutes, you can say certain things–that gave the men milestones to survive toward). He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters. (Tap-tap equals the letter a, tap-pause-tap-tap equals the letter b, tap-tap-pause-tap equals the letter f, and so forth, for twenty-five letters, c doubling in for k.) At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out “We love you” to Stockdale, on the third anniversary of his being shot down. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

How on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Finally I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused given what he’d said earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Whoa.

Let that sink in for a second, folks. The Stockdale Paradox states that you have to have faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Herniated disc? Yes…but you will prevail.

Degenerative hip? Yes…but you will prevail.

Torn meniscus in your knee? Yes…but you will prevail.

Chronic, debilitating migraines? Yes…but you will prevail.

I don’t know when you’ll prevail, and I would caution you against setting a timeline…but you will prevail. Stay the course. Trust the system. Believe in your body’s innate, amazing, remarkable ability to heal itself…and you will prevail.

By Easter?

By Thanksgiving?

By Christmas?

Perhaps. But, perhaps not.

That’s not for either of us to say. It is our job, however, to confront the brutal facts yet retain faith that you will prevail in the end.

If you’re looking to start the process, if you’re looking to find a little faith, take a second and download our Four Free E-cises and get started today. I don’t know when your journey will end, but I do know that it can start today.

QUESTION: What are your thoughts on the Stockdale Paradox?

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