Apr 11, 2010

The Stockdale paradox

I read about The Stockdale Paradox in the book ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. Although in the book, it is mainly applied to companies, it has implications in our lives too. But, before that, what is the 'Stockdale Paradox'?

The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” 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 internal war against his captors. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional medal of Honor.

Stockdale had unshakable faith that he would get out, prevail in the end and also turn the experience into the defining event of his life. When questioned as to which prisoners didn’t make out, he replied that the optimists didn’t make out. He explained that the optimists would say, ”We’re going to be out by Christmas”. Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say,” We’re going to be out by Easter”. Easter would come and go and then Thanksgiving and Christmas again. 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”.

Life is unfair- sometimes to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. We will all experience disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks for which there is no “reason”, no one to blame. It might be disease; it might be injury; it might be an accident; it might be losing a loved one; it might be getting shot down over Vietnam and thrown into a POW camp for eight years. What separates people, Stockdale said, 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.

Something to mull over, isn’t it?


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