The Stockdale Paradox: where optimism meets pragmatism

In the best-selling book by Jim Collins, Good to Great, one of the 6 ingredients that “good” companies used to become “great” was: confront the brutal facts (yet never lose faith).

The Stockdale Paradox

Jim Collins coined this the “Stockdale Paradox”, named after Admiral James Stockdale, one of the most decorated United States Navy officers, who was also awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. As a prisoner of war from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale was tortured over 20 times, had no prisoner’s rights, no release date, and no idea of whether he would survive to see his family again.


Yet, he survived when many of his co-prisoners didn’t.  How did he do it?

First, he had absolute faith and belief that he would get out.

“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.” – James Bond Stockdale

However, Stockdale didn’t depend on blind optimism alone. And, ironically, the most optimistic of his co-prisoners did not make it out alive.  Precisely because they were so hopeful that their ordeal would be over soon, they were disappointed to find themselves still in captivity when Christmas came, then Easter, then Thanksgiving, then the next Christmas … at the end, they lost all hope and eventually “died of a broken heart”.

Stockdale, on the other hand, was fully aware of his dire circumstances and did everything he could to improve his chances of survival.  He raised the morale of his people (helping them to deal with torture, creating an internal communications system of tap-codes to reduce their sense of isolation) , and exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters.

“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.”  – James Bond Stockdale

So here you are, the Stockdale Paradox which is such a powerful concept in both life and business.Good to Great_Stockdale Paradox1

Faith vs Blind Optimism

So what are the lessons for us in real life?

A note to the optimists:

It is great to focus on the most possible outcomes, and to keep your spirits high by setting your sights on the most hopeful aspects of your situation.

However, don’t allow that to blindside you on the realities that you need to deal with, in order for the rosy scenario to be realized. Take concrete action and deal with your current situation, knowing and feeling good that you are making progress towards your desired outcomes.

Likewise, if you are a firm believer of the Law of Attraction, visualization and the like, don’t depend on your belief alone. Faith / belief is but one of the ingredients on the road to success. You can read more about the other ingredients in Think and Grow RichThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and The Slight Edge.

A note to the pessimists:

Faith (or belief) is one of the key success factors shared by almost every successful person. If you find yourself constantly feeling “bogged down” by worries and fears of what could go wrong, check out some of the useful tips in The Secret, You Can Heal Your Life, and Secrets of the Millionaire Mind.

Balancing the Positives and Negatives

In fact, in his book Six Thinking Hats, Dr Edward de Bono takes things a step further. He says that there are no “bad” perspectives – both optimism and pessimism have a role to play in sound decision making.

He shares a method to recognize and organize your thoughts and feelings, so you can make informed decisions, not just individually, but as a team. Specifically, both positivism and caution can be used constructively (he coins it wearing the “yellow hat” and “black hat” in his technique):

Six Thinking Hats_yellow hat

Six Thinking Hats_black hat

The book actually covers not just two, but six hats or perspectives, all of which have a role to play in developing robust decisions and plans.  Read more in our book summary here.

Six Thinking Hats_The 6 hats

The next time you find yourself in a difficult situation and losing hope, remember this important lesson on the Stockdale Paradox – if a prisoner of war can survive captivity for more than 7 years, you can overcome your circumstances too!

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