The Stockdale Paradox

James Stockdale was a highly decorated soldier that ended his career in the Navy with the rank of Vice Admiral. During a more than thirty-five year career with the military, Stockdale served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. During one mission his plane was shot, crashing as a result, yet Stockdale was able to eject and parachute down. Unfortunately, he was captured shortly after landing by local villagers. Before being passed to a POW camp he was brutally beaten by the locals. Stockdale spent over seven years in the infamous prisoner of war camp dubbed the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam.

In the camp, Stockdale was one with a higher rank and became part of the prisoner leadership. He saw and suffered untold misery and abuse in his time there. As his time in the Hilton wore on, Stockdale observed some succumb and give in to the circumstances slowly wilting then dying. Stockdale observed how some prisoners struggled physically and mentally more than others. It was clear that those with pessimistic mindsets who saw little hope in their circumstances sank sooner. Pessimists were the first to give up and give out. Pessimists perished. Surprisingly, to Stockdale, this became the case for optimists as well. Those with rose colored glasses believing they would be rescued or that the war would end by certain near term dates suffered as those dates came and went. Optimists would wake up believing in an imminent end to their misery being in sight. As their desired date for progress passed, slowly would their psychological health suffer. Some optimists, for example, thought they would be released by Thanksgiving, then Thanksgiving came and went, then they thought relief would come by Christmas and Christmas, too, came and went. As these dates passed, the worldview of the optimists collapsed. The optimism, once unmet, melted. Their psychological health dropped with their physical health falling apart in close proximity.

Stockdale noted that two almost contradictory mindsets were needed to help cope with the challenging circumstances. With respect to the short term, a brutally clear headed look at where they were was needed. Sugar coating things was counter-productive. It wasn’t about embracing their place but acknowledging the cold reality of their circumstances. Stockdale came to realize that developing the mental strength to sustain the horrible environment required a recognition of its reality. First acceptance. With acceptance it became possible to work to find meaning in the immediate world they occupied. This gave them the fortitude to figure out a way to get through the harsh hours of each day. Then, they needed to hold a positive belief in the certainty of an ultimately positive future outcome. The future would be better and their suffering would serve a meaningful purpose. This dual view allowed Stockdale and others to tolerate today while holding to hope in their hearts for the future.

Jim Collins author of Built to Last offered what he called the Stockdale Paradox based on conversations he had with the Vice Admiral years after being released from North Vietnam. Stockdale told Collins, “This 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 most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Collins came to refer to this dual-mindset as the Stockdale Paradox. The Stockdale Paradox suggests that in order to build resilience in the face of trials, we need to accept there will be pain and misery to endure. We must work to focus on how the experience will serve us in some way in the future. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It will not be in vain that one is taking on the load. However, the load is real and may last much longer than hoped.

A way Stockdale was able to do this (as have others in similar circumstances across wars) was to seek to serve and comfort those with who he was with. Providing a source of comfort and encouragement to those struggling and suffering alongside allowed Stockdale to foster his meaning amidst the madness. Moreover, Stockdale had done work in advance of his military action to prepare himself for struggle. He had read learning from historical figures like the Stoic Epictetus. Epictetus was a former slave that learned to tolerate tough conditions with dignity through controlling his reactions and focusing on building his mind. In Live Not by Lies, Rod Dreher writes, “We will not know how to behave when that time arrives if we have not prepared ourselves to accept pain and loss…” Both Epictetus and Stockdale built their personal purpose to take on heavy loads by asking and answering for themselves the question for what are you willing to suffer? They knew they couldn’t avoid suffering, but they could improve their tolerance to it by preparing for it.

Optimism may feel good but it doesn’t spur much action. Optimism is hollow and empty. Those that believe “things always work out for me” or “this should go smoothly” become both less proactive in their pursuits and less resilient. They give up at the first sign of struggle when their soft sentiment hits the brick wall of reality. The sooner you realize it, the sooner you are able to get on with dealing with reality as it is. The aphorism in business that things take twice as long and cost twice as much as we expect is an attempt to reinforce the idea of embracing reality and anticipating problems as opposed to thinking that things will flow effortlessly. The Stockdale Paradox continues to be offered as a recommended lens through which to see our business contexts. An optimistic view of the future is worthwhile, but looking through rose colored glasses with the perspective of Pollyanna isn’t constructive. It’s pointless to pump ourselves up with pep talk while shielding ourselves from the bright light of reality.

The Stockdale Paradox is at the heart of the idea of mental contrasting discussed in an earlier article. Mental contrasting involves setting goals and then taking time to reflect on what obstacles may be anticipated. Contingency plans can be prepared to manage foreseen problems. This provides a more robust and reality based approach to making progress. Psychologists refer to those exhibiting the Stockdale Paradox as realistic optimists. Heidi Grant Halvorson writing in Nine Things Successful People Do Differently found, “Realistic optimists send out more job applications, find the courage to approach potential romantic partners, and work harder on their rehabilitation exercises—in each case, leading to much higher success rates. Believing that the road to success will be rocky leads to greater success, because it forces you to take action.” These people realize that life’s not all fun and games. They accept that life’s a struggle and the world doesn’t owe them anything. They own responsibility for what they can control and are willing to do their part in order to give themselves a chance. Yes, they believe tomorrow will be better than today. But this belief is based on their acceptance of doing their part to make it so. In a blog post titled Save Like a Pessimist, Invest like an Optimist, Morgan Housel offers an approach that captures the idea of the Stockdale Paradox. Housel writes, “Optimism and pessimism can coexist. If you look hard enough you’ll see them next to each other in virtually every successful company and successful career. They seem like opposites, but they work together to keep everything in balance.”

In Rethinking Positive Thinking Gabriele Oettingen offers a four step approach to implementing mental contrasting: WOOP. She offers WOOP for students, parents, individuals, and businesses to set and make progress towards goals. WOOP is Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. The wish is what we want. What is it you would like? The outcome is what the desired end result looks like. How will you know you’ve achieved your wish? What does success look like? This is the outcome. Once we have our wish and outcome in mind we can look to anticipating an obstacle. We don’t need to brainstorm a dozen potential problems. Just one obstacle at a time. What hiccups are we likely to encounter which we’ll need to hurdle? After we’ve identified an obstacle we can then come up with a plan to manage. The first two components of WOOP are about figuring out where we want to go. The second two are what’s known as implementation intentions. That is, if something happens, then we’ll do this. If x, then y. If obstacle, then implement plan.

Oettingen writes, “as intuitive as mental contrasting is, our research has shown that people seldom perform it spontaneously without knowing about the procedure and clearly intending to apply it.” For many of us, anticipating problems isn’t our go to thought process. It’s more fun to focus on what we want and how we’ll feel once we achieve it. We prefer to bask in celebratory thoughts as opposed to facing frustrations. The Stockdale Paradox is about facing facts irrespective of our feelings. It’s about starting where we are. With accurate awareness we can build our intention. We start with answering the question, what are we facing today? We can then follow up with questions like how can we ensure a friendly future? Reality is what it is. We must accept it. Only then can we take steps to improve our circumstances. Our primary goal should be to stay in the game. Life is largely a battle of attrition. Success accrues to those that remain.