Optimism vs The Stockdale Paradox
Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prisoner-of–war camp during the Vietnam War. He endured torture, isolation, and separation from his family for 8 years from 1965 to 1973.
In the best selling book ‘Good to Great’ Jim Collins describes an interview with him that took place after he’d made it home as an honored war hero.
When asked how he made it through this experience not knowing if he would survive his ordeal he says he “never lost faith in the end of the story.”
He said, “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.”
This is where the paradox comes in.
When asked who didn’t make it out alive surprisingly he said “The optimists.”
What Happened to Optimism?
But isn’t what he said about “never doubting he would get out” the epitome of optimism??
He then goes on to makes a curious distinction.
The optimists 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.”
He said, “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.”
Apply the Stockdale Paradox
How can we apply this principal to our lives?
Admiral Stockdale had faith he would prevail with an open ended goal (he would get out) and confronted brutal facts by tackling whatever task he could do within the prison.
He knew he would prevail in the end. He did not take stock of how long it was taking and whether or not he could see signs of progress. He was busy leading his men within the POW camp. He was doing whatever he could, with what he had at the time, keeping his end goal in mind.
With any goal worth striving for there will be times when you won’t see results as early as you would like, or it seems you are taking one step forward and two steps back, but have faith in the attainment of your goals without taking stock of how long it is taking. Know that no matter how close or far away it may seem, you will prevail in the end. Have faith, confront reality with small steps each day, don’t give up, and it could be the defining story of your life!
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