The Stockdale Paradox is
named after the late James Stockdale, former vice presidential
candidate, naval commander and prisoner of war during the
It became well known having been featured in author and business guru Jim Collins’ book “Good To Great” following extensive interviews between Collins and Stockdale exploring how Stockdale survived 8 years of imprisonment and torture.
specific focus was to identify the principles that underpinned
Stockdale’s survival and emergence at the end of the war as not only
unbroken but as source of practical inspiration.
Balancing realism and optimism in a dire situation is a key to survival and success
the Stockdale Paradox means is that in times of prolonged and seemingly
never-ending hardship, set-backs, suffering and distress we need to
maintain optimism that we will survive and pull through, and yet at the same time balance that with a total realism and practicality about the harsh present realities.
In Stockdale’s own words:
Paraphrased to its core:
Hope for the best, but acknowledge and prepare for the worst.
paradoxical thinking is one of the defining philosophies of many who
have made it through severe hardship and eventually reached their goals.
The stockdale paradox offers a balanced approach to surviving hard times that seem to go on and on, with no end in sight.
Suffering IS an integral part of the human condition . It is as though there is an inbuilt design flaw that ensures that we all suffer at some point, one way or another.
Right now, at time of writing, we are all suffering in some way as we come to terms with the aftermath of the Covid pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war and increasing economic and financial hardships.
The Stockdale Paradox - Coping With The Attrition Factor
Many, maybe most, of us are capable of coping with challenges and difficulties in the short to medium term.
in my experience once a challenging situation drags on beyond the one
year mark we start to flag, and after two years – with no end in sight –
it gets really tough.
This is what I call the attrition factor.
It is this point that we need to apply the Stockdale Paradox.
means that in addition to maintaining a hope for the future and a
pragmatic realism about the present you need to do 3 further things:
(1) Find a way of dealing with the emotional side of your pragmatic realism.
are times when there is nothing more we can do to alleviate the
situation. In these circumstances we have two powerful options: we can resist it or we can accept it.
The biggest key
to all this is to behave and respond in ways that may be completely
alien to us by allowing and cultivating a very deep acceptance of what
is happening and acknowledging that we are not in control of
circumstances and - counter cultural and counter intuitive as this
sounds - to go with the flow.
The more we can surrender to the flow then the more we automatically
become aligned to a far greater dimension of our consciousness than we
may have ever previously experienced - this really is the key.
It is this alignment with the flow that is the dynamic that will pull us
through this difficult situation and it is this alignment that is the
source of our self-motivation through and beyond present difficult
Whether we realise it or not, whether we accept it or not, there is always a spiritual - or energetic - dynamic at work in these situations.
(2) Recognise and understand that you are not your thoughts.
Our thoughts can drive us crazy, especially in these difficult situations that drag on, and on…
don’t have complete control over our instinctive emotions, they’re
largely involuntary and that’s part of being human. What we do have,
though, is control over how we choose to respond to those feelings.
The key to this lies in understanding that:
What matters is not the content of your thoughts but your relationship with your thoughts
See here for practical guidance in dealing with your thoughts and here for further practical support in living with your thoughts.
(3) Transform your “dead time” into “alive time”
In Recognising Limbo we talked about "dead time" vs "alive time" and I asked the question: “When
you can’t work because you have no work, when you feel stuck and can
see no way out of this situation, when you don’t even know if there is
an end of the tunnel, what do you do with your time?”
In difficult times like these, we can choose to just sit around and feel impatient, resentful, or angry.
we can we can exercise control over our use of this time figure a way
to solve a problem, reach a goal, or help someone else with these
Dead time can be revived and transformed and used to our
and others long term benefit. We can use this time to emerge from this
overall situation a better and more resourceful person.
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