The Stockdale Paradox

Whew, what a week, right? (Week … month … year … epoch …)

In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, author Jim C. Collins recounts interviewing 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. He asked Admiral Stockdale how he did it, how he survived all that time. Stockdale said “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.”

Collins asked him about who were the soldiers who didn’t survive.

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” “The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier. “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. 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.”

This, then, is the Stockdale Paradox:

  • Retain faith that you will prevail in the end AND
  • Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality

We have fights erupting at school board meetings over masks and teaching about racism. The Supreme Court has refused to give a stay to the clearly unconstitutional (and I would add, unconscionable) Texas law banning abortion, or helping anyone obtain an abortion, 6 weeks after the woman’s last menstrual cycle. Not enough people out in public are getting vaccines or wearing masks.

These are some of the brutal facts of our current reality.

And … I still have faith. I still have faith that we are powerful, and we can bring our weight to bear upon the arc of the universe, bending it toward justice. “For to be hopeless would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us.” (Holly Near)

We will prevail.