The Stockdale Paradox - Balancing Realism And Optimism In Tough Times Is Key To Survival

What Is The Stockdale Paradox?


The Stockdale Paradox is named after the late James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval commander and prisoner of war during the American-Vietnam war.

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.

Collins’ 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

What 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:

"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."

Paraphrased to its core:

Hope for the best, but acknowledge and prepare for the worst

Such paradoxical thinking is one of the defining philosophies of many who have made it through severe hardship and eventually reached their goals.

BUT, this paradox contradicts the law of attraction and so much of the output of the self-help industry.

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.








Coping With The Attrition Factor


Many, maybe most, of us are capable of coping with challenges and difficulties in the short to medium term.

But 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 develop the Stockdale Paradox and take it to the next level.

This 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.

There 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 circumstances

# Whether we realise it or not, whether we accept it or not, there is always a spiritual 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…

We 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 Alive Time vs Dead Time – 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 doss around and feel impatient, resentful, or angry.

Or 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 things.

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.


“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.”

Admiral James Stockton






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