In his landmark book “Good to Great” author Jim Collins tracks the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale, a United States military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured numerous times but never gave up hope. During an interview for the book, Stockdale told Collins that he never lost faith during his imprisonment: “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.” That is admirable in itself and it looks like blind optimism to the casual observer. But Stockdale was much more pragmatic than some of the other captives.
While he had remarkable faith in the unknowable, Stockdale noted that it was the most optimistic of his prison mates who failed to make it. They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and go. And then Thanksgiving, and Christmas again. These guys ended up dying of a broken heart. What the optimists failed to do was confront the reality of their situation. They preferred the ostrich approach, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping for the difficulties to go away. Stockdale was different.
Collins coined the term “the Stockdale Paradox” to describe an attitude of pragmatic optomism: breakth-taking honesty combined with hope. Admiral Stockdale accepted the reality of his situation: he was in hell. But he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow prisoners. The Stockdale Paradox, simply put is:
Remain hopeful and have faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
Confront the brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “Oh, it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyway.” Either way, nothing happens.” Yvon Chouinard (1)