Stockdale Paradox

If you don’t know what the term Stockdale Paradox means, you must.

When you can “maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be,” you are embracing what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox. [source: Good to Great by Jim Collins]

Collins writes about a conversation he had with Admiral Stockdale, as Stockdale remembered back to his time as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton.  Stockdale told Collins,

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.”

When Collins asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” 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. .. .That 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 brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

How does this apply to you, someone trying to drive change?

Simple. Ask yourself: Have I  ever given up on a change I wanted or needed because I played the optimist and allowed myself to break my heart, my will to drive change?

Sadly, I’ve had people quit driving change because of the simplest of defeats:

  • They were let down when a top manager, who has never delivered on a promise of support, fails again to support them.  (And they thought this time would be different. Nope.)
  • They thought the change would be complete well before the summer was over and now it’s late into the fall.
  • They tried and failed to change something in the past and refuse to try again.
  • They think driving change should be more happiness and less frustration (often it isn’t), or
  • They think others (name the group) should help more and complain less. (They rarely will.)

You have not been defeated by some outside enemy when you quit, when you allow yourself to break, or when  you refuse to face the Stockdale Paradox, accept it and persevere;  you have defeated yourself.

Know the Stockdale Paradox.

Seek out and face the brutal facts.

But, keep the faith that someday you will achieve the change you are driving.

You will never prevail unless you believe you will.

Why not believe?

2 thoughts on “Stockdale Paradox”

  1. Great post. I have always been uncomfortable with the “Stockdale” syndrome story and seeing it in print again as helped me to gain some clarity about my source of discomfort. I think Stockdale’s use of the word “Optimists” does not match my sense of the meaning of that word. Don’t get me wrong. I agree that there is a psychological phenomena that reduces the willingness to try in the face o failure. I see “people quit driving change because of the simplest of defeats” regularly. But I am not comfortable with the conclusion that these people are suffering from the dreaded desease of Optimism. I wonder what Dr. Martin Seligman would say about Stockdale’s explanation for why the most “Optimistic” prisoners where the least likely to survive? Thanks for helping me get clarity on this subject.

  2. Pingback: You’re Not Close to Closing the Deal « Ralph Barbagallo's Self Indulgent Blog

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