Simplicity-Lit: The Stockdale Paradox

Share In Good to Great, (HarperBusiness, 2001; Jim Collins explored, among other things, the ability of some people and organizations to effectively confront, deal with and overcome the harsh reality of long odds without losing heart. Collins called this ability to stay motivated in the face of brutal reality The Stockdale Paradox, named after Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking naval officer held as a POW in Vietnam.

According to Wikipedia, “Stockdale was held as a prisoner of war in the Hoa Lo prison for … seven years. Locked in leg irons in a bath stall, he was routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his friends' ‘black activities,’ he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into confession.”

Collins asked Stockdale how he was able to cope and survive in the hopeless environment of the prison camp. Stockdale said, “I never doubted not only that I would get out but also that I would prevail and that I would turn the experience into the defining event of my life that, in retrospect, I wouldn’t trade.”

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale said, “Oh, that’s easy: the optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come and Christmas would go. And then they would 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.”

In our relatively comfortable world, few people face challenges on par to those Stockdale faced in the POW camp. Nonetheless, we all face challenges from time to time – perhaps being laid off or problems in our families – that can leave us feeling hopeless and down.

The Stockdale Paradox can be applied to any situation, including the relatively less serious (thank God) challenges that we often face, as well as the more serious problems that we ultimately also will have to deal with.

We can never lose the faith that we will prevail in the end, and at the same time we must never shy away from confronting and addressing the most brutal facts about our current reality, whatever those facts might be.

That is how Stockdale got through his ordeal, and as case studies go, that's pretty compelling.

[Note: Stockdale later achieved questionable fame and funny, but somewhat unfair, ridicule as Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 presidential election. Once you learn Stockdale's whole story, the Perot episode gains its proper perspective.]

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