Yesterday, I listened to my favorite author Jim Collins podcast with Tim Ferriss and came across this lovely Stockdale Paradox concept. Jim popularized a story in his book Good to Great, so what is this Stockdale paradox and how it is useful for us?
Stockdale Paradox- The story of Optimists
The story goes that James Stockdale was the senior-most military officer in Vietnam, where he was captured and kept in captivity for seven years. During the time, he was tortured many times as a POW, but still, he made it through to come alive and meet his family. He went on to become United States Navy vice admiral. He wrote all about his experience in a book. Jim Collins read this book and was surprised that James made it though because reading it made Jim have depression and nightmares. Jim started to wonder how James managed the actual situation without knowing when it would end.
Given this background, Jim met Stockdale and asked him how he made it through these tough seven years. He mentioned that it was not depressing because he had great faith that he would make it out of the POW and that he would make this experience a defining moment of his life. Given this, Jim asked James the followin
“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,
“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.”
The key reason why he made it out was that he was an optimist and always knew that he would make it out of this POW camp and that he promised to make it my defining moment of his life. He said that while he was optimistic about making it out, he also confronted the brutal fact that I was in a POW camp with no visibility when this would end because he did not know what was happening outside the POW camp. This is the concept that became famous as the Stockdale Paradox. It is about having the brevity to remain optimistic about the future and then balancing it with facts. It’s not about choosing which side to take, but instead learning to embrace both feelings in opposition to one another and realize they’re necessary and interconnected.
““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.” — Admiral James Stockdale.”
Stockdale Paradox in life and Business
Having seen impactful entrepreneurs from close quarters, I have seen many entrepreneurs imbibing the Stockdale paradox. They are very optimistic about what they are out to do, almost to the point where others may seem crazy. But at the same time, they are painfully aware of the current challenges and what needs to be done. It is like being able to zoom out far into the future to see possibilities and be optimistic about it. At the same time, they also have to manage the decisions to be made the next day, which impacts the future vision’s survival. On a personal level, if one sees that most long-term and impactful changes happen in such a situation. By being very optimistic of the future, we may miss out on actions that we take immediately, and it is these same actions that can take us closer to the vision.
The current situation of Covid-19 is an excellent example of how we can use it in life. We need to be optimistic about the future and things coming back to normal for the country and your personal life. At the same time, we need to be careful in planning our day to day actions.