The Stockdale Paradox

I’m currently reading a book called Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t  by Jim Collins, and I came across a very interesting concept called 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 20 times during his 8-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. After his release, he became the first 3-star officer in the history of the Navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The author describes the Stockdale Paradox as the psychology of retaining absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time confronting the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. In the book, the author interviews Stockdale and asks him, “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.”

Another long pause and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is the important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can not afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

I absolutely loved this concept, as I think it’s a very practical principle/mindset that we can all apply to our own lives. We all have dreams and goals of what we’d like to reach long-term. However, there’s a difference between fantasizing and envisioining. Fantasizing is just dreaming of your goals and hoping you’ll achieve them one day, whereas envisioning is the act of understanding the goals you want to achieve, but knowing your current realities/circumstances and taking action toward improving upon them to slowly take steps toward your goals. It’s great to have big dreams, but I see a lot of people lie to themselves about their current circumstances. They don’t want to see or admit that they’re broke, that they don’t have the knowledge/experience yet, that they’re business idea is flawed, etc.

Winston Churchill said, “Facts are better than dreams.” It may be hard to swallow the cold hard facts in the moment, but reality is reality. It’s the unfiltered truth, and if you don’t want to admit to the current realities in your life, you’re just bullshitting yourself. We all have to see the brutal facts in our lives, and understand the actions and steps that need to be taken to start moving toward our goals. See the vision, but be rooted in reality.