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The Stockdale Paradox

By US Navy photograph., Public Domain,

It has been said that we don’t really know our own mettle until faced with challenge or adversity. How we endure and react in these more trying situations not only says a lot about who we are, but also has a significant effect on the end result and whether we prevail over whatever that challenge may be. As Charles Bukowski wrote, ‘What matters most ishow well you walk through the fire’. It is easy to remain level headed, kind and motivated when things are going well, but it is in the middle of the storm when things are at their most challenging that our core values , fortitude and mindset are truly tested.

Attitude and mindset are powerful things. So are we better to remain blindly optimistic, and believe that everything will work out in the end, if we just keep going, following the tireless dogma of never giving up? Or it is better to lean more toward realism with a hint of pessimism, and expect the worst and hope to be pleasantly surprised?

By US Navy photograph., Public Domain,

I was recently part of a team that put on a reasonably complicated community event that involved dealing with a lot of red tape. We knew the event would be difficult to pull off, but we also knew that the community would get a lot of value from it, so we persevered. When faced with what felt like road block after road block, instead of thinking ‘we can’t do this’ , we took the attitude ‘how can we work through these obstacles to make this event happen? ‘. The event did go ahead, and it was a huge success, bringing a lot of joy to our community and drawing people to our small town, which is struggling in this difficult economic climate. It was immensely satisfying seeing the enjoyment we helped to create. I was so proud of what our team had achieved, despite the hurdles in front of us.

After the event, one of our committee members introduced me to the Stockdale Paradox, something that immediately resonated with me.

The Stockdale Paradox is a term coined by author Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great’, named after James Stockdale who was the highest ranking officer in the US Navy when he was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Over a harrowing seven year period, Stockdale was tortured repeatedly and had no way of knowing if he would ever see freedom again. To survive Stockdale found a way to remain simultaneously realistic, pessimistic and optimistic, retaining the faith that he would survive his ordeal, without ignoring the harsh realities and obstacles in his path. Stockdale explained it like this: "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." When observing the other men in the camp, Stockdale noted how mindset had a strong impact on survival. He noticed that optimists fared the worst. Stockdale explains, ‘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."

So to apply the Stockdale paradox in life, we are more likely to endure and have a better chance of a successful outcome in any challenging aspect of our life, if we acknowledge our obstacles and are realistic about the challenges we face, while at the same time having the confidence and faith that we will eventually triumph. If we face our obstacles head on, then we can find solutions to those obstacles, and strategies so that we can reach our goals.

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