The Stockdale Paradox

This is taken from the book, From Good to Great. The author, Jim Collins, focuses on how an average company can achieve greatness…

“…..the name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking US military offier in the “Hanoi Hilton” as 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 interal 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”…..

…….I read In Love and War, the book Stockdale and his wife had written in alternating chapters, chornicling their experiences during those eight years.

As I moved through the book, I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak – the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so fourth. And then it dawned one me: “Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Standord campus on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I’m getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later yeras of his life studying philosohpy on this same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually 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.”

…..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 a hundred meters earlier.
“The optimists. Oh they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going ot 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.”
Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and 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 comfort the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”


That conversation with Admiral Stockdale stayed with me, and in fact had a profound influence on my own development. Life is unfair – sometimes to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. We will all experince disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks for which there is no “reason,” no one to blame. It might be a disease; it might be injury; it might be an accident; it migh tbe losing a loved one; it might be getting swept away in a political shake-up; it might be getting shot down over Vietname and thrown into a POW camp for eight years. What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. In wrestling with life’s challenges, the Stockdale Paradox (You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end and you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality) has proved powerful for coming back from difficulties not weakened, but stronger – not just for me, but for all those who’ve learned the lesson and tried to apply.

Just getting into triathlon and knowing I want to go all out, I ask myself these questions..what if I face some obstacles that I cannot overcome? What if I got into another bike accident? Lost more teeth? Broken ribs? What if I can go as fast as I wanted? Scenarios after scenarios…..then I realize that thinking about them won’t help the situation. If it happens and it will, I have to learn to deal with it. Strange, this is the same reason that I am so attracted to this sport. The ability to endure unthinkable pain and triumphs.

I never consider myself as an optimist. I consider myself as a pessimistic optimist. I have a tendency to be very blunt at times. But I do so knowing that being naive on situation will not help. The only way is as Jim Collins put it, face it with the brutal fact of reality and knowing you will overcome in the end.


By Cliff

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