Stockdale Paradox

stockdale

Next time you think you are having a bad day, think about James Stockdale.

Good to Great, the well known business book by Jim Collins discusses several keys to business success for business, including what it takes to be a great leader, finding the right employees, and the power of focus. One of the most interesting parts of the book deals with confronting reality no matter how brutal it may be. Collins writes about the story of James Stockdale, an American pilot shot down in Vietnam, taken prisoner and held for seven years. In Stockdale’s own book, In Love and War, he recounts his harsh treatment in prison camp, enduring beatings and barbaric incarceration. He also shares his views about survival. In a conversation with Collins, Stockdale once said:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, 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.”

In spite of the fact that Stockdale was regularly tortured and beaten to the point of shattered legs and a broken back, often placed in solitary confinement for long periods of time, and many times, chained to a wall by hands and feet, but he never gave up his will to survive and much like Victor Frankl’s experience in the german prison camps in World War II (see You Can Choose Your Destiny, Stockdale credits this will to survive as the reason he actually did live to tell his story.

According to Wikipedia, when Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
“Oh, that’s easy, 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.”

Stockdale then added: “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.”

“You 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.”

Collins coined this the Stockdale Paradox – accepting the harsh facts, but being optimistic you can endure.

If you haven’t read Stockdale’s book, it is amazing. His story is interspersed with what his wife was doing back in the States to try and negotiate his release. The story also includes the letters she sent to him during his imprisonment. The story is both heart wrenching and uplifting. I highly recommend giving it a read if you ever get a chance.

Get Adobe Flash player